By Richard Parker
In their book “Adapt to Thrive” John Flowers and Karen Vannoy present the argument that the local church is a new creation. The local church is a living organism and not an organization. As a living organism the local church must find ways to survive in the unique environment in which it is located. Adaptation is not an option; it is a necessity. Flowers and Vannoy point out that through adaption local churches may not only survive but thrive. Failure to adapt ultimately results in failure to survive.
The tendency of both the local church and the larger church has been to operate as an organization rather than as a living organism. This tendency runs counter to the church’s mission to “make new disciples for the transformation of the world.” The mission of the church assumes that adaptation or change will be the norm rather than the exception. Flowers and Vannoy write, “The local church is not intended to be static or fixed. To the contrary, our species is an adaptive organism living out its purpose.” Change and adaption should be part of our makeup because we are connected to a God who not only has created, but is still creating.
The point is made that, by becoming a follower of Jesus the Christ, a person has committed to transformation and change. The invitation to become a Christian is to deny self, take up the cross, and follow Jesus. For all humans, this invitation involves a commitment to adapt and become a new creation different from the life that was lived apart from being a follower of Jesus.
In “Adapt to Thrive”, Flowers and Vannoy apply the observations made by Charles Darwin in his study of the various species on the Galapogos Islands to the local church. In particular, they use the observation Darwin made about the finches that inhabited the various islands. Darwin noted that the finches he collected were one species but the finches on each of the three islands had adapted a different kind of beak to best be able to eat from the food supply present on the island it inhabited. Finches were one species that had adapted to a particular environment. Flowers and Vannoy argue that Christians are the same species with many different adaptations to fit the environment where they live.
The adaptations that each local church needs to make must fit the unique setting for the church. For example, a hay ride on the rarely travelled roads surrounding the open country churches that I have served would be a good bridge event to connect with the community, but a hay ride on the busy streets in the middle of an urban core might not be such a good idea. The connections we make as church must take into consideration the unique characteristics of our particular environment.
Flowers and Vannoy point out that we can learn from Darwin’s observation regarding survival of the fittest. They point out that this observation does not mean the strongest and largest and most aggressive will always survive; instead survival of the fittest means that the organism that has adapted to best fit its environment will be the organism that will thrive in that setting.
But Flowers and Vannoy are quick to point out that a local church should not change just for the sake of change. Each change needs to be undertaken for the purpose of best adapting to the local environment. To that end, Flowers and Vannoy present ten cultural adaptations that a local church may need to make to move from dying or barely surviving to thriving. The adaptations are not presented as requirements for the local church but rather as questions that a local church should ask itself to determine its fitness for its unique setting. And asking questions about our capacity to thrive in our own unique setting is a good exercise for any church or any church leader.