“Watzlawick et al (1974) discuss two levels of change— first- and second-order change. First-order change refers to change within a given system. In other words, the system itself remains unchanged, while its elements or parts undergo some kind of change. First-order change appears to be linear, stepwise, and mechanistic (Adams, 1977). It is a change in quantity, not quality. First-order change involves using the same problem-solving strategies over and over again. Each new problem is approached mechanically.
If the problem resists resolution, more old strategies are used and are usually more vigorously applied. There is either more of a behavior or less of a behavior along some continuum. For example, a father might attempt to deal with his son’s chronic misbehavior by using more and more punishment. This approach to the problem reflects the concept of first-order change because the structure of the interactions between the father and son remains constant.
Second-order change refers to a change of the system itself. The system is transformed structurally and/or communicationally. Second-order change tends to be sudden and radical. It represents a quantum jump in the system to a different level of functioning. This type of change is discontinuous and qualitative. It is not logically predictable and often appears abrupt, illogical, and unexpected. Paradoxical interventions produce second-order change, sometimes called paradoxical change (Weeks and Wright, 1979). In the example given for first-order change, the father tried the same solution over and over again. A second-order change solution to the same problem would involve trying something radically different or unexpected,,,”
-Weeks and L’Abate, “Paradoxical Psychotherapy: Theory and Practice with Individuals, Couples, and Families,” Brunner/Mazel Inc., 1982. pages 18-19.
This very simple model, first-order versus second-order change seems to have much to say when it comes to evangelism and saving faith. As Christians, we are seeking 2nd order changes in people. We want people to stop following their own path, and start following Christ. This is a radical, discontinuous, and perhaps illogical jump… a 2nd order change.
However, there is a broader process here. First, a person must be dissatisfied with who or how he is and has a desire to change. Second, a person must try to change utilizing the tools and structure he already possesses. This is first-order change. It is with the failure of first-order change that openness for radical (2nd order) change is contemplated. With 2nd-order change, the new follower of Christ is still expected to change or grow, but within the new system. Discipleship is then primarily focused on 1st order change of the Christian as he or she is conformed to Christ.
I believe that in the area of evangelism, we can fail in multiple ways. One way is to push too quickly for a second-order change– before the person recognizes the need. If this happens, the change may not truly be second-order. For example, if one says to a person that he has to say the Sinner’s Prayer, he may only be making a first-order change. If the person has the habit of dabbling with various fads, this may be no more than another linear choice. Another failure is to minimize the radical nature of accepting Christ. If faith becomes an intellectual assent (“easy believism”), there may be nothing more radical in the decision than deciding that a certain political system has merit. This is ultimately a first order change. This may be okay at first… but should not be the final action.
I would like to suggest that in most cases, salvation (salvific faith) involves two steps. The first is a first order change– the individual adjusts his life to accommodate Christian thought and behavior. Consider Peter letting Jesus use his boat to preach from. Only later is the person prepared for a more radical, 2nd order, change. In Peter’s case, it was when he responded to Jesus’ call, and left his nets to follow Him.
In many cultures community precedes change. One joins a community of believers before one radically changes to be part of that community. With that in mind, a church should be open to welcoming seekers. The “church family” should be bigger than “followers of Christ.” Just as a church welcomes children into the church family long before they decide to act in faith to follow Christ, the same welcome should be given to those who undergoing 1st order change in baby steps towards being part of the church and part of God’s kingdom.
- Re-thinking a ‘worldviews’ approach to evangelism (meetjesusatuni.com)