Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory

Canoeingby Tod Bolsinger
IVP Books, Downers Grove, Ill. 250 pages
Reviewed by Matt Merrill

Church ministry in the future will not be like church ministry in the past. After 1700 years, Christianity is no longer the dominant worldview in the Western world. The days ahead will be dramatically different than those behind us and will require new skills for those of us who are called to lead. In “Canoeing the Mountains,” Tod Bolsinger gives us a guidebook to help lead our congregations into this new landscape.

Beginning in May 1804, Lewis and Clark set off with the Corps of Discovery to find where the Missouri River met the Pacific Ocean. After months of paddling canoes up the river, they finally came to the headwaters of the Missouri. As they looked over a nearby bluff, they didn’t see the Pacific Ocean. Instead they gazed at the majesty of the Rocky Mountains.

Their Corps knew how to canoe, but those skills would not be of much use moving forward. To continue in their quest, they would need different skills for the terrain ahead. Bolsinger makes great use of the Lewis and Clark metaphor throughout the book. Indeed, it is the perfect metaphor for where American churches find themselves today. We cannot simply preach more, sing louder or try harder. The landscape has changed. We can either mourn the changing times or we can choose to learn a new way of being Christ’s church.

We need to learn to go beyond where our old maps end. For Bolsinger, this does not mean throwing out our Reformed theology. What it does mean is that how we live out our theology needs dramatic change — much like the Corps of Discovery putting down their canoes and learning to mountaineer. In the leadership world, this type of adjustment is called adaptive change. Different than technical change (in which you might change the style of music), adaptive change will end up transforming everyone involved. If we are going to be Jesus’ agents for God’s mission in this rapidly changing world, we are going to have to open ourselves up to this level of change.

Bolsinger   writes   from   experience. He has served the Hollywood Presbyterian Church as an associate pastor and San Clemente Presbyterian as senior pastor. Additionally, he has worked with dozens of congregations as a consultant. He has the dirt of adaptive change under his fingernails, and his experience in our denomination makes this book a unique gift for congregational leaders in the PC(USA).

Unlike   leadership   books   from the business world, “Canoeing the Mountains” is written by a churchman for church people. He understands the unique pressures and complexity of relationships that exist in a local church. Instead of giving a “one-size- fits-all” solution, Bolsinger provides guiding principles for doing church in this new era.

The book begins with a good review of why things are different in culture today. Next, he describes the skills that many pastors have today, especially those that will translate for tomorrow. Then, he begins to describe how to lead “off the map” with some good warnings about the perils ahead. Finally, he describes how and why we will end up being transformed in the process of adaptive change.   The book left me hopeful and eager for the adventure ahead.

MATT MERRILL is the senior pastor of little falls Presbyterian Church in arlington, virginia, where he lives with his wife and five children.