Archive for November, 2012

Finding Our Way Through Adaptive Ministry Challenges

November 4, 2012

The Missional Network ( has recently launched a new Journal of Missional Practice. In the introductory issue, which is posted on their website, there is an article entitled Discovering God’s Initiatives in the Midst of Adaptive Challenge, written by Juan Martinez, Associate Dean of the Center for the Study of the Hispanic Church and Community and Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and Pastoral Leadership at Fuller Seminary.

He begins with an observation that we have been formed in a western culture that believes that with enough study, focus, and determination, the church can always find its way forward. But as we seek to be faithful to the Gospel in the midst of many adaptive challenges, we are reminded that following Jesus and being a faithful church is more of a journey of discovery. The historical phrase that we are reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God, reminds us that we are on a journey that does not have a clear end point, other than the heavenly city whose architect is God. This recognizes that God is still at work in the world, and often in ways that seem mysterious to us. The history of the church, and of Israel in the Old Testament, show us that there are times when the people of God seem to lose sight of their task or when they seem unprepared for the new challenges they are facing.

Martinez states that we are now in a disorienting world, in the midst of situations where cause and effect often do not seem connected. Because most of our churches were framed in a different era, they often seem unable to understand, let alone respond, to what is happening. So, we must learn to be attentive to what the Spirit is doing in three ways: 1)through a prayerful and Spirit oriented life, 2)through a willingness to discern and recognize where God is at work, and 3)through being attentive to the new by experimenting. During times of difficulty and complexity, God’s people can become discouraged and unfocused. Sometimes, the difficulties can be linked to a lack of faithfulness or a loss of commitment. It is here that the practice of spiritual disciplines becomes very helpful.

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of the article:
“An important word being used in the missional church conversation is that of experiments. The message behind the word is that we need to be open to new ideas about how to do and be church and being willing to walk with these experiments to see if they produce focus and change in our understanding of the church in mission. We recognize that many of the traditional methods of church planting and mission no longer seem to work, and even when they “work” the result often produces as many questions as strong churches.

Another word that can help us think about this is “mashups.” This word is being used in several domains and basically means bringing together things in ways that we would normally not consider “normal.” Missional experiments need to include bringing together things that we have not normally assumed fit together. That means inviting people to think about church and mission in ways that “mess” with all of our current models. Our concepts of church have been so framed by Western Christendom that we often find it hard to “remember” that the early churches were not linked to our current church model and that they developed around homes, synagogues, and various hiding places, once persecution became common. This invites us to think about church communities that may have little to do with anything we normally call church today.

We begin the process by recognizing that people are in different places. This means that we cannot automatically assume that the “old” no longer works in any environment. Not all churches are in crisis, nor are all denominations. At times the traditional patterns and the traditional congregations will continue to help people be faithful to the gospel and to the church´s mission. Some traditional church models will continue to function effectively in some contexts. In this type of environment the goal is to help people understand that the world is changing and that if they want to continue being faithful they need to be open to new ways of thinking about their role in the world.

If churches that are being “successful” doubt that they need to change, churches in crisis may find change even more difficult. The sense of loss may push many toward nostalgia and a selective memory of the past. It may make them less open to change, determined to reconstruct a past they perceived as more favorable. Instead of being able to visualize a new future, they can only dream of what was, or what they remember.

Outside of the structures of existing church leadership, there are many types of people that can guide us toward experiments, if we give them the opportunity. 1)One of the obvious places to start looking for experimenters is among the young. Younger Christians who grew up in the church understand what is not working in their congregations. Many are questioning the church and leaving, but there is also a space here for new models. If church leaders are ready to walk with young Christians, discipling them and providing new spaces for them, they can point toward the future and not merely focus on their frustrations with the church of their upbringing.

2)We can also learn from new believers, particularly those that have had a strong conversion experience. Because of their encounter with God they are very interested in sharing their faith and they still have connections “in the world.” Some Pentecostal churches have the practice of inviting new believers to share their faith immediately after conversion and baptism. We need to disciple new believers and invite them to share their faith very early after their conversions. Because most of them have not been socialized into a traditional church they could be encouraged to think about what a missional church might look like among their friends and colleagues.

3)Another group that can naturally tend toward new models are migrants, particularly those from the dynamic churches of the south. Many will be tempted to assume that it is their models from the south that need to be replicated. But what we most need from them is their spiritual dynamism, their flexibility and their willingness to adapt to new realities. Many of them establish churches and ministries in the most complex and difficult situations. They are modeling a way of thinking that will be crucial as we look toward the future. Their mission movements are showing us models that provide us ways of thinking about the church in mission in ways that those of us formed in Christendom cannot even envision.

4)Another place we need to look for leaders of these new experiments are among the “discarded” adults of our society. We often assume that the elderly are trapped in models from the past. In our youth oriented society the elderly are often marginalized. Yet in a changing world we need all generations to work together. There are many elderly people who have time, skills and energy, and no longer need gainful employment. Given a vision of what might be many older adults might be able to “dream new dreams” and also support those new dreams.

5)An important issue that leaders need to take into account in this joy of discovery is that the best experimenters will usually be peripheral people, those outside the centers of traditional church power. They usually have not gone through the “official” processes and might not really “fit.” So they have not yet earned the trust of the system. Yet those are the people that will often be able to visualize a different reality, new models of church and mission.

Churches and organizations that are going to be ready for this type of innovation are those that create a culture of experimentation and that value innovation. For example, church planting models in some denominations require so much planning and organization, and money, that experimentation is impossible. Any failures are major losses. But many of the growing Pentecostal denominations take a very different approach. People who have a sense that God has called them to plant a church are encouraged to try it out. If they establish a group or a ministry, then the denomination provides some level of support and investment.

In a sense, churches and denominational structures interested in mission in the midst of adaptive challenge need to develop a mission R&D department. Those open to the journey of discovery will identify those with new ideas and will fund those experiments. By providing spiritual, moral and financial support, one creates a culture that encourages all the people of God to think in new ways about their role in God´s work in the world.[7]

In a journey of discovery, one of the ways one learns is through failure. Part of our task will be to incorporate this type of learning into the discovery process. For those of us taught to only look at “success” as being from God, this attitude will mean a major mental model shift. We will need to learn the joy of failure and its importance as we go forward.

On the one hand a changing society raises new questions. Those types of questions will only become more complex as we seek to be faithful to God´s work in the world. But being attentive to where the Spirit is working will also force us to ask hard missional questions. People on the margins may be undocumented, may have a checkered past and may find it hard to fit in existing structures. But they may also be leading movements that obligate us to think in new ways about what it means to be communities of followers of Jesus Christ involved in God´s mission in the world.

Because of the time in which God has called us to serve, it will mean that there will be no road before us. Clearly the way will be made as we move in the power and direction of the Spirit. The lack of assurances will create anxiety for many, but it will also be a time of great opportunity. What continues to guide us is the light of God´s direction and the expectation that God will work. Because God has worked in the past we have markers that can guide us toward the future. But even as the early church developed in the light of a new Pentecost we continue forward knowing that this is God´s work.”