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Culture change is the challenge of most local churches and denominational ministries.

A congregation is tired of hearing how cold and uninviting it is to visitors. They want people to come to their church and like it.

Finally they take the plunge and spend $2 million to build a beautiful, spacious fellowship area complete with visitor center and coffee bar. But a year after the dedication, they realize nothing has changed. Visitors still find the congregation cold and uninviting.

Another congregation knows it needs to get serious about evangelism. So they hire a staff member to generate evangelism programs in the church. Two years later, nothing has really changed. They still have no growth from evangelism.


In both cases, these congregations failed to distinguish between a technical challenge and an adaptive challenge.

A technical challenge is straightforward: you have the resources and skills to fix something, so you fix it.

An adaptive challenge is much more difficult. Adaptive challenges go to the culture of an organization: the unspoken ideas, feelings, and values that account for an organization’s behavior. Adaptive challenges involve soul-searching and learning, and then changing who we are and how we live together.

Why is change so difficult? Because most significant change is adaptive. It involves changing a culture and asking soul-searching questions about not just what we are doing but how and why we are doing it. It involves changing us.

The entire Christian Reformed Church—from local congregations to denominational ministries—is facing adaptive challenges. This is no one’s fault. It is simply that massive changes in the world and within our own denomination require change—deep change. The CRC is finding its way.

A sidebar to this article lists 12 key challenges the CRC faces. These are the challenges named by CRC members across the denomination in a listening tour conducted by the Strategic Planning and Adaptive Change Team (SPACT) described in another sidebar.

These challenges generally apply to both congregations and denominational ministries. Notice how many of the challenges are adaptive: reconnecting with local contexts, engaging young people, becoming more multicultural, and so on. They name problems that the church does not yet know how to solve.

Reading the list may feel depressing. But correctly naming and framing the church’s challenges is a big first step toward effectively addressing them.

Denominational Ministries

Not just local churches but also denominational ministries are facing huge adaptive challenges. For starters, denominational ministries are being asked to focus more on helping congregations.

Once upon a time, congregations didn’t ask, “Hey, what have denominational ministry shares done for us lately?” Once upon a time, the CRC thought of ministry shares as ways to extend the ministry of the local congregation around the world.

To be sure, ministry shares still do that. The CRC has first-rate colleges, top-flight mission and relief organizations, skilled specialized ministries, and a fine seminary.

But today, local churches are also crying for help. Many of those cries are embedded in the 12 Key Ministry Challenges. Churches expect denominational ministries not only to continue to extend the local church’s ministry around the world but also to help congregations address what often are life-threatening challenges.

Another major adaptive challenge for denominational ministries is learning to work more effectively with each other. There are many “silos” in denominational ministries, often causing isolation, overlap, and poor communication.

Again, this is no one’s fault. It simply reflects how denominational ministries often evolved: the church identified a need; synod created a ministry to address the need. Each new ministry began with its own mandate and office. Each had its own budget and planning process.

One of the adaptive projects underway right now involves realigning the functions of the CRC’s former publishing agency, Faith Alive, as well as Specialized Ministries, Proservices, Communications, and Home Missions into five streams. (See sidebar for a longer explanation.)

Consider one of these streams: the Justice, Mercy, Inclusion, and Advocacy Group. Before realignment, the following offices worked, in varying degrees, independently of one another:

Many of these ministries are very small in the number of staff they employ and the size of their budgets.

Think of the communication, synergy, and mutual support that can be gained by these offices working more closely with one other. Imagine the mutual learning, sharing of best practices, and efficiencies gained through shared resources and support staff. Imagine a budget where “mine” and “yours” is replaced by “ours” as ministries think about how to maximize the impact of not just their own ministry but all these ministries.

Similar benefits are envisioned for each of the five streams. But this is difficult work. It involves changing a culture. This is classic adaptive change.

Some Practical Suggestions

Adaptive work is difficult. By definition, it’s a journey whose destination is often not clear. Are there any general principles that could help congregations and a denomination that no longer enjoy a clear straight path into the future but find themselves in the midst of adaptive work?

Here are three suggestions:

1. Be hopeful. Remember that adaptive work, while murky and often painful, is the way to new life. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Like Jesus, organizations go through death and resurrection. Adaptive work is the way to new life.

