Risking Experiments for God’s Reign


What are the challenges we currently face for which we presently have no answer but must address if we’re to live into God’s future for us? — Alan J. Roxburgh

Most of us with denominational responsibilities spend much of our time trying to help congregations rethink their ways of operating in these changed times. The need is great. However, all of us who have responsibilities related to more than one congregation or pastoral charge know that denominational ways of operating also need sustained attention and renewal. They are hardly working better than the systems in most local churches.

At the same time, we are perhaps the least equipped to envision such new directions. While we usually have the benefit of experiencing trends and changes more broadly than those whose leadership tends to be limited to their congregations, we are also those whose ministries have developed within the very structures that need questioning. We learned one way of doing things, did that well, and now find the playing field changed without a new set of standards and procedures. It is hard for us to question the assumptions on which our leadership, up until now, was based.

Nevertheless, we know that cherished narratives, programs, language, and structures are no longer producing the fruit associated with them during past eras. At a time like this, the lessons of evolutionary biology can serve institutions well. Growth comes from adaptations to meet the needs of a changed environment. Wholesale abandonment of an organism’s DNA is foolish and self-defeating. Thus far much of what we change amounts to little more than tinkering without questioning the assumptions of the original practices. But true innovation is indeed possible.

Hub and Spoke System

Alan J. Roxburgh, in his book Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church (IVP Books, 2015) [Cokesbury | Amazon], describes how the “hub and spoke” system of church organization used by most U.S. denominations fit well the context of most of the twentieth century. The flow of knowledge, energy, and creativity moved from a central headquarters to its branches (churches) through intermediary units (conferences and districts). That was how the world worked. That’s not how the world works today, at least not in its most vital and creative areas of endeavor.

The result, as Roxburgh and others name, is a breakdown in trust throughout the system. Structures and procedures that once seemed as natural as breathing now are questioned and occasionally resisted. Since trust is the foundation of all progress, finding ways to realign church systems to fit a narrative of a missional church seems essential.

Both denominations and judicatories have taken on massive grand plans to restore positive momentum after 50 years of decline, and there is little to show for those attempts. As well-intended as these efforts are, when they do not produce results, they only lead to more cynicism. People cling even more closely to their own corner of the world and their special interests, and they lose the energy to risk and experiment. The limitation of so many plans is that they are based on assumptions that no longer are operative. The programs are actually quite good in their goals and content but do not match the new set of assumptions we are all trying to discern. It is not what we are doing that is wrong; it is our assumptions behind what we are doing that no longer match our current reality.

Roxburgh writes that more programs or restructuring are not the answers. Rather the need is for time to test new habits and practices. It may take much experimentation before we learn enough to know what structures of the future will resemble. It is only after finding what produces energy and signs of God’s reign that we can know where the “sidewalks” should be built to make this work of the Spirit even more likely to occur. What can we learn that will cause clergy and laity to say, “Of course,” or “It’s about time,” rather than “Do we have to do it?”

John Wesley understood well that the “forms” of true religion remain even after the “power” is gone. In an earlier era, for example, those who had been shaped by the Camp Meeting Movement saw little promise in the Sunday School Movement. But the assumptions that caused the camp meetings to be such a powerful instrument for God had for the most part changed. The answer was not to be found in improving how camp meetings were done (preaching, singing, facilities, etc.) but rather in discerning where God’s movement was taking place in new ways for new times.

For Roxburgh, the problem for denominations is not performance issues, but they “are confronted with a legitimation crisis of significant proportions (82) and they “face challenges that can’t be addressed within existing frameworks” (99). Using existing frameworks, when faced with more traffic, those responsible for highways build more roads. So even as the church utilizes existing frameworks to address our dilemmas (start a new church, close a church, appoint a new pastor), things change little.

Clusters of Experimentation

Roxburgh sees a place in the future for denominational middle-units but one very different from the past. Instead of coming up with more programs, he suggests that denominational leaders use their convening role to engage local clergy and laity as full partners in learning through local experiments. In some ways, the Fresh Expressions movement is doing just this. In this model, learning is not coming from the center to the periphery but rather many “distributive learning communities” are producing knowledge and benefitting from the successes and failures of others. All are learning together how to serve faithfully and fruitfully in new times. There is something especially “connectional” about distributive learning.

It is precisely from this type of collaborative activity and engagement that a new sense of trust and understanding will emerge that will provide the cultural capital for the next generation of innovation and service.

Where to begin?

So, where do we start? Since the time and patience of everyone involved is limited, church leaders at every level must be careful not to turn something experimental and local into yet another program implemented though the hub and spoke system. Therefore, efforts should begin small where there can be maximum human interaction for trust and learning. It is essential not to experiment in too many areas. Start somewhere important and learn from doing. I’m a great believer in leaders having the right questions. Roxburgh has come up with one of the best I have seen for determining the issues most critical for you to engage. So we close as we began:

What are the challenges we currently face for which we presently have no answer but must address if we’re to live into God’s future for us? (146)


About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.