Sunday marked our second week in the Sunday school class, "God in the Neighborhood." Our purpose in this class is to learn to see what God is up to on the block where we live. Our church has been working at the missional conversation for a number of years and it's now time to transfer what we have learned in our church's neighborhood to the ones in which we live. (See the first post here.)
Each session we open by sharing about the things we are seeing in our neighborhoods. Aaron told how his reclusive neighbor had been in the hospital for a pacemaker implant. The neighbor's body rejected the pacemaker and doctors had to do CPR for fifteen minutes before he was revived. Aaron's family visited the man when he came home and learned that the only other family or friends he had caring for or visiting him was a girlfriend. The lesson for our group: we might never recognize how many people living near us have similar stories of loneliness and isolation unless we reach out and get to know them.
As we were talking about our Christian witness in the neighborhood Latoya mentioned how many people on her block have Christian license plates and symbols on their cars, yet they aren’t friendly, don’t drive Christ-like and never stop to meet her. On the contrary, she spoke fondly of Elmer, a retired seminary professor who does little to outwardly display his Christianity but invites neighbors and children over for a weekly Bible class. He patiently and tenderly opens God’s Word and meets people where they are at. Here is a man who is known, respected and listened to by his neighbors.
In every class session I teach one resource through which people can learn to know their neighborhoods better. This week we talked about the difference between technical and adaptive challenges. Ronald Heifitz (lecturer at Harvard University and son of famed violinist Jascha Heifitz) suggests there are two types of problems that leaders will have to address: technical and adaptive.
Technical challenges are those dilemmas that are met with known, tested and predictable answers. These are situations that have been encountered numerous times and require common responses. Technical challenges usually require quick fixes, problem solving, consultation with experts, application of models, etc. Examples of this include taking a car to a mechanic when it starts making a strange sound, an accountant doing your taxes, institutions developing five year strategic plans, and churches that go to trendy seminars to learn how to grow.
Adaptive challenges refer to those situations that present new dilemmas; this is territory that has not been traveled before. Adaptive challenges require not the predefined answers of unengaged experts, but the hard work of discernment by those who are impacted by the problem (i.e. a church congregation or people who actually live on the block). Adaptive change assumes that change comes primarily through internal means including understanding the history and culture of a system, assessing the context, and using the creative imagination of participants alongside leadership.
Our church faced an adaptive challenge when kids started showing up several hours early for our Wednesday night youth programs. This presented a problem we hadn’t encountered before. In assessing the situation we found that kids were lonely and bored, ill-attended to by parents (often single parents) and lived in the church’s neighborhood but would rather be at church than at home. Out of this need was birthed something new—a weekly tutoring club and meal that precedes the children’s program and is hosted by church members.
There’s also an important warning that comes from this discussion: adaptive challenges cannot be met with technical solutions. One of the great mistakes of the contemporary church is trying to solve the emerging issues of a post-Christian context with the same old systems and programs (but trying to do them bigger, harder and better). Adding drums and a video projector to a worship service doesn’t guarantee increased attendance. Requiring evangelism training of leaders won’t necessarily lead to new conversions.
Next week members of the class will return ready to discuss both the technical and adaptive challenges they see in their own neighborhoods. What do you see in your neighborhood?