Stop having Church Experts at Churchy Conferences

draw-a-churchChurch experts are nice, but if a church or denomination wants to address the really big issues of our time, we need to have fewer Church Experts speaking and have more time engaging with other non-profits or areas of life that have adapted to the changing times.

What kind of change are you looking for?

One of the buzzwords for churches these days is adaptive change. You’ve seen it in church leadership magazines and perhaps spoken by regional or denominational leaders.  It’s a word that is most often compared with “technical” change, which is more familiar. Here’s the difference between technical change and adaptive change:

Technical change involves people putting in place solutions to problems for which they know the answers. While this can be difficult, it is not as difficult as adaptive change, which involves addressing problems for which they don’t yet know the solutions. Adaptive change involves changing more than routine behaviors or preferences; it involves changes in people’s hearts and minds.

Most Christian conferences involve technical change as they seek to spread best practices and they bring in their Christian experts in the field. Let me know if this looks like any conference you’ve been to:

  • If you go to a preaching conference where you learn to give a better sermon from preaching experts, you are learning technical change.
  • If you go to an evangelism conference where you learn techniques to spread the gospel from practitioners, you are learning technical change.
  • If you go to learn how to overhaul a church organization from organizational geeks like Gil Rendle, you are learning technical change.

There’s a problem then with these above types of change: they are known solutions to known problems. If you know your preaching sucks, there’s theories and processes and resources for you.

But what if the problem is unknown and the solution is unknown but you know something needs to be done? How to reach Millennials? How to reverse decline? How to be the Church without a building? What kind of change do you need to unknown solutions?

You need adaptive change:

Adaptive [change] is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge.

Adaptive change is needed

I recently went to a conference where there was a stark juxtaposition between technical and adaptive change.

  1. One presenter was a denominational leader who spoke about reaching new people by better sermon series, connecting with the community, and making disciples in XYZ ways. Our conference then talked about how to implement our learnings in our local contexts.
  2. The other presenter was a secular non-profit director who spoke about how her organization articulated their principles, lived them out, and evaluated them. Out conference then talked about how to implement our learnings in our local contexts.

Now you know the difference between technical and adaptive change, you can see the difference in the above. For the #1 presenter, she was advocating technical change by offering known solutions (to her region of Christendom, at least) that had addressed known problems. For the #2 presenter, she was embodying adaptive change by presenting how her organization used known techniques to address known problems, and the burden was on the audience to adapt their method or inspiration to their contexts.

Here’s why this process of adaptive change is important from one practitioner:

Adaptive challenges happen when we ask people to adopt new beliefs, when we hope people will pursue better values, or when we help people see that the ways that they have been doing things in the past will not work for them. Well, that’s the job description for ministry…You cannot use technical means to reach adaptive ends. In other words, the techniques that we all learned for solving technical problems will not work if we want to change people’s beliefs, their values, or the ways that they always do things.

If we are doing adaptive change, we need to see what it looks like outside the church and then adapt it FOR the church. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach from the inside, we adapt it from the outside using the best voices and insights of our own unique context.

We cannot pray the prayer of Jabez to get out of our problems. We cannot all do the best Beth Moore Bible Studies or do what the flashy megachurch is doing. We cannot take an attractional model of church from West Ohio and expect it to work missionally in Oregon. Such solutions are not engaged with the context: they are imposed on it.

But we can see how other folks in our contexts have done adaptive change and pray to the Spirit that in that learning we receive some inspiration for our own situation–along with the courage to act on it.

Matching Change with Purpose

Two things. First, I’m absolutely not discrediting church experts. They’ve gone through a lot and often have an incredible amount of knowledge to pass on. Technical change is great to learn from them. My post asks “when the solutions are unknown, is the Socratic Method of plenaries and listening the best way to go?”

Second thing is that conference evaluations often don’t reflect this distinction. There are people that go to Christian conferences and get plenty of technical change know-how and they feel like they got something worthwhile. Those same people may go to a Christian conference with plenty of adaptive change examples and depictions and not feel like they had anything “to take home.” 

If you are a church or denominational leader that sends people to conferences (or plans them yourself), consider asking two questions:

  1. Is this conference about technical or adaptive change? If both, are they in the appropriate arenas (conversations v. plenaries)?
  2. Am I sending (or inviting) the right kind of people to it? Who are the ones looking for technical resources and who are able to handle sitting with an adaptive challenge?

My hope is that fewer Christian conferences bring in church experts to talk about how they technically dealt with problems and more Christian conferences bring in outside (but connected) experts or practitioners to talk about how they dealt with problems so that the Church can listen more to the Spirit as how to live out similar success in their local areas.


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  1. Cesie says

    Preach it, brother Jeremy! In my line, churches want to know about which stewardship packages work. Well – nothing will work if you haven’t done the hard work of adaptive change and understand who you are and why you exist. There’s no “program” for that.

  2. Martha says

    Are there examples of organizations, particularly religious, that have succeeded in adaptive change? On a large scale? How can adaptive change be observed from an organizational perspective? Who are the adaptive change gurus?

  3. Wesley White says

    Intentional interim ministry specialissts do adaptive change. This is not fill-in interim work, but trained intentional interim ministry specialists. It would be wonderful if this were a required training after 5 years of pastoral experience (it takes some time (and willingness to reflect) to provide an adequate experience base that can make use of the training.

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