I had planned to write today’s blog on a new book written by John Flowers and Karen Vannoy entitled Adapt to Thrive. Life and death however have a way of intruding. The most recent tragedy at Fort Hood affects us deeply in the Central Texas Conference (as well as our nation) and even more so in the South District (which includes Fort Hood) which begs for our continuing prayers for all affected. Gary Lindley, New Church Start District Superintendent for the Central Texas Conference, and I have both been in conversation with Rev. Mark Hart, the new church start pastor for Genesis Fellowship UMC in Killeen. Mark is a retired veteran and his wife Rose is currently serving in the Army. She is the commander of Alpha Company. The shooting involved the Unit that she commanded. Rev. Lindley reports, “One of soldiers killed was in her unit. Rose had just finished talking to this young man who was killed. He left to go into the building. Rose was to follow to do a review, but she was delayed. As she made her way toward the building she heard the shots. The young man who was killed had just told Rose that he had 9 months to complete his tour. He leaves a wife and young children. When I spoke to Rose, she was returning to the base to care for her unit and to assist in providing support for her troops.” Please be in prayer for Mark and Rose Hart and all the soldiers at Fort Hood. Rose will be the one who will have to work with soldiers with PTSD and discharging them from the military.
Even as we lift up our prayers for those facing deep tragedy, we are ever reminded of our common need for the gospel of Jesus Christ and for vital congregations that share and live out the gospel under Christ’s Lordship. Our adaptive challenge remains fixed in front of us. “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” There are a significant number of new resources being produced to help us embrace the adaptive challenge of building vital congregations. April 20th will mark the publication of one such excellent addition to our resource library — Adapt to Thrive.
“Most local churches will either go extinct or adapt and thrive” (p. 127). This deep conviction undergirds the powerful challenge John Flowers and Karen Vannoy offer in their most recent book. (They have previously written 10 Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline and What To Do About It and Not Just a One-Night Stand: Ministry with the Homeless.) In Adapt to Thrive the authors take us beyond best practices into the world of adaptive transformation. Putting a sound theological and organizational foundation in place, they empower local churches (and their leaders) in practical ways to enter the desperately needed world of deep change. The sub-title catches the essence: How Your Church Must Identify Itself as a Unique Species, Modify Its Dysfuntional Behaviors, and Multiply Its Transformational Influence In Your Community.
There is much to like in this book and even more to learn. Without flinching they name the loss of focus and “mission drift” which currently cripples many churches. “It is not only the sin that lives in us that prevents us from fulfilling our purpose. It is also that we have forgotten who we belong to; we are as lost and confused as the people we would try to reach. Clergy and laity alike share the blame” (p. 16). The authors tie a larger church culture of mission drift with a unique understanding of each congregation’s own distinctive mission. The two are welded to a greater understanding of a commitment to be followers of Jesus and not just admirers of Jesus. From this platform they argue for ten central adaptations the church must make:
1. From scarcity to abundance
2. From entitlement to egalitarianism
3. Form somberness to playfulness
4. From limited access to trust
5. From ignoring the neighbors to embracing the neighbors
6. From predictability to freedom
7. From marginal members to deep disciples
8. From baby steps to giant leaps
9. From suspicion to grace
10. From a generic culture to a self-defined culture
We can argue about the various adaptations – are they the right ones? Is something left out?, etc. – in fact the authors invite our thoughtful debate. What the book does superbly well is engage us in practical applications that impact the mission field around us. I love their quote of Doug Anderson, “we need to move from a preference-driven church to a purpose-driven church” (p. 60). In adaptation #4 they challenge the notion that the building belongs to the members. Reading, I could not help but recall a fight in the first church I pastored over who got a key to the building. (I gave everyone a key who wanted one!) We needed this adaption to move from limited access to trust. Flowers and Vannoy write, “Limited-access churches lock gates, update alarm systems, put bars on windows, and even fences around the property. The fences don’t really keep anyone out, but they do communicate a message to the area. Limited-access churches maintain an old culture of mistrust” (p. 73). Ouch! There is a truth here that needs hearing! Take this simple insight from adaptation #5. “Embracing your neighbors is an attitude before it’s an action” (p. 79).
Perhaps the most intriguing and challenging adaptation is #7: “from marginal members to deep disciples.” There can be little doubt that such conviction is at the core of the Wesleyan movement in its unique expression of the Christian faith. The early “Methodists” were “methodical” (hence the name) in moving people from marginal adherence to deep discipleship. This is still at the very center core of today’s United Methodist Church. Our mission we say is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This section alone is worth the price of the book. Consider some of the insights:
- “We have trained them [church members] to a dysfunctional culture of very low expectations.” (p.88)
- “The movement from marginal membership to deep disciples will be necessary but not necessarily easy.” (p.89)
- “Elevate local church membership.” (p. 89)
- “Accountability is not achieved by shaming and blaming. It is achieved by telling the truth about high expectations.” (p. 90)
- “This path of adaptation means that we transcend our fears and anxieties in order to develop relationships outside our comfort zone.” (p. 92)
The welding of deep insight with practical application is the hallmark of this insightful book. Adapt to Thrive speaks deeply to churches trying to recover their missional identity. The writers present ten specific, concrete steps which move a congregation through the adaption process. Step-by-step, they offer guidance on engaging the mission field around us with the life-giving love of Christ. It is a joy to commend this book to congregations and congregational leaders who are hungering for new life in Christ!
In advocating this book, I make no plea that it has all the answers. I do plea that both lay and clergy leaders avail themselves of the excellent resources developed to enable us to meet the adaptive challenge. Amid our squabbles, this is really the way forward. Again the risen Christ stands at boundaries of modern living and commands, challenges, invites us to follow Him.