Conventional wisdom says that that major change is the responsibility of powerful leaders. I believe that leaders cannot accomplish true transformation ‘top-down’ using their power. ‘Bottom-up’ is ultimately how all significant change happens. The capability to achieve extraordinary change from tiny causes is built into reality. God has designed the world to adapt and change ‘bottom-up.’ I will cover more about bottom-up transformation in a later Post.
Leaders must play a critical role in bottom-up transformation, the role of Sponsor, supporting the efforts of those who drive the transformation, who are called Change Agents. In transforming churches, the ‘people in the pews’ are the Change Agents. They must lead transformation in their local church, following Jesus’ leadership. These Change Agents need to enroll church leaders at the appropriate time, to play their role of Sponsor and support bottom-up transformation. To be very clear, bottom-up transformation of churches does not mean that church leaders are not involved.
What is a Change Agent? Are you one?
In my book Dangerous Undertaking; The Search for Transformation, I described Change Agents as “innocent fools.” In that book I made the case that the world needs a special breed of women and men, the ‘mid wives’ of a transformed world. I called them ‘innocent fools,’ in appreciation for their powerful yet largely hidden change work, in themselves and in the DNA of the ‘system of the world.’ I called them ‘innocent’ because they dream dreams that others dare not imagine. And I called them ‘foolish’ because they are not trapped in the ‘wisdom’ of the world. They choose to believe that they can make their dreams a reality against what seems to most people to be impossible odds. We can gain some insights into what it means to be a transformational Change Agent and innocent fool from Chrétien de Troyes medieval myth about Parsifal and the Quest for the Holy Grail.
Parsifal was a Welshman, the only surviving son of a widow who lived in the Waste Forest. His two brothers had become knights and had been killed in combat, so his mother was terrified that Parsifal would suffer the same fate. She isolated him from any contact with the world and he grew up incredibly naïve and innocent. He never asked questions or strayed far from home because his mother told him not to. One day by chance he bumped into one of King Arthur’s knights riding through the Waste Forest and was immediately consumed with desire to become like him. For the first time, he disobeyed his mother. He followed the knight out of the forest to find the king and become a knight himself.
Parsifal knew very little about what was involved in becoming a knight, but that didn’t stop him. He arrived at King Arthur’s Court with only the rudiments of training in the art of battle and immediately challenged the most experienced knights in Arthur’s kingdom. That’s why Chrétien called him Parsifal. The name literally means ‘innocent fool.’ The young man had to be incredibly naïve and foolish to challenge the best knights in the world.
Surprisingly, Parsifal defeated them all, and quickly gained respect as a mighty warrior. But that was only the beginning. After his initial triumphs Parsifal encountered something that changed his life. While on a journey home to visit his mother he found his path blocked by a deep river. He was searching for a way across when he noticed two men in a small fishing boat. He asked them if there was a ford or a bridge nearby. They told him there was no way to cross the river for some distance, but one of the men invited him to stay the night in his home, which turned out to be a great castle.
Parsifal entered the castle and was welcomed by the man from the boat, who was now dressed as a nobleman and being carried by servants on a stretcher. He wondered about that, but didn’t ask. The nobleman invited Parsifal to sit and dine at a sumptuous feast. A procession entered the hall, led by two servants carrying brilliantly lit candelabras. Following them was a beautiful maiden. With two hands she carried a golden wine cup covered with precious stones. It was the legendary Holy Grail, but Parsifal didn’t know this. He sat silently watching the procession, remembering his mother’s instructions not to ask questions. While they ate, the Grail was carried back and forth before them again and again during each course of their feast. Parsifal never asked what the Grail was or who was supposed to drink from it.
After the meal the servants prepared a bed for Parsifal in the great hall and when they were done the nobleman left him, carried out by his servants on his stretcher. In the morning, Parsifal woke up to an empty castle. Not a single person could be found. He went to the chamber where the nobleman had been carried the previous night. He shouted and knocked for a long while, but no one answered. Everyone had disappeared. Outside the castle he found his horse saddled, his lance and shield ready, and the drawbridge of the castle lowered so he could leave.
As Parsifal rode away from the castle he met a weeping maiden holding the head of a slain knight. She told him the story of the Fisher King, the nobleman who owned the mysterious castle. The Fisher King had been wounded years ago in both his thighs by a lance and was consumed by pain. The only way he could bear the pain was to go fishing each day. The maiden asked if Parsifal had seen the Holy Grail procession while he was in the castle.
When Parsifal said he’d seen it, but had asked no questions the maiden was dismayed. If Parsifal had only asked the right question about the Fisher King and the Grail he would have freed the king from his pain and the entire kingdom would have been released from its curse! Upset by her accusation, Parsifal left the maiden and rode off in a state of confusion.
From that point in Chrétien’s story Parsifal went on many more adventures, but he never forgot the Fisher King. Finally, he decided to undo his failure to ask the right question in the mysterious castle, and made an oath that he would engage in no more knightly contests until he found the Holy Grail and freed the Fisher King and his kingdom. He vowed not to abandon his quest for any reason.
Interestingly, de Troyes never completed the story of Parsifal’s quest. He left off writing mid-sentence so we don’t know how the story ended. Four other writers added endings later, each completing the myth differently. In the third ending—the one I like— Parsifal eventually finds his way back to the hidden castle, sees the Grail again, asks the right question, and frees the Fisher King from his suffering, transforming his entire kingdom.
What does it mean to be a Change Agent in your church?
Let’s unpack this story to see what it means to be a Change Agent, especially in a local church.
1. Parsifal had innate talent that wasn’t developed when he stayed at home with his mother. He was “stuck” because he didn’t leave the safety of his home in the forest. Change Agents are willing to risk the challenges of the unknown. The other knights in King Arthur’s Court were excellent men but they weren’t Change Agents. They preferred the structure, power and rewards of the status quo. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:26]
2. It was only when Parsifal began asking questions that he discovered his destiny to find the Holy Grail and release the Fisher King and all his people from their suffering. Change Agents are willing to question their beliefs, not because they don’t believe in anything but because they come to understand that something greater depends on their willingness to possibly leave their old way of thinking. Beliefs are comfortable; leaving them can be the most frightening challenge anyone can face. Therefore, Change Agents are willing to leave their ‘comfort zone’ in the service of something more meaningful. “Í tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” [Luke 18:17]
3. Parsifal’s quest took most of his life and was filled with difficulty. The quest for transformation – in local churches and the world — is likely to be a long, slow and painful journey. Unlike Parsifal’s myth, there is probably no one to write a happy end to the Change Agent’s journey – other than Jesus in whose service she makes the quest. “’I tell you the truth,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.’” [Luke 18:29-30]
4. Although Parsifal had a position of great honor in King Arthur’s Court, he gave all that up to follow his quest for the Holy Grail. Change Agents are single-minded. Their vision becomes central in their life. It begins to consume their thoughts. There is no returning to your old comfortable life once you set out on the quest. But there is also no greater reward than knowing you are making the same journey that Jesus made. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” [Matthew 5: 11-12]
How do Change Agent’s transform a local church? Using a marketing idea, you can think of them as ‘early adopters’ of a vision of a transformed world. So, in the beginning, Change Agents are the few people in a local church who ask questions and develop a passion to pursue Christ’s vision. Unlike Parsifal, they also persuade others to also ask questions and pursue this vision – first the ‘Fast Followers then the ‘Slow Followers’ in their church. By doing this, they free their local church from its wounds like the Fisher King and enable it to engage in Jesus’ work of transforming the world.