2014 NEXT Church conference kicks off by promoting questions and adaptive change

MINNEAPOLIS – “We stand in the rubble of the mainline church” – that’s how Jim Kitchens, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister and church consultant, assesses life in mainline Christianity these days.

But also: “We don’t have to be scared because we don’t quite know what to do.”

Kitchens and Deborah Wright, also a PC(USA) minister, are partners in PneuMatrix – a consulting group in northern California that works with congregations, mid- councils and others seeking change in the church. They spoke together on the first day of the NEXT Church national gathering, which runs March 31 through April 2 and has drawn about 400 church leaders to Minneapolis.

Here’s a taste of the points they made:

Adaptive change is significant and big; not tweaking what’s already there, but more like how you figure out “what works best when you lose a leg,” Wright said. If in a time of adaptive change someone comes in with a program of what to do, “send them out the door. It’s about not knowing” – that’s part of the process.

Best practices can be useful for smaller, technical changes, Kitchens said. But they are the nemesis for adaptive change, because they tell you what works in a church which no longer exists.

Opening worship at Westminster church in Minneapolis
Opening worship at Westminster church in Minneapolis

Positive deviants. Look for the “positive deviants”  – the folks intentionally doing something different, something that works. They’re often on the fringe of presbyteries, Wright said, or out in the community. “Their focus is on the work of the kingdom of God,” on building disciples, not on constructing buildings.

Great ideas can come from folks in the pews, from those outside organized religion, from the community itself. “Let’s start hanging out with folks on the fringe,” Wright said.

Ask questions. Such as, what are the sacred cows in churches (such as property, membership, worship at a particular time on Sunday mornings)? What are the distractions (such as votes, arguments, technology)? What are the dinosaurs? (“The early service that’s nearly identical to the 11 but with 1/4 attendance,” one woman tweeted.)

Failure. Only about 1 in 100 of the restaurants which opens in San Francisco succeeds, Wright said. The Presbyterian culture often views failure as negative – which inhibits risk-taking. We need to incubate an environment where risk-taking is welcomed, Wright suggested. “If we can’t learn from failure, we will never succeed.”