top of page

The Adaptive Church: Lessons from Evolution

Whatever you may think of evolution and its place in a Christian understanding of creation, the science is clear that DNA does evolve and change. Humans, plants and animals make adaptations over time. Interestingly, we are now becoming more aware of how DNA can be changed through personal and generational trauma!

Evolution is a characteristic of nature, but also of organizations like the Church.

Many church leaders love to use the term ‘our DNA’ when talking about the culture of their churches. Carrying the analogy further – can that DNA change? Can it adapt so a faith community/church can thrive in new environments?

My answer is YES.

What follows is a summary of the theory behind the book: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, 2009, Heifetz/Grashow/Linsky, p.14-17. The authors point to the parallels in evolutionary theory with the characteristics of adaptive leadership. I am going to carry the analogy of evolutionary biology into ‘ecclesiastical biology’ and address what it means for us as leaders of the church. My purpose is to address:

  • Churches that refuse to adapt/change.

  • Churches that talk the talk, but in practice merely nibble at the edge of real change.

  • Church planters who aim for innovation and change but end up as clones in slightly funkier clothing and edgy church names.

  • Church advance outside the mainstream of society.

Surely we have had enough of churches existing and preserving status quo! For some of you reading this, your leadership might reveal you are actually satisfied with that. If you are, I’d say you are not a leader. The word leader is from the Indo-European word leit. This was the name of the person who carried the flag in front of the army when they went into battle. Some sources define the word as “go forth and die”! They usually did, dying during the first enemy attack. Leaders sacrifice to alert the rest of the people about the dangers (and opportunities) ahead. In other words, they are courageously at the front of any advance. To thrive as a Body of Christ, its leaders must sacrifice to mobilize their people to tackle tough challenges in the environment in order to not just ‘exist’, but to thrive.

The term ‘adaptive leadership’ at first can sound like a call to conformity to cultural values so that we as the church can fit in. That’s NOT the meaning of ‘adaptive’. This is a call to leaders to become better at diagnosing their church and surrounding culture, to seek out ways to better translate the gospel of Jesus to their ever-changing environments, and to help their own people make the shifts that are necessary to move beyond mere existence to actual thriving.

Now about the topic of evolution and the adaptive church…

In evolutionary biology, successful adaptation has 3 characteristics:

  1. It preserves essential DNA from the past to ensure the species survives into the future.

  2. It discards or re-arranges the DNA that no longer serves the species’ current needs.

  3. It creates DNA arrangements that give the species the ability to flourish in new and often more challenging environments.

Here’s a summary of the theoretical model in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership with my adaptations to the context of the church ‘rearranging’ its DNA.

  1. Adaptive leadership is about the change that enables a church community to thrive. However, for this to even start leadership has to develop the willingness and readiness to define thriving and then mobilize people to use their abilities and gifts to address the changes that lead to thriving. When you look around you, is your current DNA capable of enabling you to carry the gospel into new/unfamiliar environments? In biology, thriving means propagating. How is that happening for your church community?

  2. Successful adaptations don’t trash the past, but build on it. In biology, an adaptive actually keeps most of the existing DNA. The challenge for the adaptive leader is to engage what is good and worth preserving from the past and be willing to jettison what isn’t. Your core values and purposes remain foundational, but your practices will establish the new DNA that is needed to survive and thrive. Purpose and function over form.

  3. You only adapt through experimentation. Sexual reproduction is, in evolutionary terms, an experiment. It rapidly produces variations. If you want to lead adaptive change, it will require an experimental mindset. That will mean becoming practised at improvising as you go, learning from each attempt so you can build a thriving culture and ministry.

  4. Adapting requires diversity. Here I quote directly: “In evolutionary biology, nature acts as a fund manager, diversifying risk. Each conception is a variant, a new experiment, producing an organism with capacities somewhat different from the rest of the population. By diversifying the gene pool, nature markedly increases the odds that some members of the species will have the ability to thrive in a changing ecosystem” (p.15-16). In contrast, cloning is less likely to generate the adaptive innovations required for survival and thriving in new environments. Yet cloning is the reproductive method of choice in much of our church expansion and planting. Sometimes it’s intentional, such as when a church ‘plants’ a smaller version of itself or ‘franchises’ itself in the name of multi-site. Often it’s inadvertent, seen among church planters who start out with innovative ideas but whose new community ends up looking a lot like what they left behind, save for a few ‘innovations’.

  5. Truly new adaptations will rearrange and reconstitute old DNA. This. Means. Loss. All change is first experienced as loss. Loss of familiar patterns, status, perspectives and habits can make some feel incompetent, betrayed, left behind or even irrelevant. As a result, adaptive leaders need to be very familiar with change management dynamics and how to counteract the resistance to change that is inevitable.

  6. Adapting to a new environment and way of being takes time. The authors of Adaptive Leadership use a phrase that helps describe where true adaptation occurs: “stressing itself near the margins of the range”. In the gospel context, when a new variant in gospel expansion shows up, its adaptive capacity occurs because it has ventured a little beyond where the church has been to date, “stressing itself near the margins of the range” of comfort and practice . Consider those humans who moved toward colder climates. As they moved, there was selective pressure over generations to adapt, favouring the variations that enabled successful living in a colder climate. Over time, adaptive capacity consolidates and you are no longer operating at the margins, but in a space where you can thrive. Adaptive leadership thus requires persistence to stay with the incremental changes that are required over time.

What’s the point of my somewhat risky analogy?

Simply this – we, the Church possess the capacity to change. History shows that the Holy Spirit has consistently inspired evolutionary processes in the Body of Christ. Cycles of innovation and adaptation have occurred as leaders responded to the Spirits promptings to take the gospel to the “margins of the range”. It is necessary for Kingdom expansion that we evolve to carry the gospel to the environments in which we live. This isn’t about compromise or subjugation. It’s about insightful diagnosis and courageous action so that we exhibit and communicate the Grand Gospel of God to everyone, no matter where they may be in our culture. Whether at the margins or mainstream, in bars or brothels, overseas or under our noses, the community of Christ – your church – exists for them.

Evolve, please, for the sake of Jesus.

Harv Matchullis

Executive Director, Encompass Partnerships

bottom of page