McDonald's sells beef, right? Yes, we call them hamburgers, but it's really meat from cows. Beef. That's the business of McDonald's. But what happens when you want to expand to India, where cows are considered sacred? McDonald's developed the Chicken Maharaja Mac and the McAloo tikki burgers (mashed potato patty). Success through creative adaptation.
The stories are everywhere. The International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Games is a global celebration of creative adaptation. Sears and Roebuck, on the other hand, did not adapt. They could have become Amazon with little effort. They already had catalogs and warehouses. They just failed to redesign their business to the digital age.
God's Spirit blows through creative Christian adaptations. The first Christians adapted their life to Jewish and Gentile cultures. Irish Christians developed local settlements as an adaptation of church for early Irish society and per Thomas Cahill "saved civilization." As Europe was changing from a feudal to a merchant economy, followers of St. Francis of Assisi pioneered the idea of living a Christian life in the midst of those in need, and became the most influential ministry of the Middle Ages. The Christian revival we know as "The Great Awakening" was, in part, a creative adaptation of Christian communication to the new, multi-denominational environment in the American colonies.
What does it mean for us to trust in God's promises, particularly in uncertain times? These are the questions we are exploring in the current articles. We have learned how to circle (and pray) the promises of Scripture. We have learned that we are not alone. We have learned how to persevere in the midst of a horrible, terrible, no good day. I would like to make one more suggestion. Hope, trust — in the midst of challenging circumstances — involves creative adaptation. If we really believe in God's promise to make all things new, perhaps we would do well to try something new ourselves.
The condition of our society today presents unique challenges. Christianity no longer shapes the character of the Western world as it did a century ago. 3D printing, 5G wireless, 23 chromosome-encoding: these and other innovations are changing our way of life, along with just-in-time delivery, terrorist warfare, and a growing housing crisis. Oh, and by the way, you do remember the pandemic? These times are unsettled, and in the midst of unsettled times it is easy either to turn nostalgically to "the way things were" or to demand some authority (like a government) to "make things right." I would like to suggest a third path: creative adaptation.
Creative adaptation is known by a variety of names. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte coined the phrase "posttraumatic growth." Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it being "antifragile." Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal speaks of the "upside of stress." They all declare that challenge and uncertainty need not get us down. Indeed, whatever doesn't kill you may make you stronger. Through creative adaptation, we clarify our vision and we purify our techniques.
We clarify our vision. One way is through a reexamination of our identity and aims. Have you heard the question yet, in the midst of this pandemic: "How can we be church when we can't meet together?" This presses us to reexamine what church is all about. Is it possible to worship, to instruct, to have fellowship, to pray without meeting in the same building? Is it "church" when my prayer meeting is conducted through a Facebook message group? Is it Christian "fellowship" when I attend the Zoom meeting "coffee hour" after the service? What is really necessary for us to be the church in these times? We also clarify our vision by taking a closer look at our situation. How do we naturally stay connected apart from formal "meetings?” Who needs an extra touch and how can this be provided? It is not enough just to sit back wishing for the good old days or demanding the government make it right. We must do the hard work of godly dreaming. What might God's kingdom look like in the realities of our present circumstances?
We purify our techniques. How can we do what we must do to be church at this time? What new opportunities are arising in our current situation? I can imagine groups having online mission conferences connecting missionaries through the same virtual platforms. Or, virtual "table talks" on relevant topics where people who might never step foot in a church could feel comfortable "attending." I know of musical groups that rehearse outside in a local park, sitting appropriately distanced. I have heard of phone-trees, grocery delivery programs.
McDonald's sells beef, and they creatively adapted themselves to sell other things, for the sake of profit. My suggestion for us today? Adapt, for Christ's sake.
Evan B. Howard, Ph.D. is the founder/director of Spirituality Shoppe, an Evangelical Center for the Study of Christian Spirituality. He is an affiliate faculty with Fuller Seminary and is the author of many books and articles, including Praying the Scriptures. He leads workshops and seminars on Christian spirituality. Evan is a member of All Saints Anglican Church. He and his wife Cheri have two adult married daughters.