Off the map

In his book, Canoeing the Mountains, pastor and seminary leader Tod Bolsinger tells a story from his time as a church head of staff. The church had called him, in part, to reach new families. In Tod’s church, young people had their own worship service and rarely attended “big church.” The downside of this was that young people never really felt they were part of the church, and many quit church when they went to college. So, Tod asked the staff to brainstorm ideas to help young people feel more like part of the family.

“Let’s have Youth Sunday,” someone suggested, and it got the group working. Like they’d done in the past, one of the youth would preach, while others would read scripture, usher, and so on. Everyone liked the idea.

Then the business manager spoke up. Youth Sunday had always been the lowest-attended, lowest-giving Sunday all year. The junior high director agreed. The kids hated it. They felt silly wearing shirts and ties. The older folks hated the music. Everyone ended up feeling awkward and patronized.

Canoeing the Mountains is Tod Bolsinger’s metaphor for where the church finds itself today. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase. When Lewis and Clark reached the headwaters of the Missouri, they expected to find the Northwest Passage and float down the river to the Pacific.

Instead, the Rocky Mountains stood before them.

They had boats and no map.

Kind of like the church today.

Tod describes it as a “moment of deep disorientation.” When we find ourselves in moments like this, “we tend to try to reorient around old ways of doing things.”

We keep canoeing when there is no river.

Tod said that Lewis and Clark set out “defined by a myth,” that the Northwest Passage existed. “Imagine their thoughts as reality set in.”

Lewis and Clark could have given up. The exploration could have waited until a better equipped group was assembled. Instead they pressed on.

Tod’s church never brought back Youth Sunday, but the discussion led to all kinds of experiments that led to new traditions that got everyone involved.

Thank goodness that, even when we’re off the map, God is already there.

Canoeing the mountains

Canoeing the Mountains is the title of a new book by Tod Bolsinger. After serving for many years as senior pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church, Tod is now vice-president for vocation and formation at Fuller Seminary. He’s also one of the most thoughtful leaders in the church today focusing on church transformation and change. I’m pleased to say Tod was my coach for a year after our church did strategic planning a few years ago.

Canoeing the Mountains gets its inspiration from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (also known as the Corps of Discovery) from 1804 to 1806. Lewis and Clark were charged by Thomas Jefferson with exploring and mapping the Louisiana Purchase, and for discovering a long-sought after water route to the Pacific.

But Lewis and Clark set out with false expectations. They believed, like everyone before them, that the geography ahead of them was like the geography behind them. When at long last the Corps of Discovery reached the headwaters of the Missouri, they expected that just over the next hill they would find the Columbia River that would lead them down to the ocean. Instead what lay before them was the Rocky Mountains.

Their canoes weren’t going to be of any more use.

Tod Bolsinger says that churches today find themselves in a similar position to Lewis and Clark. What’s ahead is not what’s behind, so the maps aren’t any good. And yet Lewis and Clark didn’t turn back. In coming so far, they had bonded together as a team. They’d developed trust. Instead of turning back, they redefined their mission and pressed on.

Canoeing the Mountains asks leaders to consider these key questions:

  • How do we lead a congregation to be faithful to the mission God has put before us when the world has changed so radically?
  • What are the tools, the mental models, the wise actions and competing commitments that require navigation?
  • And mostly, what transformation does it demand of those of us who have been called to lead?