How Do People Actually Change?

The Cure of Souls and Theory of Change in Christian Ministry

Simeon Zahl / 4.5.23

This essay was first published in Issue 22 of our print magazine, available to buy here.

Part I:

What is the relationship between theology and day-to-day Christian ministry? I’ve been reflecting on this question for over twenty years, and I’ve become convinced that few questions are more important, either for theologians or for the church. 

To start, we need to recognize that every ministry makes basic theological assumptions about human nature and about how God works in people’s lives. In more theological terms, you could say that every form of ministry has an implicit theological anthropology and an implicit theology of grace. These assumptions are not always conscious or clearly articulated, but they have huge effects on pastoral practice — and on Christian experience. Indeed, I am convinced that few things have a greater effect on the success or failure of a ministry than these theological assumptions. 

To explain what I mean, let me borrow a term from the world of philanthropy and development. My wife Bonnie works in philanthropy, and over the past few years I became struck by a term she often uses in her work: theory of change. 

What is “theory of change”? Basically, it’s the strategy that an organization uses when it wants to make some change in the world through its activities. Asking an organization about its theory of change is a way of getting it to articulate more explicitly (a) what outcome the organization wants to achieve in the world, (b) what strategy it is going to use to accomplish that outcome, and (c) what assumptions the organization is making that lead it to think that strategy X will result in outcome Y. The whole idea of “theory of change” emerged as a term when people who consult with organizations realized that human beings are bad at doing this. We do X in hopes that Y will happen, but amazingly often we don’t think through how strategy X will plausibly lead to outcome Y. Having a “theory of change” forces you to think the steps through and to realize where you are making weird or implausible assumptions, so you can then alter your strategy to make it more effective.

I realize that may all seem very abstract and, let’s face it, more like something you would learn in business school than in a theology department. But over the past few years I’ve found it to be a helpful way of thinking about the relationship between theology and ministry. Let me give a few examples from the life of the church.

One common approach to “theory of change” in Christian ministry is what we might call the “sacramental participation” approach. A lot of Christian ministries, especially those that lean in a more Catholic direction, view the sacraments and especially the Eucharist as in many ways the heart of their ministry.

The main outcome or goal of ministry in the “sacramental participation” approach is to create sanctified human beings. Growing in sanctification will allow human beings to love God and serve the world, and ultimately will fit their souls for their true purpose of dwelling with God in eternity. The strategy used to achieve this goal is focused on the sacraments. By being baptized and by receiving the Eucharist regularly, the Christian is given new moral powers to engage in sanctified behavior and develop more virtuous habits over the course of their lives. Through the sacraments, God’s grace is infused in the hearts of Christians such that they have new capabilities of working out their salvation and participating with God in the healing of their sinful souls. 

Behind the “sacramental” theory of change lie two fundamental theological assumptions. The first is that human beings are sinners who on their own powers are entirely incapable of the sort of sanctification that is required of them. In other words, they need God’s grace to change them first. The second assumption is that the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist do change us in our souls, granting these new moral powers to enable a life of love and service.

I find this kind of analysis helpful. Analyzing the implied “theory of change” in sacrament-focused ministries allows us to see how this approach is grounded in a coherent vision of Christian life and of how God works to transform us. It also helps us to see how important certain specifically theological assumptions are here, assumptions about human nature and about how divine grace works. 

Of course, other ministries use different theories of change. Another popular one, especially common in Protestant circles, is what I think of as the “Christian information” approach. The working idea, so far as I can tell, is that the most important thing in determining whether Christians thrive and flourish is how much contact they get with the Bible. As God’s revelation, the Bible contains a great deal of information about what God is like, about how Christians should live, and about the good news of salvation. In this approach the purpose of a sermon is basically to exposit a scriptural text in such a way that the principles for Christian living, latent in the text, are extracted and made explicit.

