Episode 86: “Daring to Think Forward in a Time of Accelerating Change” featuring Dwight Friesen

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 86: “Daring to Think Forward in a Time of Accelerating Change” featuring Dwight Friesen

How can churches get ahead of the curve by learning to anticipate change rather than always responding to change after the fact? Dwight Friesen shares ways to cultivate the imagination and skill set needed to think forward.

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How can churches get ahead of the curve by learning to anticipate change rather than always responding to change after the fact? Dwight Friesen shares ways to cultivate the imagination and skill set needed to think forward.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, one of the editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter, and I’m the host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m pleased to welcome today Dwight Friesen from Seattle School of Theology, who is co-author with Tom Sine of a very timely and provocative new book. It’s called 2020s Foresight: Three Vital Practices for Thriving in the Decade of Accelerating Change. So, Dwight, I really appreciate you taking some time to talk with me today and address this really critical subject of how churches can better respond to the ever evolving, changing context of ministry. So, welcome.

Dwight Friesen: Thank you. I’m so glad to be with you. And I love the work that you all are doing, helping seed the imagination of leaders. It’s such a timely thing for us to be considering — how do we think not just about the future but how do we think as Christians about it, whether we are in paid, professional positions or lay leaders and everything in between. Parents and teachers and all of that. We all have influence. How do we think about it? So great to be with you.

Ann Michel: Your book is really built around an interesting premise, that we live in a time of such rapid and accelerating change that rather than always trying to respond to change after the fact, churches need to get ahead of the curve, if you will, and learn to forecast and anticipate changes before they happen. And your co-author Tom used a really great metaphor from surfing. He said, “We need to learn how to catch the wave rather than getting hammered by it.” So, I wanted to give you a chance to speak to and explain that premise.

Dwight Friesen: Sure. I’ve been a part of church leadership and strategic planning meetings for years in my pastoral work, in my academic work, and in church consulting. And what’s striking to me is that so often we sit down and begin to do our planning, and we think strategically, we think missionally about what we think we’re called to do, but we often fail to actually look to the future and anticipate the changes that are coming our way.

One of the ways that I think about this is that, as people who are seeking to follow in the way of Jesus, we generally hold to sort of a narrative understanding of the universe. Right? We believe that there’s a God who is creator and there is an eschatological path where God is going to bring all things into sort of the new creation, the dream that God has for us. There’s this narrative where we have creation. There’s some kind of a rupture in all of that. God is restoring things and ultimately does that in Jesus Christ. And then we have the eschatological vision.

We’re really good at telling the parts of the story that look to the past and invite us to the present. We have not fostered the skill set as much to think about the future part of the story. Every story has a past, present, and future component to it. And part of what it looks like to love our neighbors well is to actually help them anticipate the changes and challenges that are going to come their way so they’re not blindsided when something that they could have actually planned for hits them.

We can’t predict. We’re not saying you can be a prophet. We’re not saying that you can know everything that’s going to come your way. But there’s actually a lot of data out there floating around. You can see it in the newsprint. You can see it on your news feed online or on your phone. That’s helping us imagine what’s coming down the road. I mean, just take climate change. Right now, as we’re talking, it’s the summer of the 2021 heat wave, right? We’re talking about some of the climate change kinds of things. Whether a person believes it or not, we’re seeing changes. What could we do now to begin listening to that and planning for it accordingly? Part of loving our neighbors is helping them prepare well. Part of loving our faith communities is helping them prepare well. Part of loving our kids is helping them prepare well for the future, which is part of why we help kids make those plans to go off to college. We anticipate what’s going to come down their way. We can’t predict it, but we have a pretty good sense of what might be there. So, we try to think, how can we help them get there in a way that’s wise, loving, and more likely to produce the kind of character and being that they sense that God is inviting them to be? And that’s what this book is really about. Not just responding but trying to anticipate.

Ann Michel: Right. So, I’m the kind of person that when somebody presents an idea to me, the first question that pops into my mind is “How?” That’s just how I think. And as I was reading your book, I’m imagining a leadership team in a church with the task of trying to anticipate the changes that are on the horizon in the next five to 10 years. That’s the time frame you talk about in the book. Just how does the church get a window into that future. I know it’s not a crystal ball situation, obviously. But what are some of the means and mechanisms that churches can use to try to anticipate what is coming?

