Adaptive Versus Technical Challenges in Scripture

How two accounts from Acts relate to change in the church today

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Graphic that has a cartoon lady using a laptop. Text reads Adaptive versus technical challenges and Faith Lead Luther Seminary.

Bible study is one of our primary means to understanding the themes that crop up in ministry, so as Faith+Lead begins a month of paying close attention to the theme “Adaptive Versus Technical Challenges,” we offer this way to connect with God through Scripture for a church leader’s personal or congregational use: 

Read Acts 6:1-6 and Acts 15:1-21

Would that the concerns we face in the church today were as “simple” as the one laid out in the reading from Acts 6. A complaint is lodged, a meeting is held, and a simple, elegant solution is hammered out. The apostles continue their work of sharing the good news, and the Hellenists’ widows are treated justly and compassionately.

This is a fine scriptural example of what is known as “technical change.” Loosely defined, if a problem is technical it is one that can be clearly defined and resolved fairly simply, if not quickly. Many congregational leaders accomplished great feats of technical change in March of 2020 as worship services were moved from in person to online, in many cases quite literally overnight. The problem was clear: how to create a way for our faith communities to gather when meeting in person was no longer an option. The solutions ranged from simple pre-recorded devotions to complex multi-camera live streamed services and everything in between. However exhausting those challenges were at the time, the problem and the solution were clearly defined.

Question for reflection:

  • What do you think of the solution in Acts 6? Are there other ways the apostles could have resolved this conflict?

If you have been active in congregational leadership, whether as a rostered or lay leader, you know that not all the issues we face are so simple to resolve. We have moved from Acts 6 territory to Acts 15 territory.

We are now in a space that Susan Beaumont in her excellent book, “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going,” has described as “liminal time.” Liminal time is that disorienting space when the past as you knew it is no longer available to you, while the future has not yet taken shape. It is “threshold time,” time when you are neither here nor there.

This is where the apostles no doubt found themselves as they created a new body of believers around the Risen Christ. Acts 15—which, in a way, contains the meeting minutes from the Council at Jerusalem—gives us a glimpse at how Paul, Barnabas, and the other apostles and elders debated the proper way to include Gentile converts. This was no technical fix; the answer was not obvious, and in fact, many possible right answers (and wrong, too, I suppose) were available to them. Simply creating a committee, as was the case with the feeding of the Hellenist widows, wasn’t going to cut it. They needed to step back and consider that the world they were moving into was different from the one they had experienced thus far.

This is the space where many of our congregations are finding themselves. Worship trends across denominations indicate that people have not returned to pre-pandemic practices. The ongoing concerns around the pandemic have congregations attempting to adapt to a world that is still taking shape. Congregational leaders are navigating how to address racial injustice, climate change, and other global concerns, in a time when options for face-to-face conversations and dialogue are limited. All of this is happening at a time when we are weary and concerned about the future of our congregations, perhaps even the Church itself. We are, in a sense, in Acts 16 territory now.

Read Acts 16:6-15.

For two years, the congregation I serve participated in an experience called “Reimagining Church.” The scripture we studied throughout most of this process was Acts 16:6-15, which relates Paul and company’s meandering journey that led them to Lydia. Every session, and I do mean every session, we read through this passage, whether we were meeting with all the congregations in the process or with our own small group. When we started, we grumped a bit about the repetition. After a few months, however, we noticed something: every time the passage was read and discussed, new details, tidbits, and insights were revealed. Every time. Sometimes two of us would latch on to the same detail. At other times a thread we’d noted previously would resurface in a new way.

I share this story to both encourage you to consider choosing a guiding passage to focus on in your liminal time, but also as a caveat that what I am about point out is by no means the only faithful nugget of truth you can mine from this passage.

Paul and his traveling companions set out with a clear mission: to spread the gospel to whomever would receive it. This larger vision carried them through the setbacks, Spirit-roadblocks, and the inevitable travel mishaps that weren’t included in the narrative. It wasn’t sticking to one method of evangelism that kept them moving: we must do it this way, in this order, in this place. It was following the Spirit’s lead (and occasional “no”) to get to the place God needed them to be.

How did they keep going? They kept their focus on what they had set out to do, and they listened to the Spirit’s promptings along the way. When the Spirit said, “Wrong way” they didn’t sulk, give up, or ignore the warning and forge ahead anyway. They adjusted their travel plans and went by another route. When the Spirit sent a vision, they listened and went where the vision suggested. At the same time, they were open-minded enough to ultimately share the gospel message with a group of women, despite the fact that said vision had been of a man pleading for help.

As we navigate this in-between time, as the world moves from mid-pandemic to late-pandemic to, God-willing, post-pandemic, our path may well look like that of Paul and his traveling companions: meandering, frustrating at times, and taking us places we never expected to go. We would do well to also focus our attention on our ultimate goal: not what was, not even perhaps what we hope may be, but what we believe God wants us to accomplish.

For example:

With worship, our ultimate end is to create a space for people to connect with their Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier in deep and meaningful ways. How do we accomplish this in the world as it is today?

With education, our ultimate end is to lead children and adults into deeper relationship with God and with each other. How do we create spaces and experiences where that can happen, in the world as it is today?

With our work in our communities, our ultimate end is to heal the deep wounds in our society, be they hunger, racial injustice, or political divisions that feel too deep to bridge. How do we accomplish those ends in the world as it is today?

The pandemic has pushed many congregations and organizations into a liminal space. The year of shutdowns and limitations on in-person congregational activities has changed how many of our members are approaching their involvement in their faith community. We have a sneaking suspicion that just going back to how things were likely isn’t going to work. And yet, we have no idea what the future will hold. Many of us have been holding our breath over the summer months, assuming attendance and participation will return to more “normal” levels come fall. What if they don’t, however? Ah, what then?

This foggy, uncertain time, as disorienting as it feels, is the time when an openness to exploring the adaptive changes needed can be very helpful, even necessary. We, like Paul and his companions, may find ourselves running headlong down what feels like the right path, only to have the Spirit say, “Not here, not yet.” This is to be expected, as difficult and challenging as it may be to experience.

Even so, taking a step back, or perhaps several steps back, to reflect on the vision and mission of the organizations of which we are a part, is essential to discerning the path forward. No longer will it be enough to just hire a new staff member or call a new pastor and pray they will bring people in—that’s a technical fix for an adaptive problem. Now, our call is to embrace the opportunities this liminal time has given us: a chance to give thanks to God for the past, and to shape a new future, a new way of being God’s people in the world.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What is the greatest challenge your congregation or organization is facing today? What technical fixes have you tried so far to address this challenge?
  2. Look at your congregation or organization’s mission and/or vision statement. How can these guiding principles help you navigate your path forward?
  3. Have you ever encountered what feels like a “no” from the Holy Spirit? What did that feel like? How did you respond? 

  • Jennifer Christenson

    Jen Christenson is an ELCA pastor serving in the East-Central Synod of Wisconsin. She has served at Christus Lutheran Church in Greenville, WI for nearly nine years. Jen has a BA in International Relations from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MDiv from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Jen enjoys reading, knitting, music, and spending time with her spouse, two children, and pets.

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