Years ago, Bonnie and I attended a church that was very much built around a “Christian information” theory of change. Every sermon, Sunday after Sunday, was a long exercise in showing how the given passage contained guidance on how to live the Christian life. If the passage was about Jesus going off on his own to pray, the sermon would take from this a set of principles for us to remember in our prayer life (the importance of solitude, starting the day with prayer, making your life God-centered rather than people-centered, and so on). Or if the passage was, say, Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts, the text would be transmuted into five tips for better evangelism (Speak from Scripture! Be bold! Keep Jesus at the center! Don’t be afraid to expect great things from God!).

Corrine Botz, Operating Room #1 from the series Bedside Manner, 2015. Archival pigment print, 40 x 50 in.

As in the case of the “sacramental participation” approach, the “Christian information” theory of ministry is built on several theological assumptions that are not always explicitly articulated. First, it assumes — very reasonably to my mind — that the Bible, as God’s inspired Word, is the primary instrument through which God works in Christian lives.

Second, and I think more controversially, this approach often subtly assumes that people are shaped above all by contact with Christian knowledge or information. Although we know that giving advice to people rarely works very well in life, we have an idea that when the advice or information is based in Scripture, the normal rules don’t apply. Secular advice-giving doesn’t work, but somehow when you give advice from the Bible, we expect that the heart will change, and we will be transformed. In more technical terms, this approach has a robust idea of “regenerate reason” in Christians who have received the Holy Spirit. The “Christian information” approach is usually the main theory of change at work in churches that view a lengthy exegetical sermon concluding with an “application” as the decisive event in a Christian worship service.

Now, there are several other popular “theories of change” we could explore if there were space — theories based around spiritual practices for example, or around getting people involved in Christian community. Another classic example is the Pentecostal and charismatic approach that focuses ministry on stirring the congregation to a kind of emotionally charged personal encounter with God in the form of the altar call. But I hope my first two examples are enough to illustrate the point. 

Many of you reading this are involved in ministry, either as clergy or as laypeople. So, I ask you: What is your theory of change? What, specifically, are you trying to accomplish on Sunday? What is your goal, and what are the strategies you deploy for achieving it? Are you fundamentally trying to teach people about God’s vision for human life? Are you ultimately trying to foster a certain kind of religious experience? Is the heart of it getting people to the altar for the Eucharist? Is your main goal discipleship? Evangelism? Inspiring social action? 

And if you are a person more on the receiving end of ministry than the one doing the ministering, it is still an interesting question. What do you see as the most important part of your Christian life from week to week? What do you look for on Sunday, and in what sort of ministry context do you find yourself most consistently ministered to?

Bonnie and I have an old friend who always seems to be looking for the right church, and he articulates his search in a particular way: he is looking for a place, he tells us, where he can be “fed.” I think this friend is working with a particular theory of change in Christian ministry, even if, like many of us, he sees himself more on the receiving than the giving end. What I mean is that he has a particular idea of what a good church accomplishes on Sunday — I suspect something about Christian information — and he is looking for a church that shares his view.

What I find particularly helpful about these kinds of questions is that they have a way of surfacing what our operative theology is. And make no mistake, we all have an operative theology. Not necessarily the theology we think we subscribe to, but the theology we are deploying or responding to in practice. If you are doing ministry, then you have an operative theological anthropology and an operative theology of grace.

So, for example, if you think the sacraments and especially the Eucharist are central in ministry, then that means that whether you are conscious of it or not you are committed to certain theological assumptions about how the Eucharist mediates divine grace to the human will. Likewise, if you are a pastor who spends upwards of 20 hours per week preparing lengthy exegetical sermons, then chances are your ministry assumes that people are most effectively transformed through deep contact with the contents of the Bible. 

Before moving on, I have one last point to make. I have been describing various theories of change in relatively blunt terms to help make my point. In practice however, most ministries are deploying several theories of change at once, and these are not necessarily in competition with one another. And we may be using different theories of change for different aspects of our ministry. But I do think that most of us, when it comes down to it, have one primary theory of change informing our ministry. Most of us have one dimension that is the irreplaceable heart of what we do, that we would hold onto even if we had to give up everything else.

