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From a technical to an adaptive approach

Over the past few weeks, my thoughts and reading have been around the concept of liminality: the gap between what was and what is to come. A good description of liminality is the space between two trapeze wires; having let go of the first, you are reaching for the second, but at this moment, you are in the space of holding onto nothing. This gap is what is known as ‘liminality’.

Arguably, we are in a period of liminality within the church in the West. What was before is no longer bearing the same fruit; the world is transitioning, yet the future is still far from certain, so we don’t quite know what to plan for. There have been many references to this period being a time of change; however, I am not sure this terminology is always helpful. Change tends to define the arrival of something new coupled with something coming to an end. Whilst I agree that a letting go of ‘what was’ is necessary, and some of the things we have previously done as the church has ended, I am not sure we can accurately predict the future. We have some glimpses, but nothing is altogether clear. This makes things like strategy, targets, and goals very difficult to set. In this time of transition, we may find that the anxiety levels in our faith communities increase; people can become polarised between those who want to progress to the ‘new’ and those who wish to return to the old. Leaders will become overloaded, and motivation will probably decline.

Navigating this time is, and will continue to be, challenging. Those leading will be tempted to devise technical solutions to fix the problems, for example, how to restructure the church with fewer volunteers. How to maintain and grow a level of giving. How to meet the goals and targets of the institution/funders. How to deal with the need on our doorstep, how to grow followers, how to reach out to our community; the list could go on.

Whilst these are all excellent questions, I cannot help but wonder if instead of trying to find technical solutions to every challenge we face, we’d be better modelling an adaptive approach, which is helpfully described by some as ‘living with the questions.’ It will require each of us to exercise enormous levels of humility and vulnerability, but the upside is a new culture of inter-relatedness will appear. A culture where hierarchies fade, fellowship grows, and things like spontaneity, creativity, compassion, and daring will emerge in places we least expect. It will involve creating a culture where permission to fail is allowed, indeed encouraged, where we keep a light touch on ministries so that we may be able to pivot in light of what we see the Holy Spirit doing, discovering (or rediscovering) as we do, what God is up to.

So, how might we make this shift? Susan Beaumont, in her book ‘How to lead when you don’t know where you are going’ offers three helpful transitions which I have attempted to paraphrase:

  • From knowing to unknowing: becoming suspicious of our own thinking; allowing the Holy Spirit the room to interrupt, sometimes through others, and being willing to say that ‘I just don’t know’ and instead listening in community.

  • From advocating to attending: Stop trying to come up with ideas and solutions all the time, and instead be open to God in the here and now, fully awake to all the potential around by listening carefully and partnering with others.

  • From striving to surrender: Making efforts to achieve something is admired in our culture; the problem is we frequently place ourselves in the middle of the equation. Surrender instead opens us to the realities of our situation and then make the best of it; we may not be the best people to run specific ministries, and we should be ok with that.

My sense for the coming year is that it will be a time of sifting and sorting for many, including myself. A journey of self-awareness when we will need to unlearn and relearn both who we are and whose we are. A voyage that will see us address matters surrounding our ego, where our insecurities, feelings of inferiority and need for approval are tackled so that we cease to be service providers and instead rediscover the authenticity of servanthood. Where we stop trying to find technical answers to every challenge, in its place, focus on adaptability led by a focus and trust in our Lord and Saviour Jesus. As we alter and adjust what we do, let’s keep listening to the Spirit, be attentive to the shifts in culture and context, and discern how we might live as incarnational guests.

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. [Psalm 139:23-24]

Simon Mattholie

CEO, Rural Ministries


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