Church — An Adaptable Community

Church communities live with the tension between operating current ministries with excellence and the need to keep adapting those ministries to meet and survive future challenges. For forty years I have observed this tension play out as ministry trends come and go and churches struggle to find their bearings in the midst of this change. Discerning leaders help churches weather these challenges well, but sometimes leaders fail to recognize what is happening and churches slowly die or break apart.

I discovered recently that of the original Forbes 100 companies identified in 1917 only 13 have remained as independent entities. But among these only General Electric has performed with excellence relative to its peers. This is a very sobering statistic. The churches that now are identified as Fellowship Baptists emerged as a distinctive group in British Columbia in 1927. There were 16 churches in that original group, as best as I can determine. Of those churches perhaps half still continue to minister in some form. Perhaps one or two continue to do so with excellence. Of course this is a rough estimate, but it does serve to indicate that churches struggle both to minister effectively today and also to figure out how to adapt to tomorrow.

Three essential dynamics probably contribute to this situation. First, a strong focus on good execution of ministry plans often limits the ability of a church to adapt. The leadership concentrates upon and is committed to working the plan, and in the process they unwittingly become resistant to necessary adaptive change. The church needs to learn how to be ambidexterous, executing current plans well, but constantly innovating. It is tough to be do both well. The result is that some churches sustain good ministry for a certain time, but then begin to diminish because they fail to innovate. In the business world (recognizing that there are significant differences) some studies show that less that 1% of companies are able to maintain top performance over a fifty year period. My experience would suggest that this is probably similar in the case of churches.

A second dynamic is that churches tend to work with a bias towards overoptimism. We invest heavily in developing and executing current plans, with the result that we come to believe that they will always deliver the results we desire. Change becomes less urgent because we believe that the current plan will accomplish everything necessary. And so we become ‘set in our ways’ of ministry. Our models of ministry become rigid and we resist adaptation. Inertia exercises immense influence, often to our detriment.

The third dynamic relates to “complexity catastrophe.” The longer an organization exists and the larger it gets, the more complex it becomes. Various segments of the organization become interdependent. To change one aspect means changing the others and so conficts emerge. Positive change becomes more and more difficult to implement. Gridlock occurs and at some point, whether because of some external change or internal conflict, catastrophe envelopes the organization. Perhaps we see this being played out with entities such as General Motors today. Now most churches are not large. However, our communities, once they grow beyond two hundred people and are working with multiple staff, do become complex. As size and complexity increase, we spend more energy enabling the organization to operate well and this in turn limits our ability to adapt.

To respond to these challenges, church leaders should consider ways to reduce hierarchy, empower people to act, and stimulate diversity, in other words to build the church’s capacity to be responsive by the way it works as a community. Some leaders believe that the only way to get things done is to operate with a hierarchical structure. However, it is quite possible to work with shared purpose, high levels of trust, and impressive productivity within flat organizational relationships. High accountability is possible with low oversight. Empowering people to lead and act motivates them to achieve beyond expectations, but this does not mean accountability is diminished or absent. Perhaps we need to believe that “good ideas can come from anywhere,” not just from the lead pastor or the ministry staff.

Where in your church community are you enabling and encouraging the creation of ministry experiments that enable you to evaluate growth opportunities? We need to be willing to fail in small experiments so that we learn how to succeed in the big things. I know that Revelation 2-3 tell us that churches grow or fail for various reasons and that foundational to it all is the spiritual condition of the people. However, spirituality includes a wisdom to discern how to adapt and keep our ministries vital and responsive to changing conditions.