Now for my second question, which is the million-dollar question: Is your theory of change working?



Let me give you an analogy.

A few years ago, we finally bought our first house. I found myself having to learn many skills needed for taking care of a house of your own (I had a wonderfully educative upbringing in many ways, but DIY skills were not a major part of the family repertoire). Now, our house is perfectly nice, but it does have a quite ugly and quite visible garage area at the front. On the advice of my garden designer Mom, we decided to try to cover up this eyesore by growing jasmine up the brick along the sides of the garage. To do that, I learned, I needed to install vertical cables that the jasmine could grow on. And to install the cables and keep them in place, you need to drill holes in the brick for the eyelet screws that the cables attach to. 

At this point I did at least own a drill — a pretty good handheld, battery operated drill that had served me well inside the house. So once the cables and screws arrived, I dutifully went outside to drill the holes I needed. I thought I had done everything right: I had measured very carefully, I had made sure the drill bit was the right size, I had verified that the battery was charged. 

Feeling very handy, I begin trying to drill the hole. I get the bit spinning as it should and start pressing it into the brick. It starts making a loud drilling sound: BDZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZDZ. But after a minute or two I don’t seem to be making any progress. So I start pushing harder. The drilling noise gets louder, and I start to sweat. Eventually I’ve run down half the battery, and I look at the hole. All that noise and furious spinning, I discover, has produced nothing more than a tiny divot less than a quarter of an inch deep. 

At this point it occurs to me that I might be doing something wrong. So I go back into the house, pull up the great DIY Bible (YouTube), and quickly discover the problem. It turns out — perhaps readers will know all about this, but it was news to me—that you can’t drill holes in brick without some special tools. Specifically, you need a hammer drill, which is a lot more powerful than a battery held one and adds percussive force to the drilling, and you also need a mortar drill bit, which is an extra-hard drill bit designed especially for tough surfaces like brick. 

After dutifully procuring these tools, I return to the wall, bring the hammer drill with the mortar bit to that same little divot, and ZZSHEW! The drill does the job in about half a second — it’s like the wall is made of butter.

A good theory of change, an accurate theory of change, is the difference between forms of ministry where you put in huge amounts of energy and effort but very little happens, and ministries that, frankly, work. 

To put it another way: if your current approach to ministry isn’t working, then chances are, you’re using the wrong tools. You’re wielding some faulty theological assumptions. A faulty theory of change is the equivalent of using a battery-operated household drill on a brick wall.

Dan Callis, Border Crossings, 2018. Oil and fiber on paper, 24 x 68 in.

Part II:

Okay, now I’m going to do a very daring thing for an academic theologian. Rather than just describing stuff, rather than just giving typologies and categories and nuances like a good emotionally distanced scholar, I’m going to take a great risk and tell you what I think. Because I do think there is one theory of change that is better than the others, and I want to tell you what it is and what it means.

What is the ministry equivalent of a hammer drill with a mortar drill bit? Let’s call it the “Augustinian approach.” This was first developed in the early fifth century by the greatest of all theologians in the Latin West, Augustine of Hippo. He developed it through a combination of reflecting on his own conversion experience and arguing with a new theology that had emerged in the fourth century, which we now call Pelagianism. 

The Pelagians, in Augustine’s eyes, had a bad theory of change. They had a mistaken view of human nature, and they had a deficient view of divine grace. They thought that God worked in Christians through two means: first, he had created them with a powerful capacity for moral willing, such that to be a good person the main thing you had to do was deploy this capacity. Second, God had given them a blueprint for his vision of human life in the Bible, so that they would know what he wanted them to use their will for. Their theory of change, then, was to read the Bible and then try very hard to do what it said.

Augustine found this view both naïve and at odds with what Scripture says about human nature. Drawing especially on Paul’s statements about the inability of divine law to produce the righteousness it calls for, as well as the Sermon on the Mount, Augustine argued that the core engine of human nature is not the will but the heart and its desires. And he pointed out that it is extremely hard to change hearts—so hard in fact, that only God can do it, through the Holy Spirit. Here is Augustine’s most classic description:

[In contrast to the Pelagians,] we, on the other hand, say that the human will is helped to achieve righteousness in this way: [human beings] receive the Holy Spirit so that there arises in their minds a delight in and a love for that highest and immutable good that is God, even now while they walk by faith, not yet by sight. By this [love] given to them like the pledge of a gratuitous gift, they are set afire with the desire to cling to the creator.

The key word here is “delight” — in Latin, delectatio. The way you change a person is by getting through not to their head or their will but to their heart. Which is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit: to fill us with new desires for the things of God, and to make us hate and flee from our bad, self-destructive desires.

Let me try to distill this Augustinian theory of change into three basic theological assumptions:

1. First, as I’ve already said, human beings are driven not by knowledge or will but by desire. We are creatures of the heart, creatures of love.

2. Second, the human heart is very hard to change. It strongly resists direct efforts to change it. The truth of this point is easy to demonstrate. Have you ever tried to change someone’s mind about politics through rational argument? Have you ever tried to talk someone out of loving the person they have fallen in love with? I rest my case.

3. Third, human beings are wired in such a way that judgment kills love. When we feel judged, we hide our love away, we put up our walls, we resist. If your theory of change depends in any way on the idea that telling someone what is wrong with them will lead to them changing what is wrong with them, you will be sorely ineffective. Augustine says it beautifully in his treatise On the Spirit and the Letter: “[The law] commands, after all, rather than helps; it teaches us that there is a disease without healing it. In fact, it increases what it does not heal so that we seek the medicine of grace with greater attention and care.”

Rather than elaborating on why I think Augustine is right, I want to cut to the chase and ask what the implications of the Augustinian theory of change are for Christian ministry. And I think there are in fact some very specific practical implications. If you want to do ministry the Augustinian way, if you want to use a hammer drill instead of spending your time wearing down your battery, then your ministry will need a certain shape, certain contours.

First, it means that the heart of Christian ministry is the facilitation of an emotional encounter with the God revealed in Jesus. I say this without condition or reservation. If you are not successfully engaging with people’s feelings and desires, with their anxieties, their loves, and their pain, then you are just playing a game with Christian words; you are not doing ministry. The intransigence of the human heart is the fundamental problem of Christian ministry. The Spirit of God traffics in emotion and desire.

As an aside, this is why it is no accident that charismatic and Pentecostal ministries are overwhelmingly the most effective ministries widely at work today. Whatever problems Pentecostals may have in other domains, they understand that the experience of being helped by God in your place of felt need is the heart of Christianity. Pentecostal ministries know how to use a hammer drill.

Second, the Augustinian approach assumes that effective ministry always must deal with the fact of human resistance to judgment and law. It means that you won’t end a sermon or a church service with a moral exhortation or a set of behavioral guidelines. And it means that you are likely to deploy the great preaching paradigm, the distinction between the law and the gospel. Law-Gospel preaching is one of the most powerful technologies of the heart that we have available to us as Christians. 

Third, if the Augustinian approach is true, it means that certain other approaches are not going to work very well. If you think you can change people by preaching sermons whose purpose is just extracting practical advice for Christian living from Scripture, you are not going to make much of a dent in that brick wall, I assure you.

This perspective is also important for thinking about spiritual practices. Yes, habitual prayer, service, contemplation, justice work, and Bible reading can have powerful shaping effects on people, including on their emotional experience. But — and this is an important but — the Augustinian perspective tells us that we can do all this only once our hearts have already changed enough that we desire to engage in the practice. No one will develop a transformative and durable new practice of prayer unless they fundamentally want to and want to enough to carry them through life’s inevitable obstacles. As Jesus told us, you must change the tree first, then the right fruit will follow (Mt 12:33-35). Focus on the heart, and the practices will follow; focus on the practices alone, and we’re back to the brick wall.

