Navigating into the future
The church I pastor, Alliance Bible Church, is in a place of uncertainty, or as Len Hjalmarson writes “a place of liminality… of a space in-between, a transition point, where old and new collide.” “Limina” is old Latin for threshold.[i] In some ways we wear our “liminality” as a badge – we’re a home of graying baby boomers and older Gen-X types like myself, and we’re a home for a group of young millennials. Conversations can be awkward; where one generation speaks with doctrinal clarity, the other speaks with ambiguity, and certainty is rare.
I appreciate the elders who have joined me on this journey. A less courageous group would likely deny the need to change. The reality of the shift to a “post-Christian and post-congregational culture” [ii] gives us no illusion about the necessity of change, but that in itself doesn’t provide signposts for the path. Our leadership team has taken a few baby steps forward, forays into the future, but Hjalmarson’s writing on Adaptive challenge and the Church in transition has gotten me thinking that we’re bringing baggage with us. For example, whenever I attempt to step forward into the future of our church, my mind goes back to what’s been successful in the past. Could my pastoral experience actually be sidetracking us from the future God intends? For example, one of my most spiritually formative experiences has been a home group where lives were authentically shared and genuine spiritual growth happened. But attempts at reproducing such authenticity, intimacy and spiritual growth have rarely succeeded.
Thinking about ABC’s almost 40-year history through the lens of the adaptive process is informative:
Phase one (rapid growth): we have a history of growing a K-12 school, establishing an AWANA program, and sending our youth on mission trips.
Phase two (conservation): membership grew and stabilized around these core ministries, which established the church’s identity and norms.
Phase three (release): Changes to the demographics of the congregation, and challenges like the divestiture of the school resulted in decline in attendance, broken relationships, smaller children’s and youth ministries.
Phase four (renewal): We have an opportunity to redefine the church’s identity and reshape its mission. In other words, the lifecycle we’ve experienced—growth, peak, plateau, diminish—creates opportunity to start over.
While our position is full of promise, it also reminds me of the concern I expressed earlier: We need to be careful not to bring our baggage with us. Just because we wore it yesterday doesn’t mean it fits today.
With no intention to disparage the church I love, I need the space to question the past and learn from it. What was the point of the K-12 Christian school, the Awana program, and the multiple mission trips? Those ministries did two things: they provided organizational success and biotic growth. By “biotic growth” I mean that young people came to know Jesus and grow in faith. By “organizational success” I mean the church had plenty of people attending its services and programs. My criticism is that every time I hear reflection on the past it’s always couched in organizational success. It’s the common assumption that the more people who attend our services, our ministries, mission trips, or school, the greater the production of disciples. However, Willow Creek’s REVEAL study has exposed that participation in services and programs doesn’t automatically make maturing disciples that reproduce disciples. [iii] Willow Creek awoke to something that far smaller churches need to wrestle with–growing ministries doesn’t necessarily create disciples. In fact, it might be reinforcing a consumer mentality. Likewise, if ABC remains focused on attracting people to services and ministries we’ll miss our mission to make disciples who make disciples.
Today ABC is on a threshold of an opportunity. We can shed the structure of the past that became rigid, with over management designed for a previous generation of ministry. But then what? Organizations abhor a vacuum, and we don’t yet have a map for the future. Ministry maps have all been designed for roads that are now outdated. Hjalmarson suggests that we don’t need maps and map-readers, but navigators.
“The points on a map are fixed, and when one wants to travel …it’s step by step to the next point. If you have a compass and a bit of logic, this is really easy. …Navigation on the other hand, is a skill that is learned in the wilderness or on the ocean. It requires courage and the ability to withstand harsh conditions. When we can’t reference earthly artifacts we need something outside the world – the North Star.”[iv]
Let me sharpen this point. Our problem is that we are not making disciples who make disciples. My question is “How might we have a generative disciple-making practice contextualized for post-Christian millennials in Baytown, Texas?” I do not yet have an answer, but I know we need to be navigators into a future. “Leaders in particular feel enormous pressure to develop a plan that will effectively move the community forward to a new experience of stability, if not growth.” [v]
So will we trust God? Will we put away the old maps and navigate with the Spirit’s prompting into an unknown future? Will we prepare for the unknown by growing our love and trust in God and one another – making the uncertainty of the process more bearable? I’m not suggesting we go blindly into the future; navigators have points of light to navigate by, and so do we. In Acts we see three things create the paradigm of church: gospel-centered theology, disciple-making practices, all lived out in missional communities. Three points of reference in the sky should be enough to navigate into the future.
[i] Leonard Hjalmarson, Broken Futures: Adaptive Challenge and the Church in Transition, Unpublished, Chapter One.
[ii] Coined by Reggie McNeal, among others. See Missional Communities: The Rise of the Post-Congregational Church (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
[iii] Leonard Hjalmarson, Broken Futures: Adaptive Challenge and the Church in Transition, Unpublished, Chapter One.
15 responses to “Navigating into the future”
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God bless you Dave,
Isnt that something “we have a tendancy to bring our baggage with us.” This is so true and man i am really working on leaving it where it is and adapting to where the Lord leads. I can agree that in this generation we have to be brave enough to be Chaordic. We dont have to know everything we are doing, or have all the answers. I feel like I am in this place now. And from your statement “How might we have a generative disciple-making practice contextualized for post-Christian millennials in Baytown, Texas, you may be too?” But dont worry we are in the right place and God will bless us to know what they next move is! Blessings Dave!!!!
Dave, you said: “For example, whenever I attempt to step forward into the future of our church, my mind goes back to what’s been successful in the past. Could my pastoral experience actually be sidetracking us from the future God intends?” This puts me in mind of another phrase… “good is the enemy of great.”
