Canoeing the mountains

11/6/2017

GROWING IN GRACE
BEN GOSDEN


In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson explore a new territory America had just purchased from the French (known as the Louisiana Purchase) to find a trade route via the Pacific Ocean.

At this point, no one had dared to go west of the Mississippi, so Lewis and Clark set out with their expedition party, known as the Corps of Discovery, and canoes to paddle their way to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark were exceptional scientists and explorers. And they carried with them the best supplies and knowledge American had to offer. Their President (the author of the Declaration of Independence, no less) had placed his faith in them. What did they have to lose?

It turns out they had a lot to lose. You see, no one had been west of the Mississippi and the assumption was the rivers were tributaries that eventually led to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark brought canoes for their journey — it was the mode of transportation that made the most sense. Only they had no idea that instead of the Pacific Ocean, it was the Rocky Mountains that awaited them on the other side of the river bend.

Dr. Tod Bolsinger uses this historic journey as the backdrop of his leadership book, “Canoeing the Mountains.” I’m an avid reader, and this one has made its way into my holy canon of leadership books. Rarely has there been a book so honest and appropriate for the shifting sands we now find ourselves in as the 21st Century Church of Jesus Christ. In my next few columns, I want to offer you some thoughts on where we are and where God might be calling us, all of us, next as the Church.

We must recognize that we’re staring at mountains and all we have are the canoes that brought us this far.

Bolsinger notes that we have five vital lessons to learn: 1) The world in front of us is nothing like the world behind us; 2) Trust is essential if people are to follow you into unfamiliar territory; 3) We must learn to be adaptable; 4) Not everyone will want to go with us into this unchartered season of ministry, and that’s not all bad; and 5) Transformation is the end game.

The first lesson is my focus for this column. It’s a very difficult thing to admit that we’ve largely been equipped for ministry in a world that no longer exists. For example, people no longer move to our communities with the task of finding a church at the top of their priority list. People don’t automatically leave one church for another church. People don’t gear their weekly rhythms around the idea that Sunday is reserved for worship, much less the other two to three evenings per week we want people to come to our buildings for activities. These are all assumptions from a world that is no longer in existence. We can pine all day for that world to come back. We can wring our hands or express our frustration by judging this world as “doomed for hell in a hand basket.” Or, we can get over ourselves and ask the fundamental question Christians have been asking for 2,000 years — Where is God at work next and how can we join in?

Easier said than done, right? Psychologist Edward Friedman writes, “Stuck systems cannot become unstuck by simply trying harder.” Maybe we begin the process of adapting to become the church in a new world by rediscovering our sense of adventure? For Lewis and Clark, it was the recognition that they were not just staring at the absence of water, the very thing they were prepared to discover. It was the discovery of a new route, one they were not prepared for but one that beckoned them forward, that drove them to continue their journey. In other words, they found a sense of adventure in the discovery of that which was unknown and unfamiliar.

Adapt or die — that’s the choice we now face as the church. While it is true that “the church is of God and will last until the end of time,” there is no guarantee for our local churches…for our annual conference…or for The United Methodist Church. We all must learn to adapt to do ministry in new ways for a new world. And, if we don’t, we will die. Plain and simple.

Now it’s your turn: How is your church finding ways to be faithful in a new and unfamiliar world? How are you finding a sense of adventure as you discover new ways to do ministry? I’d love for you to email me directly (ben@trinity1848.org) with wisdom you’ve gained through this process of reorientation in this new and exciting world.

Next column: “Building Trust and Learning to Be Adaptable.”

The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at ben@trinity1848.org.