Canoeing or Hiking? The Face of the Future for Church Leaders
Last month, I offered some initial insights into the changing contexts of congregations in North America. Before pursuing those insights more fully, I want to offer a metaphor that might be useful for the season that Christian leaders currently face. The metaphor is not my own. Rather it comes from a recent by Tod Bolsinger entitled Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. 
Bolsinger draws from the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who led the Corps of Discovery to find a way to the Pacific. The stated plan was to navigate to the headwaters of the Missouri River by canoe (actually, a keelboat and two pirogues). The assumption widely held by people in 1804 was that they would simply pull their canoes out of the water of the Missouri, portage them across a hill or two, and then drop them into a river that would take them all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The Rocky Mountains changed that plan entirely! With no Northwest Passage and no navigable river, the Corps of Discovery came to a screeching halt. Lewis and Clark had to adapt. Setting aside their canoes and boats, they became mountaineers and hikers. The new reality of their path changed the way they understood their journey. The mission was still the Pacific, but the way they were to achieve that mission took on a completely different form.
Bolsinger suggests that this metaphor serves well the reality that many congregations face. Built to canoe well in river waterways, churches have carried out their life and mission. But more churches now are reaching headwater regions—the terrain is shifting, and staying on the river is no longer a viable option. There is too little water to keep things afloat!
Increasing numbers of congregations are reporting that we are moving into contexts that reflect what futurist Bob Johansen calls VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. This emerging environment will require leaders to remain attentive, learn new skills and find new ways of being.
I don’t share this to alarm anyone. For generations, the people of God have encountered changing contexts and have adapted by abandoning one form of travel to lace up their hiking boots for a different form of travel. However, this reality does call for faith and prayer, and it will require us to learn humility again.
As explorers in new territory, we will need to rely on other explorers as we learn to follow well the presence of God’s spirit. When there are no well-defined roads or markers, explorers, from Lewis and Clark to you and me, must rely on what we discover along the way.
More next month!
 Intervarsity Press, 2018.