by Mark Frost –
Author’s Note: The words, “From Transition to Transformation,” are part of the Interim Ministry Partners logo. This series of posts, based on 2 Corinthians 3:18, contains some of my reflections on how genuine transformation takes place, both in individual believers and in churches.
Almost everyone has seen Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on television. In each episode, the program’s producers send a family away for a week’s vacation. When the family returns, a bus is parked in front of their house, obscuring their view of it. Then workers who have been working onsite while the family was away begin to chant, “Move that bus!” And when it pulls away, the family sees an amazing, brand-new house standing where their old one once did.
Imagine an episode of the show where the bus moves and the expectant family beholds…the same house they left behind with only a few cosmetic changes: a different color of paint, for instance, or some superficial landscaping. Giddy anticipation would quickly give way to disappointment, if not outright anger. The entire premise of the show is the expectation of a thoroughgoing transformation—an extreme makeover. If that doesn’t happen, the program serves no purpose.
The church exists because of the promise of transformation. The message of extreme makeover is woven throughout the Bible’s teaching. Visible transformation is the expected result of an encounter with Jesus. The apostle Paul states it clearly: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) I would suggest that this God-powered metamorphosis transforms not only the lives of individual believers, but their functioning together as a group as well.
Unfortunately, the expectation of transformation is realized in far too few instances. There are churches where one could return after a ten-year absence to find little that could be characterized as a makeover. The same evangelistic strategies that ceased being effective 50 years ago would still be in use (although with little enthusiasm). The only change in the poorly-attended deacons’ meetings would be an even-further decline in attendance and participation. And sadly, beneath the lack of organizational transformation one would observe a paralyzing stasis in the lives of individual members who are still harboring every bit as much pride, lust, resentment, jealousy and greed as they did a decade before.
Sadly, what often passes for transformation is little more than conformity to a set of boundary markers: highly visible and relatively superficial practices that distinguish who is “in” from who is “out.” Thus, a newly baptized believer can find full acceptance through regular church attendance and abstention from a short list of “worldly” attractions, while underlying issues of pride and duplicity are never addressed. An elder can be motivated by selfishness and fear, yet maintain his position in the church because of his steadfast adherence
to time-honored customs. Meanwhile, a free-spirited deacon gets a tattoo and can be asked to step aside.
Churches can organize and solidify around boundary markers as well. Conformity—in everything from the order of worship to the sign outside the building to the number and character of weekly meetings—can trump the venture of becoming a truly transformed community, existing in society to unsettle the status quo and point others to divine transformation.
If transformation is the expected result of Jesus’ presence, why is it not taking place? Some might point to our natural resistance to change. Few of us like change, especially when we are reasonably comfortable with the existing state of affairs. And of course, changes may be for the worse as well as for the better. So we fear and we resist change, especially when the way forward is unclear. But transformation, by definition, involves change. Underlying the Bible’s message is the understanding that the world is not the way it was intended to be and that God is seeking to restore—change—it back to its original design. So the Lord’s people must be open to a process of continual change orchestrated by God himself, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
I would suggest an even more significant barrier to transformation, based on Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
Genuine transformation is not our work. It is done by the Lord through the agency of the Holy Spirit. There is no self-help program or church growth strategy that can bring about true transformation. It can only come when we are open to the movement of the Spirit within and among us. The antithesis of this is living by the flesh. In Paul’s writings, “flesh” refers to the sum of human capabilities apart from God’s power and influence. Even well-intentioned projects, when pursued apart from a radical dependence on God’s guidance and power, can only result in the works Paul lists in Galatians 5:19-21: discord, selfish ambition, jealousy, fits of rage, dissensions, etc.
If we are to be transformed, we must pursue that transformation as a fruit of a Spirit-saturated life.