2. Pray. Expect God to work and reveal new things in these searching times. Too often the church functionally operates as though it doesn’t need God but can do just fine with its latest management techniques and problem-solving skills. The church on its knees before God is in a position where it will finally look to God to act.

3. Focus on the mission. The irony of the gospel is that when churches try to save their life, they lose it; but when churches are willing to lose their life for Christ’s sake, they find it. The goal of adaptive work in the church is not institutional survival. It is rediscovering our mission, our true identity. Churches that focus on their own institutional survival die. Churches that lose their life for God’s sake find life, even though that life may look very different from past institutional forms.

Key Ministry Challenges*

Here are the key ministry challenges named by the Strategic Planning and Adaptive Change Team (SPACT):

  1. Many congregations are not sure how to connect or reconnect with the local contexts in which they minister.
  2. Congregations ministering in their local contexts need to be a key focus of denominational ministry.
  3. Many in the younger generations are increasingly disconnected from the CRC and are exiting.
  4. The rate of progress of the denomination becoming a multicultural church is insufficient, both internally and in relation to our changing North American context.
  5. Something is missing within our denominational life in regard to discipleship, spirituality, and being Spirit-led.
  6. The direction and overall focus of the CRC are no longer clear; our sense of a shared identity is no longer self-evident.
  7. The present operation and sustainability of our centralized ministry delivery system are now in question.
  8. We are not sure how to move into a new financial paradigm.
  9. Many congregations, classes, and denominational ministries are not sure how to deal with the continuous process of change.
  10. The structure, purposes, ministry, and leadership of classes are no longer working like they once did; many classes are under stress.
  11. Lay leadership is under-emphasized and clergy formation processes are inadequate for engaging the challenges before the denomination.
  12. We presently lack any ongoing process of convening and listening with CRC members, congregations, and classes.

*Note: These challenges will continue to be refined and developed.

—Duane Kelderman


Three Task Forces

Three denominational task forces are currently addressing denominational change at a cultural, adaptive level:

  • The Task Force to Review Structure and Culture was appointed by Synod 2011 to assess the current denominational structure and culture. This task force was appointed with the awareness that rapid changes in the church and society require the church to look seriously at not just the content but the form of its ministries.
  • The Strategic Planning and Adaptive Change Team (SPACT) was appointed by the Board of Trustees in 2012 to design and implement a “fundamental reframe” of the denominational ministry plan. The 12 Key Ministry Challenges identified (see sidebar) are the result of conversations between SPACT members and key leadership groups and stakeholders throughout the denomination. There is a deep conviction that the plans and strategies carried out at a denominational level need to be more closely connected with classes and churches—and vice versa. SPACT will recommend a comprehensive strategic plan for the denomination to the Board of Trustees in 2014.
  • The Denominational Ministry Realignment Project was created by the senior administration to realign the work of all smaller denominational ministries and Home Missions, as well as the functions of the CRC’s former publishing agency, Faith Alive, into collaborative work groups in one of five ministry streams: (1) Justice, Mercy, Inclusion and Advocacy; (2) Leadership Development; (3) Worship and Proclamation; (4) Starting and Strengthening Churches; and (5) Discipleship and Faith Formation. This project addresses the need

—for convergence of like functions that have been scattered and isolated in various offices and agencies.
—to weaken and dismantle internal barriers to collaboration, thus encouraging new creative groupings and innovation.
—to frame and structure denominational ministries in ways that serve and build up the local church.

—Duane Kelderman


Technical Problems vs. Adaptive Challenges

Technical Problems Adaptive Challenges
1. Easy to identify. 1. Difficult to identify (easy to deny)
2. Often lend themselves to easy solutions. 2. Requires changes in values, beliefs, relationships, and approaches
3. Often can be “fixed” by an expert. 3. People with the problem must do the hard work.
4. Solutions can be implemented quickly. 4.  Progress requires experiments, trial and error, and collaborative learning.
1. Add a fellowship hall to be more visitor-friendly. 1. Challenge behaviors and attitudes that subtly exclude the “outsider.”
2. Create a new members class for new believers. 2. Seek to develop a culture of discipleship for all members.

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