I once heard someone describe one of the major differences between every generation of human beings that lived before us and our own generation as being rooted in how we experience the relationship between stability and change.
“For most of human history,” he said, “people’s lives were marked by long periods of stability, interrupted by brief bursts of change that would soon settle into another long stable stretch.
“Today, however, our lives are marked by almost continuous change, interrupted by brief islands of stability on which we try to stand and catch our breath before being swept back into the rapids.”
Ever feel like that? I know I sometimes do.
We’ve all experienced the rushing tide of change relentlessly pushing us forward, never quite giving us the chance to catch our breath before another wave crashes over our heads. If you’ve ever been in ocean surf and hit by a series of waves that keep you from getting your feet up under you, you know the panic that can create.
Like it or not, we live in a time when have to deal with change all around us, all the time. Many of us are not comfortable with this reality. Instead, we feel it as a disease in our bones. We sense it in our families. We face it in our society. We wrestle with it in our churches.
This is not a new insight. Many of us have been spending a great deal of pastoral time and energy responding to the anxiety change creates in our congregations for a long time. It often gets expressed as a longing for “the good old days.” But if you dig deeper, you discover it’s more likely a longing for stability.
We can get a better grip on how to help our churches move through change if we understand that there are two different kinds of challenges most congregations face, each of which requires a different approach: technical challenges and adaptive challenges.
A technical challenge is a problem for which there is a known solution. It may not be easy or quick, but there is a known way to deal with the issue. An example of a technical challenge is when the church furnace goes out 20 minutes before the first service on a December morning. While it may not be easy to fix the furnace in time to get the sanctuary warm before worship starts, at least we know what to do (or maybe, in this case, who to call).
An adaptive challenge, however, presents us with a problem for which there is no known solution. An example of an adaptive challenge is when a once vital church declines in numbers, energy, and commitment to the point where at least a few people are wondering if the church ought to close. There is no sure solution for such a daunting challenge.
A friend of mine has pictured the difference between technical change and adaptive changes by saying that technical change is like breaking your leg, while adaptive change is like losing your leg. When you break your leg, a doctor can put it in a cast or – in a worse case – put the bones back together with plates and screws. You can “fix” the problem with time and effort. But when you lose your leg, your whole life changes. You have to make deep adaptations that challenge your understanding of yourself and how you will relate to the world. This is far more difficult and painful work.
One of the most common mistakes we make in dealing with these two types of challenges is to try to address an adaptive challenge with a technical solution. When faced with a declining children’s program, we change curriculum rather than exploring the pressures on the lives of our younger families that make it harder for them to get their children to church regularly. When the number of people in the pews in worship start to decline, we change pastors rather than looking at the changes in American culture that lead fewer people to think of church as a priority.
Healthy churches will learn to address adaptive challenges by seeking to understand the shifts occurring in the culture around them, opening themselves to the leading of the Spirit as they “dream new dreams” about how to be church in this new cultural landscape, and trusting in God as the source of their stability rather than in continuing to “do things the way we’ve always done them.”
As the great soul singer Sam Cooke once crooned, “A change is gonna come.” It will help if you know which kind of change it is.
Jim Kitchens is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute.