The Joy of Adaptation

To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak, I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might, by all means, save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9.21-23                 

The leadership of First Presbyterian Church has been having some good conversations about how we continue moving forward.  The fundamental question we are wrestling with is how best to continue our transformation into an essential congregation for Duluth in 2018 and beyond.  The tension and challenge centers around the rate we continue pushing toward transformation.  Much of the transformation that has occurred in the past two and a half years has been largely behind the scenes.  The financial stability of the congregation is in a radically different position than it was when I arrived for instance.  There have been adjustments to the form and movement of the worship service.  While those are probably the most obvious, any changes I have made hopefully happened at a rate as not to be jarring. 

Those are both examples of what the leadership world calls technical change.  Technical changes are relatively easy to enact but don’t fundamentally transform the system in which they happen, as such they can just as easily move the opposite direction.  Some of the technical changes since my arrival are things like renegotiating the contract with Essentia on the parking lot.  Minor tweaks in worship structure would also fall under technical change such as singing two hymns then prayer of confession as opposed to singing three hymns before a prayer.  Obviously, these are by no means radical changes.

The more important work is yet to come.  We need to begin working toward adaptive change.  For all practical purposes, the current ministry at First Presbyterian Church is not doing much different than we did in 2008, 1998, or 1988.  In 1988 I was six years old.  There were three news networks which were in the vast majority of American households every night at 5:30 pm.  In my home, CBS was the only channel which was reliable so Dan Rather joined our home each evening as my mom was finishing up cooking supper.  My son Jackson is the same age as I was in 1988 and it is truly jarring to think about the how different the world is today.  We don’t have news on each night and I turn off the radio when he gets into my car because frankly, I don’t want to expose him to the world as it is today.  I never told my dad to put his phone down at dinner because he was engrossed in scrolling a Facebook feed. 

One of the major dogmas of a technical change, model is the belief that if we just do what we are doing “better” that will fix our problems.  If we can find a better preacher, better musician, or better marketing person, if we can find better bible study leaders or better bible study material, this will solve our issues.  The problem is that for a long time that approach actually worked.  Folks went to church and would go to the one with the best youth group or best choir or best coffee and conversation treats.  All congregations were effectively “competing” on a level field.

There is no longer one field.  There are now rinks, mats, gym floors, and turf to contend with.  The transformation of our congregation must be adaptive.  Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever but that is Christ, not the church.  The gospel must always be translated into the culture in which we are called to ministry within.  Culture is never static and so neither can be the Church.  If we are living we are constantly changing.  This congregation has a deep and rich history which has set us up well for adaptivity.  We are a congregation which has a 149-year history of adapting our proclamation of the gospel for changing times.  Our congregation has witnessed the inventions of the light bulb, the telephone, the radio, it was 34 years old for the first powered human flight, it watched the electrification of America, two world wars, the invention of the Television, the internet, Amazon.com, YouTube, and Facebook.  As our 150th year of ministry approaches, we have the opportunity to carefully study the way our congregation made adaptive change in previous generations and think clearly about the adaptations we need to make for sake of the Gospel going forward.  I, for one, am excited for the challenge!

In Christ’s Service,

Pastor Jeremiah