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  • Writer's pictureAlice J Stewart

Change & Adaptation

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

Main Idea: Unpacking Concepts


Change happens. I think we can all agree on that. Like death and taxes, it's inevitable. A "system" may change in response to an environmental change. That's also something we can all agree on. However, change gets complicated when everything is changing all the time, sparking change in every system.

For example, my dog Sally had to have her leg amputated. That was a change for her. Her environment changed, so her system responded by adapting. Some of her muscles got stronger while others withered. Over the years, she's developed a bit of a twist in her spine. But at almost 18 years old, we must say that she's "won" at the change game. She's adapted. Not all dogs could have done this, but Sally did.

Likewise, over the last few decades we've seen businesses (nonprofit and for-profit) adapt to a changing environment. For good or for ill, these organizations have become increasingly efficient in their use of finite and changing supplies of personnel, delivery times, and even office space - just to name a few. These adaptations have themselves sparked changes in the economic environment. The businesses that have increased their efficiencies in an adaptation to the socio-economic environment, have "won." They've adapted to environmental changes and are still in business. Not all businesses could do this, and many have faded away.

There are other organizations that are slower to adapt to a changing environment. Institutional organizations like political systems, education, banking, and perhaps mainline churches are always going to be slow to change. The problem, historically, is that quickly changing institutions tend to be unstable. And institutions that change too slowly in a quickly changing environment tend to collapse.

While we're changing as fast as we can and WAY faster than we want to, we're also changing slower than we need to. We have a double-whammy of declining membership and aging congregations. Another double-whammy of fixed incomes for our parishioners and increasing costs of doing business. And yet another double-whammy of face-to-face community in a fixed location combined with an increasing population who live online with limited social skills. That's three double-whammies. And there are more. Lots more.

The problem is not that mainline churches can't change. The problem is that we want to make sure we don't change ourselves out of existence. Not all systems can adapt and still maintain their original purpose and being. The locally-owned store downtown that we all remember and still grieve, could almost never adapt and retain its original purpose and being while still turning a reasonable profit. And we've all heard of our brothers and sisters in other mainline churches trying their hand at things the mega-churches do... and most of us shudder at the thought. Why? Because we feel like there's something about our original purpose and being in mainline churches that will be lost.

Our environment is forcing us to change. How do we maintain our original purpose and being as we adapt? This isn't a new question and we won't be finished answering it for a long time. But thinking about it in terms of adapting to our environment can be helpful.

Focusing on environmental adaptation keeps us out of victim-thinking. It keeps us from pity parties. It keeps us from blaming "kids these days." And it allows us to zero in on what we absolutely need for survival, and what can be grieved but let go.

Our small congregations are aging and younger people aren't replacing us. Let's think of this as an environmental problem. Let's adapt. We don't have to abandon our purpose and being.

Our small congregations have expenses they struggle to pay now and cannot pay in the future. Let's think of this as an environmental problem. Let's adapt. We don't have to abandon our purpose and being.

Our small congregations are exhausting themselves trying to survive and spending less and less time in prayer and formation. Let's adapt to the environmental problem of the former so that we can focus on the latter.

Let's discern more clearly what is environmental and what is ontological. By doing so, our choices may be made more clear.

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