Jared Witt - August 22, 2019
The terms that were coined nearly two decades ago by leadership gurus Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky are well worn at this point, but they still get the job done.
Technical change vs adaptive change.
These terms should be common currency for anyone looking to be a relevant missional leader in the 21st century church.
Technical changes are changes to an organization which tweak an external problem in an attempt to fix what is essentially an internal problem—which obviously doesn’t work. In the church world, these usually amount to updating the narthex or adding different instrumentation in worship. These are the kinds of solutions typically suggested by anxious church people who know that the culture is being turned off from coming to their church but can’t possibly imagine that they themselves are the main deterrent.
In their imaginations, perhaps people are moving away from the church and going to crossfit gyms now on Sunday morning, because crossfit gyms have trendier marketing or a more modern industrial design. What’s more they might even say it’s because people are getting more “secular” or self-centered, as if there is something inherently Godly or selfless about supporting their own church institution. It would never occur to them that maybe people are flocking to crossfit gyms because the sense of community they’re finding there is less forced, the mission better defined, and because the major issue pressing on most minds today doesn’t concern the medieval notion of the afterlife but rather finding meaning in this life. An anxious church council is willfully blind to the latter explanations, because admitting those possibilities would mean admitting that their problems lie much deeper in the heart or spirit of the institution than where they are willing to go.
Adaptive Changes, on the other hand, come from an organization’s willingness to probe deeper and ask hard questions about what internal changes may be needed in order for its mission and messaging to once again speak to the culture. If attendance numbers are dwindling, an adaptive thinker is less likely to concern herself with re-tiling the church entryway and more likely to ask “What is the primary anxiety or concern of people today, and why are we failing to speak to that?” In this way, adaptive thinkers tend to have a certain level of humility in themselves and respect for others outside their institution, instead of just assuming that the problem lies with the heathen culture which now needs to be coerced back through their doors.
Adaptive churches tend to assume that the point of the community is not to reinforce each other’s tribalism through anxious loyalty to the in-group but to grow outward as spiritual people. Regurgitating the right language touchpoints and jumping through institutional hoops is not a concern. Instead, they are focused on spaciousness toward one another, graciousness in disagreement, and care for the weak and the outcast. Adaptive churches tend not to assume that the point of theology is to regurgitate a few stagnant doctrines over and over and manipulate people to get on board with them but to explore a dynamic dialogue that is always happening in present tense between the Divine and the world. They know that God may not be saying the same thing to the world today as God was saying 500 years ago.
Whereas churches that think in technical terms always assume implicitly that it must be the culture’s problem if the culture is no longer buying what they’re selling, adaptive thinkers allow that the culture may have very good reasons for not flocking to them. When someone at our bar confesses to me, head down and eyes to the floor, “Sorry pastor, but the truth is I left the church a while ago,” I normally respond with something like, “Sorry about what? There are lots of really good reasons to leave the church. If you’re someone who left your church for the right reasons—because it was homophobic or inward looking or required you to be intellectually dishonest in order to share its beliefs—this could be the most important step yet in your journey toward truth.”
Here is where is gets tricky: to the untrained eye, an institution that is undergoing deep and lasting adaptive change may look very similar to one that is merely undergoing the superficial technical changes.
The decision to start, for instance, I dunno, a brewery church could be driven by either motivation. I’m honored whenever people tell me they think Castle Church is a great concept because of what meeting in a brewery communicates about what we are as a community, where our heart is at. But when they tell me they think it’s a great concept because beer is “a great way to get people into church,” I cringe. One publication, writing about us, even used the term “lure.” Blecckk.
Aside from being a bit manipulative, using a great stout or a saison to “lure” people into church would only interest them for about a week. Same church, new beverages is a dead-end formula. If our little community here grows and thrives long term, it’s because of the warmth, kindness, and humility that takes place within the context of drinking stouts and saisons. One could very easily build a brewery church that gets the former right but not the latter.
Trickier still: because technical leaders always have quick and actionable solutions to show for their efforts, adaptive leaders may look passive or lackadaisical in comparison. Anxiety is incompatible with patience and, therefore, incompatible with creativity, depth, and true understanding. Loud, visible “fix-alls” are the stock and trade of technical leaders, whereas adaptive leaders understand that long-term, internal change doesn’t happen through merely spinning our wheels faster. In fact, they may regularly be seeking out the very places of stillness and perspective that give them insight into the deeper issues at hand, which fools perceive as lack of concern or urgency.
I guess what I’m saying, especially to my anxious pastoral colleagues, who sometimes look enviously at my taproom community as if it’s the gimmick that will save Christianity, is this: don’t seek to build a brewery church. Seek first the kingdom of God, and the stouts and saisons will be added to it as well.
Cheers and Peace,
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How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.