by Lance Finley, Executive Director
“We live in strange and uncertain times.” While that sentiment certainly rings true, there’s also the adage that there is nothing new under the sun. Every generation must face their unique challenges and their own uncertainties. Every generation must navigate the sense of never-ending and ever-quickening change. We find ourselves amid a culture filled with upheaval in which most institutions are struggling to forge their way into a better future. Nearly every institution today—business, higher education, banking, retail, government, and church—is facing significant change and serious challenges as they consider their futures in the world that is unfolding before our very eyes.
Even in the mire of so much uncertainty and change, now is not the time for fear or panic, doom or gloom. We certainly need a sober assessment of our current predicament, but we also need to hold tightly the words of Jesus “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).
Many of us have found Dr. Tod Bolsinger’s book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, incredibly helpful in framing our present challenges in the church. He explores the experience of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery’s expedition for a Northwest Passage and parallels their journey to the present moment for the Church. Lewis and Clark found themselves in uncharted territory. They expected to find a waterway that would take them all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They discovered there was no such waterway. This discovery left them with a decision: turn around and go home or press on and adapt. They chose to press on and adapt.
One of the key motivations for this decision can be traced back to their original mission: They were the Corps of Discovery. While they expected to find a waterway, their mission wasn’t the Corps of the Waterways! They discovered there was no water passage that would carry them all the way to the Pacific. The four hundred miles of Rocky Mountains ahead of them would provide for many other discoveries. Their mission was one of discovering a way west, charting a way through uncharted territory. They were the Corps of Discovery!
We’re facing similar uncharted challenges today. What was proven to work in growing a church yesterday is proving less effective today. We expected things in the church to always work a certain way: Faithfully build it and they will come. We’ve enjoyed a sense of “home field advantage” in ages past that appears to be eroding in our present day. We’re faced with a choice: Do we lose heart and turn back, pining for the “good ole days,” or do we adapt and forge ahead? We must adapt and forge ahead.
Our key motivation for this decision must flow out of mission rather than out of survival, desperation, or panic. We, like the Corps of Discovery, were charged with a mission and that mission has not changed, even in the face of challenging and uncharted territory. Our mission is rooted in God’s mission to proclaim Good News to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor! Jesus taught us to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, to put His words into practice, and to make disciples of all the nations!
Our way forward is found through an embrace of our original mission. We were never called to be the people of Sunday morning services. We were never charged with being vendors of religious goods and services. We were never even called to be people who go to church! Rather, we were commissioned to be the Church, God’s people, carrying out His mission here on earth.
In moments like this, there are some critical questions we must ask ourselves. What must be given up? What must change? What must never be given up? What are our non-negotiables? What cannot change?
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery gave up their canoes. The canoes wouldn’t serve them well in the mountains and would have been a burden on such an arduous trek. They didn’t give up their mission: They were the Corps of Discovery and they would continue to discover and explore.
These kinds of questions make us uneasy and for good reason. Many before us have faced similar choices and made the wrong decisions. In uncharted territory, it’s vitally important to declare what cannot change as we seek to adapt and change.
What cannot change?
Our Obedience to God’s Word. We believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. We live in a time when some have been tempted to devalue God’s Word or even set aside God’s Word as old fashioned or out of date with contemporary living. We must never make that mistake. As a matter of fact, perhaps one of the things the Lord is revealing to us in this season is that we must go beyond just paying lip service to God’s Word. We say we believe in the Bible, but our actions often prove otherwise. Jesus calls us to put His Word into practice.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul so clearly explained in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11:
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
“3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
“9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.”
We must never stop trusting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must never stop demonstrating and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus alone that is the hope of the world through His perfect life, His death on the cross for our sins, His breaking the power of sin, death, and brokenness through His victory over Satan and the grave. He is our hope and salvation. Our hope is found in Jesus alone!
The Kingdom of God. Jesus came proclaiming in Mark 1:15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Jesus ushered in God’s rule and reign. Everything that sin caused to be broken and destroyed is being made new, restored and reconciled under God’s rule and reign through the work of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:20). God’s Kingdom is our ultimate allegiance, over any other allegiance in our lives. God’s Kingdom is to be our chief pursuit and concern in life. We are to give our lives in service to God’s Kingdom. We are to submit every aspect of our lives to Christ our King!
As we move forward into uncharted territory, let’s never change our commitment to God’s Word, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Kingdom of God. Let’s not give up on our mission and why we’ve been sent.
What Can Change?
What can change or what can we drop as we forge ahead and adapt? Frankly, quite a bit. There’s a long list that we might be tempted to hold onto that we need to drop now. It’s honestly too long of a list to deal with in a short article, but here are a few places to start.
Our traditions and preferences can be left behind. We can leave behind our focus on fixing the church rather than living in the kingdom. We can drop our fixation on church growth gimmicks. Some of us need to leave behind some buildings or physical locations. We can drop a lot of our programming that isn’t accomplishing the mission set before us. Honestly, there is a lot of what we know that we must be willing to let die so that we can be free to adapt and forge ahead. This will require loss. This will require grief.
We’ve got to lose our fear of failure. When you look to adapt, you must learn something new. You’ve got to be willing to experiment, to discover new things and even fail forward. Most of what we attempt these days is what we already know: “This worked back in the 70s or 80s, lets rename it and see if it still works.” That kind of thinking won’t help us forge ahead.
We’ve got to change our posture of “come to us” and find ways to go to the people to whom God is calling us to love and reach. This will mean we have to leave the familiar and safe confines of what we know and be willing to discover.
What are some of the canoes that you need to leave behind? What will leaving these things behind require? God’s great mission demands that we continue to adapt and forge ahead. Let’s not get stuck dragging along what we know and love at the risk of jeopardizing our mission. Let’s adapt and forge ahead.