The 21st Century Church’s Fourth Greatest Asset

Mark Tidsworth

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
-I Corinthians 13:13, NRSV

No, it’s not the greatest asset of the Church; only the fourth in the priority list. The greatest assets of the Church at any point in history are love as first priority (greatest), followed closely by faith and hope as second and third priority. But what comes next? What asset do churches need the most behind these enduring assets from I Corinthians?

For some churches, the 21st century doesn’t look so good. They are declining and will likely come to the end of their life cycle without a few miracles along the way. At the same time, there are others who are and shall flourish in this century, discovering authentic and robust ways to live out their collective faith. These are the churches whose fourth greatest asset is a specific capability needed for just this time and place in history: Adaptive Capacity.

Upon their foundation of love, faith, and hope, they are embracing the challenge of our times….change. These churches have moved through the denial, grief, debating, conflict, and apathy stages of letting go their 20th century paradigms. They are blown by Holy Spirit breath into this still-new century, discovering the life-giving energy and passion which rises up from adaptive capacity.

So, how do we know when a congregation is there? How do we know when adaptive capacity is our fourth greatest asset? The following descriptors will rise up in congregations who use their adaptive capacity to guide their collective faith expression (find more on these in Mark’s new book, Farming Church).
• Doesn’t waste time importing previously effective and culturally bound ministry activities (knocking on doors) into the present cultural context
• Church leadership encourages and rewards those who step outside their comfort zones, initiating holy experiments
• Regularly attempts faith steps which they believe are beyond their perceived native capacity, requiring actual faith and God-connection to achieve
• Able to engage substantive issues with respect and grace, listening deeply while talking honestly while remaining intact as a faith community
• Most of the church moves forward with change rather than leaving or threatening to do so
• They are unwilling to allow negative or toxic perspectives or behavior to derail their collective progress
• Most of the church trusts leadership when uncomfortable changes are recommended
• They are driven by a compelling aspirational vision for being church in their context
• The discomfort which comes along with adaptive change is recognized and accepted as a normal part of church life
• Excessive talk about the good old days decreases while focus on the present and future increases
• There is an environment of holy restlessness
• They are not driven by fear their institutional needs (budget, numbers, buildings) will overcome them
• Church is a high-urgency environment, knowing they are significant players in God’s kingdom’s actualization in their community
• Their leadership is convinced that church-as-we-have-known-it is no longer an acceptable alternative
• Their leaders accept the inevitable push back from change as a normal part of the leadership experience in a growing church
• They develop a culture of learning and curiosity, following the winds of the Spirit into greater awareness (as opposed to defensiveness, arrogant, resistant posture towards the world)
• They know themselves; including their DNA, signature strengths, weaknesses, and purpose
• Their leaders accept set-backs and mistakes as part of the growth process, rather than interpreting them as terminal experiences
• With dignity and respect, they discontinue programs and ministries which have reached the end of their life cycle

When these descriptors show up in our collective life as churches, then we know adaptive capacity is present. May we follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance into church-as-it-is-becoming for this time and place.