I was recently asked to consider the question, “Can people change?” Short answer—absolutely. People can change their political views, their music tastes, their favorite color, their plans for the future, or their view of the past. They can change for good—throwing off unhealthy habits and learning to navigate challenging relationships. However, they can also change for not so good. They can let resentment turn to life-defining bitterness, let prejudices take over their lives, or even stop trying to change altogether.
Can People Change?
But these kinds of changes are not what those of us who pastor and minister are really thinking about, is it? When I wrestle with this question, I usually have somebody specific in mind. Can this person change? That’s usually because I don’t see the change I think should be happening. If I care to look deep enough into why I’m asking the question, I usually find the real question is this:
Can I change this person?
How we get into ministry and whatever our role may be, we do what we do because we want to help people. We aren’t spending our time managing processes, crunching numbers, or organizing spaces. We are trying to help people change—overcome life-controlling problems, handle crushing life experiences, deal with the effects of other people’s problems in their lives. Sometimes people look for help to change, sometimes the need to change is thrust upon them. Sometimes they think what needs to change isn’t them. Sometimes the very thing that needs to change is the very thing they want to keep the same. And we sit across the room or across the Zoom from them, trying to make a difference.
This is the caution zone of personal ministry. If we’re not careful, it is right here that we can betray our true calling. If you or I assume we know how a person needs to change, we’re starting to play ‘little savior’. If we plan to fix their problems and then fit them into that plan, we start to play ‘little holy spirit’. If our skills, motivational gifts, training, or our formal ministerial role is what we are counting on to make a difference in someone’s life we are offering ourselves as a functional god. When we give in to this temptation, our ministry quickly turns into recruiting people needing help, into a newly planted ‘Church of Me’.
People will gladly attend our Church of Me. Desperation will drive them toward us; people-pleasing will make them open to whatever we tell them they need to do or be. Some people will even attend our Church of Me because they’re trying to recruit us into their own Church of Me. They will want to get us on their side. A frustrated husband or wife or parent will try to enlist us to help carry out their agenda for change in their spouse or their kids. Often people will run along any ministry path we set—for them if it will help them avoid changing something deeper. This arrangement works for everybody— for a while. But the Church of Me is not a stable institution. It is only a happy place if everybody in it is getting what they want. And that eventually stops happening. More importantly, that’s not change.
Two Lessons I have Learned
So, how do we do our personal ministry without allowing the Church of Me to open its inviting doors? Let me offer two brief things I’ve learned.
1. I’ve learned that people are changeable but they’re not fixable. We’re not broken down cars that can be repaired and put back on the road with some skilled work under the hood. We’re not phones or computers which can reboot with a new operating system. We are complex beings with eternal souls encased in misbehaving brains and bodies. We are unique individuals embedded for life with other unique individuals in complex relational systems and social structures. We’re composites of hopes, dreams, fears, and wants—all energized by massive overconfidence that we know what we need most. And we are sinners of the original kind. We are instinctively, compulsively, habitually, willfully, and foolishly prone to disobey the God who created us to find our identity and make sense of life in reference to him. None of that is fixable in a counseling office or pastoral meeting.
2. I’ve learned not to fixate on change but be attentive to growth. A dominant scriptural metaphor for change is growth. The life of faith is a life of growth. We grow in bearing fruit (Gal. 5:22-23). We grow in showing love (2 Thess. 1:3). We grow up into salvation (1 Peter 2:2). We grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). In Ephesians 4, Paul’s instruction on life together in community is capped with a call to growth ‘in every way’, which has both personal and communal implications.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).
To be rescued by Jesus Christ from our sin, to be redeemed from slavery to sin, and to be born again to new life sets every Christian on a path of growth. Its technical name is sanctification, but this new path isn’t as sterile as that term can imply to our western, post-modern ears. Christian growth is organic, grown from the inside out, and a work of grace that God himself is committed to completing (Phil. 1:6).
As counselors and ministers, we have the responsibility to look for where grace is operating in a person’s life. We don’t focus on problems, we focus on what is impeding the growth that should be happening. It is a radically different approach to helping people change. A friend of mine once said, “It’s easy to see problems, it’s hard to identify grace.” But it is that harder work that makes our moment-in-time ministry cooperative with God’s whole-life ministry. And to participate in that kind of change is truly a life-changing experience for us.