Just Barely Too Competent For Our Own Good

David Brown, Pinnacle Associate

For the past several years, I have been telling leaders in our church that we are just barely too competent for our own good.

What I mean is this: we are very capable at sustaining programmatic ministry that (even in our changing context) still meets the needs of an adequate number of people such that we have little motivation for adaptive change. Sunday School still meets the need of many people to create connections with other disciples and to learn and grow together. Wednesday night mission and choir activities for children still nurture enough of our little ones to be valuable to the life of the church. Youth ministry gatherings on Sunday afternoons still create enough space for adolescents to explore faith and have fun together. Talented people staff committees and lead programs that have served the church well for half a century or more.

The hidden reality, though, is that program-driven, age-segregated, attractional approaches to ministry are not the future of the church. They belong to its past. But we are just good enough at them and they meet just enough needs among our people, that we have little incentive to imagine and explore how the Spirit might be inviting us forward into new ways of being church in our changing world. Without motivation to pursue adaptive change, we continue doing what we know best in ways that are increasingly less effective. Sometimes competence stifles innovation.

We are just barely too competent for our own good.

What would happen if some of the disciple-leaders in our churches began asking: Where is the Spirit of God at work in our world? Can we pro-actively join in God’s redemption and transformation project? How do we faithfully innovate in the midst of rapidly-changing contexts, while remaining grounded in the depths of our received traditions? These questions signal the beginnings of Holy Experimentation, one of the more helpful and faithful responses to the rapid cultural change around us.

Holy Experiments provide opportunities for God’s people to discover and to join God’s mission in the world.

Holy Experiments often occur at the intersection of our changing context and our rich traditions, as the Holy Spirit helps us to discern where and how God is working in our context. Some individual disciples and some churches begin Holy Experimenting unintentionally, while others develop intentional efforts to cultivate experimentation. Making forays out of the sanctuary and into the world, they seek new ways to live out their faith in the texture of real life.

•A retired physician sees the gaps in medical care that provide significant challenges for the working poor, so he builds support across faith communities to begin a free clinic.

•A youth minister discovers that more significant conversations about faith occur when doing manual labor alongside teenagers than during youth ministry programs, so he births a lawn care enterprise anchored in mentoring and disciple-building practices.
•The English as Second Language ministry offered at a church fosters relationships between workers and students that go much deeper than teaching and learning English. As the disciples who lead the classes learn more about the world of their students, they are compelled to meet the broader challenges of immigrants in their community.

For some of us who are still barely too competent for our own good, it is difficult to let go of cherished ways of being and doing church. Old programs die hard! Instead, we have to create enough space around the edges of what we have done well for many years that individuals and groups of disciples might begin to explore what God has next for us. Holy Experiments often bubble up alongside and out of our existing programs and rich traditions, and through them we catch a glimpse of God’s new work in our midst.

A whole church need not be on board with Holy Experimentation all at once. Perhaps just a few leaders, or a disciple or two, might begin to sense the nudge of God’s Spirit or catch a glimpse of God’s movement. Within a given church, maybe just a handful of people are ready to ask the difficult questions or to invest their time and resources in emerging areas of ministry. And a handful of people, devoted to following Jesus and exploring anew what that looks like in their context, just might be enough to push us beyond our competence… for our own good and for the good of God’s unfolding work in the world!

NOTE: David Brown is offering clergy cohort groups this Fall that will explore the concept of Holy Experiments through a monthly in-person meeting. Each meeting will consist of a didactic (teaching and learning) component, followed by a group coaching component. Each participant will be encouraged to develop and/or initiate a Holy Experiment in their own ministry context. For more information or to sign up, see the Pinnacle events page or contact David directly at davidb@pinnlead.com.