Adventure Church: Leadership in a Changing Church Context

“Are you comfortable with the adventure rafting trip?”

Uhm…define “adventure.”

The guy at the National Whitewater Center ticket counter only told me that the trip was 12 and up, and I clearly qualified. He did not tell me if I would return physically and psychologically intact. I did not know what “adventure” meant, but I did know that if a twelve-year-old could do it, I was not going to let that twenty-something counter guy think I could not.

The National Whitewater Center. Even the name seemed officially ominous. Olympians rafted here to train. What was I doing standing there buying a ticket to go on an adventure in a little rubber boat with six total strangers?

The lady-who-knows-all-things-dangerous gave us our instruction talk. The most important aspect of said talk being—What To Do When/If You Fall Out of the Raft.


It’s not like I hadn’t heard this talk before. I’ve been rafting three times, the most recent right there in North Carolina on the Nantahala River. This time, though, she seemed to have an awfully long list of possible ways to fall out and be retrieved. She asked for a show of hands of how many people had ever fallen out of a raft. Most people raised their hands. As in, at least 70% of those people had actually fallen in the water. Suddenly, the odds seemed not in my favor.

I thought I had the instructions down. If you fall in, float nose and toes. Put your nose and feet above the water and float on your back. Listen for someone to yell, “Swimmer, swimmer!” and follow the voice. Do what he or she says. Don’t stand up. Look for the rope. It all sounded reasonable, and I figured I could do these things and not panic.

Then we got on the water.

Things got more complicated. Unlike the rivers I had been on, this man-made stretch had virtually no calm water. It appeared all white, all the time. Keep my nose and toes above that roaring madness? Exactly how? Listen to someone calling me? No one would be able to hear anything out there! Watch for a rope? I already had so much water in my contacts by the first wave that seeing anything would be like trying to see a lightning bug through Niagara Falls. The only things I was certain of at that point were 1: I must NOT fall out of that raft, and 2: Jesus.

This is not a bad place to be, theologically speaking.

It’s not coincidence, I think, that I took this trip on the weekend I was in residency for my doctoral studies in “Leadership in a Changing Church Context.” Our context is not just changing; it’s roaring around us in waters so fast we could quickly lose focus on what church even is. We could easily fall out of the boat.

In his stand out book Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger argues that trying to lead churches the way we have always done it is like trying to take a boat over the top of the Rockies. He isn’t wrong.

In navigating those rapids, holding on to the boat and Jesus aren’t bad options. They could be lifesaving.

Church (the boat) has a lot of definitions, and it also has a load of baggage. What exactly does the boat look like? What is necessary for it to float? What are we carrying around on it that is pulling us down into the white water, endangering our stability and our very existence? Do we know how to identify what we need and what we don’t before we begin to toss things overboard?

Are we willing to jettison the excess weight so we can shoot the rapids of cultural change?

Those are the questions I’m studying, mapping out how to navigate the rapids between here and there. Here are some things I know.

Church means “the called out ones.” It’s defined as people God has pulled from the water, so to speak, in order to create a new people and a new place. The place (and the people) are to be in his image, filled with grace, love, and ultimate truth, walking ambassador for his kingdom here and now and yet to come.

The church is a force designed to batter the gates of hell and shine the light of a new way into dark places. The church is people and purpose, nothing less, and perhaps, nothing more. That’s the question.

The church becomes an institution, and acquires traditions, because all things that need organizing eventually do, and all things need organizing in a fallen world of chaos. Institutions and traditions aren’t inherently bad, but they aren’t the church. They’re the scaffolding that helps the church rise to what it is meant to be. When they help, it’s beautiful. When they drag us down, not so much.

How lean do we have to go to shoot the rapids? Here are just a few of the questions rolling around in my head and in our church right now.

Do we move to week night church instead of Sunday? Do we ditch the sermon and go for discussion? Is kids church a good way to disciple children? What if there isn’t any music at all? What would make someone on the outside want to come here? Would a group of people meeting in the building be a church if they were seeking God? Even if they weren’t part of “the church?” What happens if we cut the lights and smoke machines and ask people to sing around a table instead of listen to people on a stage? (Okay, we don’t have lights or smoke machines so that’s not really a question for me, but for others, it’s very real.)

Would this still be church? What stays on the boat and what can get tossed?

I think we may be asking the wrong foundational question when we start to talk about change in the church. Perhaps the better question to begin (and end) with is this:

Who would we need to be in order for this to be church, no matter what the trappings on the boat?

What kind of people make for a safe and seaworthy boat? This is, I think, the better question.