Dwight Friesen: Truly, you do not need to become a forecaster in any kind of professional sense in order to do this strategy. There are lots of forecasting methods out there. Tom and I draw on the skill set of what’s called probability forecasting. But I don’t want to get into the technical side of that. Let’s say your leadership team is doing some kind of retreat or planning at each one of your regular meetings. And you literally asked the people in your group to just brainstorm some of the things that they’ve been hearing about that are likely going to impact them or their neighborhood or our country or the world in the next five to 10 years. No data. Just brainstorm a list of things that are likely going to impact how we live day to day. Fill your whiteboard. Fill another whiteboard. People already have an imagination. They’ve heard things. They’ve thought things. They can feel things. I would actually say the Spirit of God is already daring people to imagine what the future’s going to look like so they can prepare themselves. All we have to do is begin to listen to those things. What might happen? Then, once you have that list up there, you begin asking yourselves, “OK. Given where we are specifically as a faith community, as a person, as a people, given the resources we have, given the particularity of our locatedness, what are we most likely to feel the impact of most directly? I think that’s a really good starting place. It’s not the only question to ask, but it’s a really good one. I just heard a news report last night of a farming community in Southern California really impacted by the drought. Imagine a faith community there that was saying, “OK. Over the next few years, we’re going to actually anticipate a continuing drought and continuing difficulty with growing in our fields.” All of a sudden, you begin to think, “OK. Well, that’s happening right in our backyard. I wonder what’s the invitation here?” God isn’t caught off guard by these kind of changes, these kind of ruptures, these kind of things that are happening. This is part of reality. Where and how could this thing then be an invitation for us to actually discover a way of love? The whole goal really is to just pay attention to what might be there — what could we do and how might we begin?

Ann Michel: In the book, you mention a lot of trends — climate change, increasing diversity, polarization, and information and technological advances. Are these the kind of changes that a local congregation really should be focusing on in doing this work?

Dwight Friesen: You know, I would hesitate to be prescriptive on that. The primary skill set that we’re highlighting throughout this book is deep listening. There’s not an assumption or a prescriptive message around what one must do. The question is, who are you as an individual? Who are you as a community? Where are you? And, given who you are as a community, how might your neighbors and your neighborhood need to experience the love of Jesus through you? It’s far more particular. It’s far more located. So, it really is about almost intentionally rejecting the trends being talked about on the stage or from the media or from the news and saying, “OK. Let’s listen to our neighborhood closely. Let’s listen to those right around us.” I mean, that the ongoing dare from Jesus. He said the way you demonstrate your love of God is by love of neighbor as yourself. It’s that in practice but with the future orientation. How do we help people listen to the future so that they’re not blindsided by it?

Ann Michel: So, it’s hyperlocal and community based.

Dwight Friesen: It really is. That’s the best way to go. Here’s a little example. This one didn’t make it into the book, but it’s a really fun one. In North Bend, Morgan Schmidt is a youth pastor at a Presbyterian Church. Throughout her ministry there, they’ve always had a bulletin board in their youth room that had two simple questions on it — what do you have and what do you need? And the invitation was simply that, if you have extra of something, post it if you’d be willing to share it. And if you need something, post your request. And it created a culture of sharing within the neighborhood. They built this capacity to give and share and receive. That was a lovely thing for their youth group and their young adult ministry. When the pandemic hit and, all of a sudden, they couldn’t have access to their building, overnight she took that bulletin board, and she went online with it and created a Facebook group. Over the course of about three or four months, they activated over 10,000 people from the city of North Bend to give and share stuff. She’s been featured all over the place. But here’s my point, though. By simply paying attention and listening to the local context and asking, “OK, what do we already have in our system?” — what they had in their system was a way of asking the question, “What do we have? And what do we need?” It was in their narrative. It was in their way of being. All of a sudden there was a crisis that happened in the neighborhood, in the community, and they said, “We can extend this.” By simply taking that conversation that had been private and opening it up, they were able to activate thousands of people from the community beyond their church, and many, many people were helped and served along the way.

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Ann Michel. Yeah, that’s helpful to me. And I’m glad you mentioned the pandemic. It was clear to me that you were writing the book as the COVID crisis was coming on the scene. I know there were scientists and medical people who could have told us that a global pandemic was coming, but very few people could have anticipated the changes that COVID has brought. So how could a church have anticipated the major changes that have happened in the last 18 months as a result of the pandemic?

Dwight Friesen: That’s a really good point, Ann. Because it’s never really about anticipating the particularity. No one was anticipating that there was going to be a COVID-19 pandemic. But the orientation of anticipating work is to build within the community an imagination that has us thinking forward, so that our immediate reaction, when a crisis hits, is not simply retreating and pulling back — a kind of “protect my own.” But it fosters an imagination that says, “This is our opportunity to discover a way of love. This is an opportunity to follow Jesus into a new way of being, to draw on who we are, and on our little corkboard in our youth room.” We’re not trying to all of a sudden become something else. The question is, how do we tap into the formational life that we’ve been living as a community and use it as a way to lean into rather than retreat from whatever the crisis may be?

