Adapting to Change without Forsaking Tradition

By Ken Howard

A common quandary I hear expressed by leaders of faith-based communities and organizations is…

How can I help my community adapt
to a rapidly changing world
without forsaking our traditions?

And my answer to this quandary is:

It depends…

Specifically, it depends on what you think traditions are good for.

If we think of our traditions as holy and unchanging, then there is nothing we can do to help our congregations adapt to the changes in the world around them. Eventually, they will wither and die and fossilize.

But only God is holy and unchanging. Which means that our traditions are cannot be. A better way to think of our traditions is as ways of doing and being Church that have been tested by time and found to be fruitful. They are only useful to the degree that they help help our faith communities focus on our relationship with God, understand and follow God’s call for us, and live in unity as the body of Christ. Indeed, the only reason they seem unchanging to us is that in ages past change in the world around the Church was glacially slow, which allowed the Church the luxury of changing its traditions over multiple lifetimes.

Unfortunately, we no longer have the freedom to change at a snail’s pace. The pace of change in the world around us is increasing exponentially by the day. Churches used to have generations to absorb and respond to racial, ethnics, or lifestyle changes in the composition of the neighborhoods we serve. But these days changes that were once measured in generations are now measured in years. Blink and your neighborhood has flipped. And the Church is changing just as fast. The Religion SIngularity, our research paper published last summer provides definitive evidence that many of our current institutional forms – both at the local and denominational level – will become unsustainable long before the end of the current century, and suggests that we have perhaps a 10-year window to begin exploring new ways of being Church.

All of which means if we are to maintain our ability to translate the Good News into the world around us, we need find a way to test and adapt our traditions much more quickly, while not losing sight of their ultimate purpose and meaning.

And that’s what Vision-Guided Experimentation (VGE) comes in. VGE is a collection of principles and practices that help faith-based communities and organizations become much more agile and experimental: testing and adapting traditions – or creating new ones – rapidly while remaining focused on their meaning and the vision they represent. Because change for change’s sake is no better that tradition for tradition’s sake.

In our last few posts we learned how to get very clear on our vision and ultimate meaning of our traditions – tracing our way up from the WHAT of our traditions to the ultimate WHY they represent – using the principle we call Minimum Viable Belief (MVB).

Once clear on our overarching vision or MVB, the question then becomes how to move rapidly through the process of testing and adaptation. This is what we will cover in the next several posts, as we discuss two closely-related practices we call Minimum Viable Program and Rapid Iteration Prototyping.