What is “Adjacent Possible”? Can It Benefit Your Church?

Business scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter has completed a two-year study of the nation’s infrastructure with a special focus on its transportation systems. Many of these systems are many years old and in need of rethinking and reinvestment. Yet she believes the solution does not lie totally in new models not yet conceived, as needed as they are, but rather in a mixed approach she calls: repair, renew, and reinvent.
Those seeking new options will gravitate to that “edge of chaos” … the fertile ground between too much order and too much chaos — that place in which something new is most likely to emerge.
Although infrastructure does not readily lend itself to biological and evolutionary comparisons, the kind of innovation that is needed, whether for transportation systems or religious institutions, does. Most change is more evolutionary than revolutionary. The “next faithful step” is rarely totally disconnected from the journey to that point. In times of struggle, it is easy to begin grasping frantically for almost magical remedies much as a drowning person begins flailing in desperation.
A concept that has helped me think of innovation when constraints and limitations are many is the “adjacent possible,” developed by Stuart Kauffman and popularized by Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From. Those seeking new options will gravitate to that “edge of chaos” so critical to evolutionary development, which these writers describe as the fertile ground between too much order and too much chaos — that place in which something new is most likely to emerge.
It is these edges of potential that we can easily miss in our churches as we are inundated by our programs, routines, and traditions. However, hovering on the edge of all of these may be the soil needed for new fruitfulness. When we focus only on the center of what we do, our efforts go to sustaining or reinvigorating what we have known before. Then, when repeated failures at renewal occur, we too easily give up and either abandon the effort or turn to something utterly new and often at odds with our church’s culture.
The adjacent possible takes a different approach. It acknowledges the limits of people, money, and other constraints you face. But it also accounts for resources you may be missing. It looks for these options at the boundaries of what is. It seeks new combinations, partnerships, constituencies, methods, and strategies. The feel is not so much of moving from one house to another but rather from one room to another in the same house.

Here is an example. Your church has had a youth group that meets on Sunday evening for as long as any current members can remember. There was a time when the numbers were strong, and the youth led a worship service once a year. Youth in the community with no connection to your church attended the youth group, and a part-time youth worker was hired each summer to coordinate a full agenda of activities. But those days are long in the past. For the last two years a remnant of three youth has continued to meet, and they will graduate from high school within a year. There are other youth whose families belong to the church and an even larger group of youth in the community with no church connections.

Weary after trying all the traditional solutions to reignite the ministry, folks could easily look to a time with no youth ministry in the church. How might the adjacent possible concept help? It does not provide a solution, but it gives a way for thoughtful people to begin exploring the edges, the rooms adjacent to the youth ministry, if you will, to see if they spark new opportunities. For example, you may discover that at the edges of the nearly dead youth group you have a large number of youth from the community already participating in the once-a-month Saturday Day of Service program sponsored by the missions team, that you have much unused but well-kept building space available, that you have teachers in the church who know much about the youth of the community, and that your church is adjacent to the high school. The goal is to see if diverse people can brainstorm an appropriate adjacent possible as the next faithful step.

Don’t worry about coming up with a grand plan that will last forever. The nature of adjacent possibility thinking is that it has the capacity to continue to evolve. In some ways, it is like an explorer who steps out just so far but then, energized by that adventure, continues farther. So the first adjacent possible option may be modest, but it can lead to others so that a few years later, you look back and realize you have come to a place you could never have dreamed at the beginning.

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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.