Finally, an Augustinian theory of change means that technologies of the heart are important in ministry. Novels, stories, movies, illustrations — these are powerful technologies of the heart, much more powerful than mere words and ideas. The reason we love stories, the reason we love art and music, and the reason such things can be so transformative when we draw on them in ministry, is that they know how to speak the strange electric language of the heart. 

Now, as a theologian I believe very strongly in the shaping power of ideas, including in matters of faith. Indeed, this essay has in many ways been an attempt to show just how much power our ideas about the world, about ourselves, and about God have. But I can also tell you what the greatest theologians have always known: in the context of actual ministry, the best theology and the truest Christian information are just ghosts and vapor until they are communicated in a language the heart can hear.

This means that music is hugely important in Christian ministry. Indeed, a lot of ministries that have quite bad theories of change are still doing a lot of good in the world, are still helping people, because their worship ministries are doing the heavy lifting. If we are honest, we all know that a very average worship leader can get through to people more easily than the most brilliant preacher if the preacher is relying on the “Christian information” approach. This is because worship leaders operate with a hammer drill.

There are probably a few more principles I could draw out if there were more space — perhaps especially about how important human relationships and human community are in the Augustinian vision, because human beings are above all else creatures of love. But think I have already said enough for one essay.

As I end, I am conscious that in this essay I have not practiced what I preached. I have said that change comes through the heart, and then I’ve gone on to give you a bunch of concepts and categories. But perhaps this is the function of the theologian. My job is to do my best to give you the tools you need in the great task of ministry, the task that we used to call, so evocatively, the cure of souls.

In a world of weary priests and pastors, burned out by trying to get through the brick of human hearts with inadequate tools — in a world of weary people — I am here to remind you that there is another way. The true cure of souls is a ministry of hope and consolation for the stubborn, suffering human heart. Speak the language of the heart truly and sincerely, and watch as God sends forth his Spirit to “renew the face of the ground” (Ps. 104:30). 

A version of this piece was presented at the 2022 Mockingbird Conference in New York City.

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31 responses to “How Do People Actually Change?”

  1. Simeon, this is terrific, particularly laying out the Augustinian theory of change. I share your interest in the intersection of theology and ministry. My book, “What’s Theology Got To Do With It: Convictions, Vitality and the Church,” will be the subject of the next webinar done by Crackers and Grape Juice. It starts on April 24 and goes six weeks. Here’s a link for the free registration if readers here are interested.
    or go to my website at

  2. Thank you for your insights.

    I think there is an interesting interplay between our mind and its renewal through heartfelt teaching and discipleship. There are ditches on either side– purely intellectual teaching or purely heart-string-pulling preaching.

    Obviously, Jesus practiced this combo perfectly, as seen in Luke 24:32 —
    They said to one another, “Were our hearts not burning within us when He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” 

  3. Excellent essay. How do we do this? Illustrate more with stories? What else can we do to help promote change?

  4. Shawn Lazar says:

    Thought-provoking. A good way to evaluate my ministry. We want to change hearts, and the “Christian Information” approach doesn’t work…Or does it?

    Here’s a quibble. I don’t think “Christian Information” is the right term. You recommend law and gospel preaching. I agree. I’ve written a short book about it. But isn’t the proclamation of the word what the Spirit uses to transform the heart? But preaching law or gospel in the Biblical texts is giving information—bad news or good news.

    I think what you really mean is the “Moralistic Information” approach doesn’t work. Neither does “moralistic sacramentalism” or “moralistic asceticism.” Reducing every Biblical text to a moral lesson doesn’t produce much other than a guilty or cold heart. And yet that’s the only thing people here week after week.

