Change or die. Allan Deutschman of Fast Company wrote his best-selling book by that title in response to a striking medical study which found that 90% of patients who had undergone heart by-pass surgery and had been instructed to make specific life-style changes did not make those changes or if they did, had reverted to their former unhealthy behaviors in less than a year. In other words, one in nine would rather die than change. Even death was not a sufficient motivator for making changes.
In contrast to that study, however, Dr. Dean Ornish (yes, of the diet fame) found that 77% of the cardio patients participating in a Mutual of Omaha study, when introduced to the rigorous diet he made famous, were still at it a year later. (With the concomitant improvement in their health!) The odds of the patients making life-giving changes dramatically increased!
What was the difference? Turns out there were two major differences which, I believe, have profound implications for how pastoral leaders and congregations can embrace the changes they need to make.
First, in the Ornish study, in addition to the dietary changes, the cardio patients met in small groups weekly for support and encouragement. On NPR recently there was a spot on the link between loneliness and pain. The subject was hooked up to a brain scan. If a red X appeared on the computer screen, there was a 1 in 5 chance that a mild (but painful) electrical shock would be administered within seconds. The researchers wanted to see how the brain reacted to the prospect of pain, and in particular, whether it behaved differently whether the subject was facing the threat alone, holding the hand of a stranger – one of the technicians – or the hand of a trusted friend. Psychology Professor James Coan has run the test on dozens of pairs. And he often sees the same neurological quirk. When a person is alone or holding a stranger’s hand as she or he anticipates the shock, the regions of the brain that process danger, “light up like a Christmas tree.” But when holding the hand of a trusted person, the brain grows quiet. When we have friends, our brain says, “Phew, OK. Even if something really dangerous happens, we have a lot of help.” In the church we form holy friendships: We are not facing the loss, difficulty, or pain of change alone; we have a lot of help!
Secondly, the Ornish study reframed what was at stake. Instead of trying to motivate them with the “fear of dying” (turns out fear is not a very effective motivator) Ornish provided them an alternative vision – the joy of a more active, rewarding life now. It wasn’t fear of dying that motivated, it was the joy of living what Jesus might have called “abundant life.” The church needs to change or the church as we know it will die. But that is not the reason we change. The reason we change is to experience the abundant life that the transforming Christ offers us and the world!
Hans Kung put it this way:
The Church is essentially en route, on a journey, a pilgrimage. A Church which pitches its tents without looking out constantly for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling…..It is essentially an interim church, a church in transition, and therefore not a church of fear, but of expectation and hope; a church which is directed towards the consummation of the world by God….