Ann Michel: Yeah, that’s helpful. Because the more I thought about the example of the pandemic, as I’ve been studying church life in relation to the pandemic, I’ve been of the opinion that the pandemic didn’t really create changes, but rather accelerated changes that were already underway. Churches may not have anticipated that a COVID-19 pandemic was coming, but forward-thinking churches could have anticipated that electronic giving would be more important in the future, that they needed to be leaning into the digital frontier and working to build community in new ways. And so, some of the changes that have come about as a result of the pandemic were things that you could have anticipated.

Dwight Friesen: That’s right. That’s exactly right. You know, throughout the book, we use three primary “dance steps.” Anticipating is step one. Reflecting is step two. And innovating is step three. And to be honest, although it’s our language, we’re really drawing on the ancient Christian practice of Benedictine lectio divina. That’s really what we’re talking about. By anticipating, we’re talking about that deep listening, opening up. What is being said? What are we seeing? What are we hearing? What’s the Spirit of God inviting us to see with fresh eyes? What is shimmering in our hearts? It’s just kind of paying attention to what’s there.

Then we reflect on the data that we’re hearing and, maybe even most importantly for those of us as followers of the way of Jesus, on what we understand to be the “shalomic” imagination of God — what is God’s dream for us and for humanity and for the globe? And how does that then dare us to think not out of fear but out of love and of hope of something new and beautiful for ourselves and for our neighbors and our globe.

Once we begin to reflect on what might be possible, then the question is, how do we — not the church writ large, but how do we, how do I, how does my family — innovate and do something small that is almost like, I dare to say, what a “shalomic possibility” could be, believing God can take what man meant for evil and use it for good. Like it’s that kind of a pivot. It’s a resurrection mindset.

Ann Michel. Or a kingdom mindset. I would call it kingdom living. Your point as we began this conversation is very well taken. We forget that the Christian faith is future-oriented and that God is pointing us to the kingdom and we’re invited to be harbingers of that kingdom. And I do think that’s what your book is inviting people to do.

Dwight Friesen: That’s right.

Ann Michel: I want to shift gears just a little bit and turn to some of the things in the latter half of the book. I don’t think I’m overstating your case to say that you and Tom seem to believe that if the church in America is going to survive in an increasingly post-Christian world, it’s going to be in a radically different form. And in the second half of the book, you present a lot of examples of individuals and couples and families and small communities that are living into what you call a “whole life approach to faith”. So can you share a bit to help our listeners understand what you mean by that. Maybe share some examples.

Dwight Friesen: I don’t exactly know how it happened, but sometimes it feels as though Christianity, or following Jesus, sometimes just gets reduced to an “add-on” to my otherwise well-lived life. As long as I go to church, pray a few prayers, sing a few songs, give a little bit here or there, that’s somehow adequate. I know that sounds really judgmental. But I think I can speak for Tom when I say we believe that following the way of Jesus is the best way to live. When we see Jesus, we’re seeing the mystery of fully God and fully human. What we see in Jesus is a person who lives for the sake of others and for the sake of community in a way that is self-emptying to the flourishing of all. And that’s not simply an add-on to my life. That is a whole way of being. That is a deeply holistic imagination for following in the way of Jesus.

Ann Michel: I don’t want to put words in your mouth but, being familiar with some of the examples in your book, you might say it’s the difference between going to church and being church. A lot of your examples are creative new expressions of church. Some of our listeners would be familiar with the Fresh Expressions movement, for example. Is that the direction that you see Christianity in North America going?

Dwight Friesen: I would probably go even beyond Fresh Expressions. I think even more than being church, I think there’s a kind of discovering church. I think we’re at the tail end of the Christendom imagination for church in which there was a collusion of church with state that we ended up parsing down into denominationalism. And denominations are a little bit like franchises, with everybody trying to carve out their piece of the pie with their own distinctive flavor. Of course, I’m part of a denomination. You’re part of a denomination. Most of us are. That’s not a bad thing. But I think when God looks at any one of our neighborhoods or cities, God’s sees the church as those people who are seeking to follow in the way of Jesus. If that’s the case, what would it look like to actually discover a new way of being church?

The question that the neighborhood invites us to, when we’re listening deeply to our place and we’re trying to discover a new way of being church that’s less about keeping our market share or piece of the market pie and more about living in the day to day, all of a sudden we’re asking ourselves, how do we learn? How do we actually learn to fit together as the church in our place, as an actual body of Christ where we need each other? And I think that’s the thing that’s been most encouraging to me through the pandemic, finding followers of Christ in neighborhoods who are actually joining together across denominations for the sake of supporting each other and their neighborhoods.

Ann Michel: It seems to me that it’s a very deinstitutionalized mission and one that’s probably very compelling, especially to younger generations who are turned off by the institutionalism of our traditional churches or denominations and other institutions. It does cause me to ask, though, do you see a role for traditional congregations and denominations or other institutions in this future? If what you describe is the green growing edge of the Christian faith, is there a role for more traditional Christian communities?