    I agree that Charismatic worship affects the heart. I’ve experienced that. But I think it’s mostly because Jesus is exalted. Especially (where I currently worship) His grace, New Covenant truths, the blessings we have in Him, and His power to redeem. The greatness, not of me and Christ, but of Christ alone. I love that Jesus.

  5. Kevin McGrane says:

    Thank you for an excellent essay. You are spot on and will assess my sermons accordingly.

  6. Sue Joyner says:

    This is the way AA works!
    They speak the Language of the Heart.
    So good

  7. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church […]

  8. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church […]

  9. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church […]

  10. Chip says:

    From my read of this excellent piece, I don’t think that Zahl just means moralism; the contrast, instead, is between mind-centered approaches and heart-centered ones. Does God transform us, and our hearts, through preaching? Sure, but that is not the only way; he does it through the sacraments and worship as well, plus using a variety of means throughout our everyday lives. Each of the first three methods proclaims the gospel in some way, but it is not just through reminders of the truths of the gospel that God effects transformation. Actually receiving the Eucharist rightly can transform the heart, not just hearing the words of institution. It does not all boil down to the content of the words. And the means God uses to transform us outside of the church walls might have little direct connection with hearing or meditating on the gospel (e.g., loving others).

  11. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American […]

  12. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church […]

  13. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church […]

  14. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church […]

  15. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American […]

  16. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church […]

  17. […] question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church […]

  18. […] asks, How do people actually change? Fun for us Mockingbirds, he cites Simeon Zahl’s essay “The Cure of Souls” from the recent Sickness & Health issue of the magazine. In the essay, Simeon explores various […]

  19. […] article in Mockingbird, titled “The Cure of Souls: Theory of Change in Christian Ministry,” explores the ways people experience genuine transformation in […]

  20. Denise says:

    Why does God have to choose? Wouldn’t it be just like God to use every means of change, even some not listed in this excellent article? Thanks once again mbird friends for speaking to our minds and hearts and all the unnamed places in between and beyond.

  21. Michael says:

    We offer a considerable amount of “us”/me in punching it out with God. The refreshing but tenuously honest interactions leave me unbridled or bruised, but refreshed and moving forward. I can keep coming back for more embracing guidance in the heart and heat of repentance. Right and wrong is Gods word and laws reflect Gods good will and his just wrath. .

  22. Thank you for this very informative theory of change. It is true actions are based on assumptions and that leads to certain outcomes. In the view of faith in the Living God, the concept of the kingdom of God and eternity, there is a need to review the tools, the knowledge in use and practice. How I wish there would be more engagement on such important matters, particularly with the words that Jesus said that he will tell some people’ I never knew you’ while the people thought their theory in use was leading to eternity with Christ.

  23. […] The question is, How do people actually change?That question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American […]

  24. […] since we are creatures of desire and longing first and foremost, resonance happens especially when the facades of our quotidian lives collapse […]

  25. […] when we face pressing, concrete concerns. But they might lead us closer to the cure. Simeon Zahl writes in Mockingbird about spiritual change happening best through “technologies of the heart,” in […]

  26. […] when we face pressing, concrete concerns. But they might lead us closer to the cure. Simeon Zahl writes in Mockingbird about spiritual change happening best through “technologies of the […]

  27. […] Here is where we come to the agency of all change — love. It’s not knowledge, or it’s favorite cousins, logic and reason. Those were all fruits from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil after all. (As Simeon Zahl so wonderfully wrote in How Do People Actually Change?) […]

  28. Rod RUMBLE says:

    The Puritan Richard Baxter, in ‘The Reformed Pastor’ wrote; ‘God deals with all men but not all men alike’. Tennyson wrote , in his poem on the death of Arthur, ‘and God fulfils himself in many ways, lets one good custom doth corrupt the world’.

  29. Rod RUMBLE says:

    sorry, ‘lest one good custom….’

  30. […] when we face pressing, concrete concerns. But they might lead us closer to the cure. Simeon Zahl writes in Mockingbird about spiritual change happening best through “technologies of the […]

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