Think you’re up for the challenge?

Chances are 9:1 against your being able to pull it off.

Here’s the scenario:

You’re sitting on the exam table, wearing that silly bit of material, when the door swings open. The physician, a specialist who is a widely respected authority and noted specialist in your particular ailment sits down and flips open a file folder. After a few minutes she closes it, sets it aside and turns to you with grave concern etched on her face.

“You must make some permanent lifestyle changes if you’re going to surive this. You need to change the way you eat, how you manage stress at work, and you’ve got to exercise at least three times a week.”

“If you don’t, you’ll be dead in a few months.”

The oddsmakers in Las Vegas are betting you don’t live to see your youngest grandchild’s next birthday. Even with your life on the line, you probably won’t make the changes that will allow you to thrive for many years to come.

Oh, you may want to. You’ll probably leave the doctor’s office with a firm resolve. And you may even make a few initial forays into the dark and forbidding world of change. But it is doubtful that you’ll be able to develop new habits, set aside old ways of thinking, and create a better way of living.

Why not?

The answer to this question – and there is an answer – explains why churches woud rather die than change, which is the focus of this and the next few articles in this series.

Broadly speaking, there are five reasons why churches refuse to change; we’ll focus on the first in this post and the second in the next post.

  1. The neurology of habits.
  2. The power of emotional systems.
  3. An untrained pastor.
  4. Human sinfulness.
  5. Opposing spiritual forces.

The Neurology of Habits

Note: I’d like to acknowledge my indebtedness to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. I’ve done my best to restate his insights in this section.

Deep inside the brain there’s a structure, the basal ganglia, that controls our automatic behaviors like breathing and swallowing. Neuroscientists have discovered that this is the place where “habits,” those automatic behavioral routines that get us through the day, are stored.

It is now understood that habits are automatic behavioral sequences or subroutines that are hard coded into the basal ganglia. Habits are “programmed” or “encoded” while new behaviors are learned.

From thinking to unthinking

When we learn a new skill or behavior – downhill slalom, for example – the “thinking” part of the brain works overtime. It evaluates thousands of data points per second in the early learning phases. But as the new skill (a behavior, a way of thinking, etc.) is mastered, mental activity in the thinking part of the brain decreases. Eventually everything needed to produce the desired behavior is hard coded. At that point the behavior (which pants leg you put on first, when you brush your teeth, how to tie your shoes) become automatic.

The right cue is all that’s needed to launch the behavior. If you’ve ever been at a Fourth of July picnic with a retired Vietnam vet, you’ll see the power of habit in action. When the cue (an explosion of fireworks) happens, the automatic behavior (throwing people under picnic tables) kicks in. Then the reward (everyone’s safe) reinforces the behavior-on-cue. A habit is formed:


You no longer need to think about it.

The brain stores hundreds of these “behavioral chunks” that we execute every day without having to think about them. Without these automatic subroutines, we would become mentally paralyzed. We would lose the ability to sort out the important data – like that rattlesnake that’s cutting across your jogging trail – and ignore what is unimportant.

This happens because the brain is always looking for shortcuts so that our limited bandwidth of conscious thought can be devoted to more important matters like getting that piece of lettuce out from between your teeth or coming up with a good rejoinder to that rude coworker.

From Automatic to Anticipation to Craving

If that were the whole story about habits, dealing with them would be relatively straightforward. Mere exercise of the will would be sufficient.

But there’s a bit of bad news here.

In time the brain adds an additional element to the habit – anticipation. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain fires off the “pleasure response” as soon as the cue is perceived, even before the habitual behavior and resulting reward are experienced!


This is why your dog’s mouth starts watering when she hears you opening that bag of treats. Or you start salivating when you smell the bacon frying!

And when the reward (that tasty bacon) isn’t delivered, you experience craving. Agitation and anger aren’t far behind. Cravings, which are woven into the neurological phenomena of habits, have the power to overcome resolve, New Year’s Resolutions, and willpower.


Church Habits

Human systems, which includes churches (setting the divine aspect momentarily), also develop habits.

Researchers have found institutional habits in almost every organization or company they’ve scrutinized. “Individuals have habits; groups have routines,” wrote the academic Geoffrey Hodgson, who spent a career examining organizational patterns. “Routines are the organizational analogue of habits.” (Duhigg, Kindle Edition, Loc. 1633).

Think about your church for a moment. What are the unspoken rules everyone seems to follow? What are the “normal” ways of behaving? What are the routines that make efficient operations possible?

  • The order of worship at Sunday services
  • Approved styles of dress for public gatherings
  • The ways that visitors are treated
  • How members thinking about “those people”
  • The boundaries for what can and can’t be discussed
  • Ways people overlook or rationalize biblically unacceptable behaviors
  • Acceptable musical genres in worship
  • How you go about sermon preparation
  • Standard procedures for hospital visitation
  • The expression of leadership authority
  • How church members treat and speak about the pastor
  • Pastor’s conduct in the presence of key influencers
  • The budget process
  • How scarce resources are allocated
  • Annual events and holiday services
  • Deference given to a “church boss.”

Every church has hundreds upon hundreds of habits and routines. These behavioral chunks reside in the basal ganglia of every member in your church. They are hardwired in such a way that trying to change any of them will run afoul of trouble because the anticipated reward will be denied, and craving will take over:



Change is incredibly difficult whether we’re talking about personal changes (diet, exercise, stress management) or corporate changes (budgeting, worship services, pastor’s schedule).
It is difficult because the behaviors you’re trying to change are hardwired into our brains – they are automatic behaviors that launch in response to a cue, in expectation of a reward. When the anticipated reward is not forthcoming, cravings take over and we do everything within our power to achieve the reward. When we’re blocked, agitation and anger takes over.

When our habits are interrupted, we become reactionary rather than rational.

Up Next

We’ll take a look at the problem of change from a systems perspective by examining the power of emotional systems to prevent change.