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People Rarely Radically Change; They Need Nudges

An almost 40-year-old church newsletter provided the tipping point in a long, agonizing, decision-making process.
Soon after I arrived at a former pastorate, I became engaged in an ongoing discussion about the need for a new sanctuary. I listened carefully to the reasons for and against this proposal.

After a couple of years and several meetings passed, a feasibility study committee was formed.

An engineer was hired to weigh in on this decision. It was his opinion the current sanctuary had suffered severe structural damage, which would add considerably to the cost of remodeling it.

After three more years of debating the pros and cons, the committee was no closer to making a decision than it was when I arrived on the field.

Granted, this was a big decision, which pulled at a lot of heartstrings. The current sanctuary had been the site of baptisms, weddings, funerals and other significant events in the lives of these good people.

It was sacred space and the catalyst for recalling life’s most precious memories.

In spite of this, I felt replacing the sanctuary was best. Repairing and remodeling the current sanctuary would cost a lot of money, yet it would still not address the need for enlarging the seating capacity and making the sanctuary more handicap accessible for an aging population.

Nothing anyone in favor of the proposal said broke the stalemate until I brought to a meeting a church newsletter from almost 40 years earlier.

In that newsletter was an article written by a beloved former pastor titled, “Five Reasons Why We Need a New Sanctuary.”

“Forty years is long enough to debate this,” I said. Soon afterward, the committee recommended and the church voted to build a new sanctuary.

When I entered ministry, I was not prepared for how long it would take church members to make decisions, which would lead to changes in their personal lives as well as the life of the church.

I had been taught one role of a minister is to be a change agent, and I received instructions from seminary professors on how to proceed. Then I became the pastor of a church.

As much as I have loved the people in the pews and enjoyed serving alongside them, I have felt my share of frustration because I failed to see changes in their attitudes, beliefs and lifestyles, at least not to the degree I had hoped.

Repeated efforts to portray Jesus as a change agent who challenged every person he encountered to make changes in his or her life did not always register.

At times, changes in how members arranged their priorities, spent their money, did their jobs, treated their neighbors, handled their problems, embraced new challenges, reacted to those who hurt them, and responded to victims of injustice were negligible—or so it seemed to me.

I recall venting my frustration to a friend who was a church and community leader. “What keeps you from getting frustrated?” I asked.

Calmly, he looked at me and said, “Bob, I stay frustrated, but I have learned the value of nudging people along. Very few will make radical changes in their lives, the kind Jesus talked about and modeled. They will, however, make changes in small increments if we are faithful to nudge them along.”

This is some of the wisest advice I ever received.

I would like to think there is something I could say that would cause someone to have a Damascus Road experience like Paul did, but this rarely occurs.

The impact of our words and influence is cumulative. Seeds planted in the spring don’t bear fruit overnight.

This advice has lowered my level of frustration and probably my blood pressure. It has changed my focus and measurement of effectiveness.

Now I look for shifts in people’s behavior and beliefs, and I celebrate even the slightest progress.

About three years ago, I moved back to my home state of Kentucky after serving at Smoke Rise Baptist in Atlanta for 12 years.

This move to central Kentucky has enabled me to reconnect with classmates, colleagues and members from churches I previously served. Recently, I saw a former church member at the local mall.

After exchanging pleasantries, he said, “Over 20 years ago you did something which I have never forgotten. I was sitting at a table in the fellowship hall on a Wednesday night eating with family members and friends. You came by with a pitcher of tea in your hand and asked if I wanted more to drink. I was shocked to have the pastor of the church serve me tea. I’ve been trying to serve others in small ways like this ever since.”

I believe I’ll keep nudging people along.

Bob Browning is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky. A version of this article first appeared in the June 2014 edition of Baptists Today. It is used with permission.