Canoeing the Mountains: Daring to take your church “Off the Map”



Change. It might as well be a four-letter word because it strikes most of us as something ugly and profane. No one likes to change. As human beings we are biologically wired to enjoy something called homeostasis — the state of equilibrium and balance when all is well and nothing is changing.

Change is especially difficult in the church. As the world around us rapidly changes, the church tends to be the one place where we can find refuge from the storm. The familiarity of the hymns, the timeless message, the paint on the walls that hasn’t changed since the 1950s — these things are like warm blankets that protect us.

Unfortunately, we love homeostasis so much in the church that we’ve become like the disciples who, in their great fear, locked themselves away from the world in the upper room (John 20). And while some may argue that “the world” is to blame for the decline of the church, I don’t buy it. The first step to healing is to admit you have a problem. And, church, we have a problem — our unwillingness to change and adapt is probably the single biggest reason we’re in decline. We need to stop acting like small children who blame others for their bad choices. It’s time to face the fact that 50 plus years of avoiding change and adaptation is precisely what places us on shaky ground.

Now, liturgy reminds us, “the church is of God and will last until the end of time.” But we need to be real about the fact that such a promise belongs to the Church universal, not your local church or even The United Methodist Church. To chart a path toward the future of God’s kingdom as it unfolds around us means we must dare to “go off the map” we’ve always known and become acquainted with new maps. The tools that brought us to where we are will not take us to where God wants us to go. It’s time to develop new tools.

I want to offer three ways we can prepare to “go off the map:”

Become a learning organization

Learning is at the heart of adaptation. My daughter is in kindergarten and she has an insatiable desire to learn. I find myself wondering where that excitement for learning stopped for me. The older I get, the more I want things to stay the same. Learning is hard. But if we’re going to be the church God calls us to be, learning must be at the heart of our church culture. I should also say that, as disciples, we should constantly be learners. Jesus’ disciples were constantly learning from him. To think you have all of the answers is the exact opposite of what it means to be a disciple.

Stop being afraid to fail

The old saying goes, “The only failure in life is not trying.” Hall of Fame coach John Wooden once said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” No one likes to fail. But failure is often the only path to learning. Thomas Edison had more than 1,000 failed attempts at inventing the light bulb. But when he finally got it, it changed the world. Sometimes I wonder what we need to fail at in order to find that new and innovative way we connect new people to God.

Dare to do what others are afraid to do

By definition, going off the map means we dare to be what others are not — to stop trying to copy the latest, greatest fad of doing church in favor of something different and, often, more meaningful. What is the one thing your church can offer that your community might need? Another “big box” church with guitars and lights? Another well-networked traditional church with hymnals? No! Your community probably has plenty of those. Do worship well however you do it, but dare to find ways to be unique. Can you start a community garden? Do an after school tutoring service? Do you have a small plot of land where you could lay some concrete and two basketball hoops so neighborhood kids could find a place for recreation and community? Could you support young moms by starting a MOPS program? How could you be present where your community is present and not just expect the community to show up at your doorstep on Sunday mornings? How can you dare to be different and do what other churches in your area might be afraid to do, trusting that, when you do, God will open some amazing doors for new ministry you never imagined.

To go “off the map” is to rediscover who you uniquely are, learn how to become a deeper and better version of yourself even through failure, and to do the things no one else is doing.

What are you waiting for?

Next: Part 4 - Focusing on the mission, deepening relationships, and my thoughts on The Commission on a Way Forward

The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at