Our good memories can serve to anchor us in place, restricting us from moving forward into great future possibilities.
I also appreciate your three navigation points: gospel-centered theology, disciple-making, missional communities. These are the three fixed positions to which we can correct as we navigate the tides of liquid modernity.
Good work man!
Jon, Thanks for your feedback. Those fixed positions go right back to how stuff we’ve chatted about before. The three-fold fabric of our faith: Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy and Orthopathy….
Great post, Dave. You made a key point of letting go of the maps that no longer work but at the same time staying connected to navigational points. Those who cannot put down the old maps will never explore new and wonderful territories. Those who neglect all reference points will generally end in disaster. A great navigator does not neglect what he has learned in the past, but he knows when he is in new territory and what the fixed points are.
Brain, Thanks I really appreciate the Navigator analogy that is until folks at church start crying out for the next steps. I guess that’s the leader’s calling. To navigate forward (2 or 3 steps) and then pour some light on the one or two steps in front of them. Really is seems very difficult.
Dave, Great job connecting this week’s reading to your current situation and making it practical for all of us o read. I hope you’re sharing these insights with your church leaders.
I loved your concluding thoughts regarding our 3 points in the sky to help us navigate: gospel-centered theology, disciple-making practices, all lived out in missional communities. In uncertainty those are 3 things we can search for and work towards and they won’t let you down.
Playing off of the navigator vs map reader theme, in my mind there is a difference between a journey and a trip. A trip has a fixed point of destination and fixed departure and arrival dates. A journey is more of an adventure. You pack, but you know you’ll probably have to rewash and buy more supplies at some point. I sense that preparing a church for a journey will require a lot of preparation, but not the type of preparation a trip requires. For a trip, most of the time is spent preparing itineraries and logistics and suitcases. For a journey, most of the time may need to be spent preparing the people. Without genuine trust, love and community you can endure a trip, but you probably won’t survive a journey. My gut says this may be where some leaders fail. Eager to set off to new lands, they haven’t invested the time to properly prepare the people. Or maybe better said, they haven’t prepared to properly invest in the people. It’s easy to get so focused on the journey that we forget the reason for the journey in the first place.
Henry. I appreciate your choice of words, “trip” and “journey.” The distinctions between the two are important.
Henry, I appreciate your clarity on being properly prepared for the journey (love, trust and community). It would be a shame to move to another land and find that you’re ultimately on your own. On the other hand part of preparing people is both articulating where you’re going and giving folks experience with short trips before they take them on the longer journey. Not unlike Jesus sending out the disciples on ministry trips.
I agree I do think leaders/pastors fail in not properly preparing people and it seems to me that ‘preparing’ has to shift from the normal greek/western/educational model and move more into the eastern/hebraic/apprenticeship model. And if that is the case – then can you help me answer what does it really look like to make disciples (who make disciples) at ABC?
David, Love your the honesty and sounds like accuracy with which you describe your situation. What a moment of opportunity and possibility. The quote that comes to my mind in this situation (which you sound well aware of) is a Machiavellian quote from The Prince. I believe it goes, “Nothing is more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than achieving a new order of things.” It sounds like you have ABC on the edge and it sound like God is leading you into the “new order”. Looking forward to hearing how the journey goes and I will be praying for you and the body in these days.
What makes the challenge so intense is that not only do we base our actions on the conditions of yesterday, we base our seeing on the mental models we built from our experience of the past. Biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela report that more than 80 percent of the visual information we use to create visual perceptions of the world comes from information already inside the brain. “Information from outside only slightly perturbs a system; it never functions as objective instructions.”
When we use these maps to attempt to find our way forward in new conditions, we see what we are prepared to see, with our mental models reflecting past experience. This is I note that a living system cannot be directed, it can only be disturbed.
Len, I had a conversation on Friday with a church leader, and it reinforces your point that we see only what we’re prepared to see. We were talking about discipleship and millennials, his first response was to provide a bible study on Sunday mornings… Which of course might be helpful, but it might not. I was encouraging a dialogue with millennials to envision a new model of discipleship.
Coming to mind, in addition to everything else that’s been mentioned, is the need for humility in the lead navigator – the pastor. In leading, the temptation is to “know it all.” Yet, in order to be disturbed, as Len mentions above, the lead navigator must be willing to sit in liminality as well as humility. When you mention, Dave, that you are grateful for your elders as well as the younger millennials, you demonstrate yet again a willingness to be stretched by all sides. I can’t imagine it’s an easy place (especially with air conditioner decisions – isn’t that the big piece of equipment ABC had to decide on whether to buy?). To sit in the creative tension of varying opinions and mental maps requires an obedient and trusting posture. Your dedication to lead on the journey versus a one time trip begins the pebble-in-the-pond impact of disciples-making-disciples. With encouragement, I hope there are more pastors like you (and the rest of our cohort) to lead us into whatever comes next culturally and ecclesiatically.
Mary, thank you for your challenging and insightful words. It’s one thing to want something, and be willing for something like going forward with “humility and liminality” – its another thing to do it.
Another layer if tension beyond the generational differences it the ideological tension between those whose ecclesiology is all about “with God” vs those who are all about “for God”…. I know it somehow needs to be both “with” and “for” and “through”. All to say the temptation to buy a roadmap is pretty high.
Mary, your equating the lead pastor with “navigator” jolted me – I haven’t made the connection. It’s possible those roles could overlap – I haven’t seen that much. Navigators are likely members of apostolic teams. Some churches do have adaptive leadership models that include poets and prophets, both types that tend to be navigators. Its becomming very fluid and chaotic now as you well know!