Risking Experiments for God’s Reign 


Where is God’s movement taking place in new ways for new times? Cherished narratives, programs, language, and structures are no longer producing the fruit associated with them during past eras. Lovett Weems says innovation is possible if church leaders challenge the assumptions behind what we are doing because they no longer match the current reality.  

Most church leaders spend much time trying to help congregations rethink their ways of operating in these changed times. The need is great. At the same time, we are perhaps the least equipped to envision such new directions since for many of us our 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), describes how the “hub and spoke” system of church organization used by most U.S. denominations fits 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 the 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 are no longer 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 says this is a 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. John Wesley understood well that the “forms” of true religion remain even after the “power” is gone. When the old forms no longer accomplish the mission, the answer is not found in improving those forms but rather in discerning where God’s movement is taking place in new ways for new times. All need to learn together how to serve faithfully and fruitfully in new times. 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 into yet another program. 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 to engage.  

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)  

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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.

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.