Dwight Friesen: I think there is a role for them. Historically, the church has been very adaptable. I think that’s going to be the key. The denominations and the traditional churches that carry on will be those who lead in adaptability. There’s no question to me about that. I’m not opposed to church structure. I’m not in any way an anti-institutionalist. To me, institution and the kind of spirit of church that I’m talking about have to go together. It’s almost like body and soul. If the body is the corporeal part of my being, and the soul is that which animates it, to be a human being is to be both of those things. I am structure and I am spirit. And in that sense, I think the church requires that. Even if the church’s institutions and structures change, it is still going to require systems and structures.

Ann Michel: Thank you. This is very helpful. The book has a spiritual tone to it, but I think you’re bringing a new level of theological understanding to what you are envisioning, so I appreciate that. I want to shift gears yet again. I understand that you were once a church planter. Your book suggests a different way of thinking about church planting. How do you see the concept of church planting — maybe that isn’t even a good term anymore — how do you see that unfolding in the future?

Dwight Friesen: Yeah, it’s a contested term, isn’t it? Both of those words have problems in some respects. I don’t know how to get away from the word church. I actually love the word. I love the church. It’s been my calling to serve Christ by serving Christ’s church. But I don’t like the word planting anymore. I try to avoid it now. And the reason is, to be a church planter holds this notion that I know what kind of church needs to be over there. And if I go there like Johnny Appleseed and plant that seed, we know what will emerge.

None of this language is perfect yet. As a culture, we’re still trying to discover new language that serves Christ and Christ’s church well. But I like the language of church discovering, like discovering the church that wants to be birthed in a given place because I believe that God is at work in a place prior to the church planter showing up. God is always present, always at work. So, it’s less about the planter executing their vision and more about listening and surrendering their own vision and joining what God’s already doing, uniting those who maybe are even the warring factions within that given place, discovering the redemption narrative that’s particular to that place.

Ann Michel: That’s the way modern missionaries approach their work.

Dwight Friesen: This is nothing new. There’s nothing truly new under the sun in this regard, right? But it is a matter of deep listening and surrender.

Ann Michel: So, I want to draw this to a close. Often when I’m talking to people on this podcast, I like to end by thinking about first steps. You know, a lot of our listeners are pastors or maybe they’re congregational leaders. Many of them are in fairly traditional congregational settings. Based on the model that’s in your book, what is a good first step that a leader in a typical church today can take to begin to get ahead of the curve and live into some of these changes that you’re describing.

Dwight Friesen: Yeah. This might sound way too simple, but I would say start walking your neighborhood regularly at different times of the day. Walk it alone. Walk with other people. Don’t just walk your dog and wait for your dog to do its business. But walk the dog with the anticipation that the spirit of God will speak to you throughout your neighborhood, the place where you are, the context of your faith community. That’s one of the primary ways God teaches us to discover presence. How do we listen and anticipate the spirit of God is going to speak to us through it? Discover the narratives. Who are the heroes there? Who are the villains? Whose voices are not heard? Who gets marginalized? What are the systemic oppressions that maybe you haven’t thought of or maybe that are present to you all the time? And let those break your heart. Let them open your imagination. Notice the changes in those things, the reality of where we are. In some ways, what I’m saying is listen to our place as embodied creatures in this time. Body, place, and time — these are the primary guides that God uses to help us discover presence and discover His way. I would say that’s the starting place. And then to dare to ask with all of the things that you see, what could be different, that could express the kingdom of God? What resonates with your community’s history? What would break your community’s heart? What would say, “Oh, we could do something about this? We can’t do it all, but we’re here and this is happening and that’s our thing.

Ann Michel: Thank you for that. You made that sound simple, in a way. But I think we have so many ways of detaching ourselves from the reality that surrounds us, that the simple act of opening our eyes and allowing ourselves to see our neighbors through God’s eyes is really a radical thing. So, I think your suggestion is very provocative and amazing. Dwight, I want to thank you for sharing about your ideas so candidly and also for putting a broader theological frame around your work. Again, the book is 2020s Foresight, Three Vital Practices for Thriving in the Decade of Accelerating Change. Thank you for sharing today. Thank you for all of the really interesting information that’s in this book. And best of luck to you.

Dwight Friesen: Thank you. And it’s been such a gift to be with you.

Ann Michel: Thanks.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Allen Stanton lays out a new vision for healthy rural congregations as valued stakeholders and potent agents of change within their communities.

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2020s Foresight book coverRelated Resources


About Author

Dwight J. Friesen

Dwight J. Friesen is a professor at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. He also serves with Parish Collective, an organization that helps leaders and their groups recover their neighborhoods and participate in whole-life discipleship in the Jesus-Way. His most recent book is 2020s Foresight: Three Vital Practices for Thriving in a Decade of Accelerating Change (Fortress Press, 2020), available at Fortress Press.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.