Dustin Benac’s new book, Adaptive Church: Collaboration and Community in a Changing World, tells the story of two collaborative communities in the Pacific Northwest: Parish Collective (PC) and the Office of Church Engagement (OCE). Benac describes these as a new organizational form: a “hub.” Neither a megachurch nor a denomination, hubs anchor religious life in a particular community and facilitate webs of connection across a broader community. Each hub emerged only after organizers spent extensive time in the communities (often more than a decade) they serve, and each is approximately twelve years old. While the highly-discussed The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast tells the story of celebrity charisma and the crash that followed, these hubs offer an alternative witness in the Pacific Northwest, one that prioritizes faithful presence, connection, and the complexity of collaboration. Their work responds to the movement of God in their communities, by seeking to build a more connected life of faith. For the OCE, they are trying to rebuild connections between congregations, a university, and the broader community they serve. The PC is trying to connect neighborhood (what they call “parish”) leaders in a broader movement, and the institutions that are required to sustain local movements. Although they have striking similarities and fundamental differences, they are guided by a similar Christian Practical Wisdom.
What follows is an excerpt from the conclusion of Adaptive Church, with minor edits to allow it to work as a stand-alone piece.
And in a hopeless world, there is hope and all things are possible. New things are possible. . . . [N]ew things that we never thought were possible are now possible.
Jessica Ketola, Lead Pastor
of The Practicing Church, Shoreline, WA
Driving north through Spokane neighborhoods lit only by porch lights, I pass familiar sites and streets. I recall what an Uber driver shared on an earlier trip to the region: “I rarely come out this way; it’s not really on the way to anything.” The two-lane street toward Whitworth [University] and its Office of Church Engagement [OCE] traffics in ordinary life; winding through neighborhoods, passing parks, churches, and car dealerships. Located beyond the bustle of the city and tucked within a neighborhood, the OCE sits beneath ponderosa pines. Exiting the vehicle, the stillness and darkness enfold me. The space and tranquility feel pregnant with possibility. “The Spirit brooded over the waters” (Gen 1:2) writes the author of Genesis. Even before there was light and life, creation was brimming with the possibility of an ever-creative God.
The space and tranquility feel pregnant with possibility.
Breathing deeply in the silence, this place feels both familiar and curious. I first came to this region and walked beneath these trees twelve years ago, drawn by a love for the western Rockies and by curiosity. Like many others who have come to the Pacific Northwest, I came to the region because I sensed that a different type of question is possible on the far side of the Rockies. Now, standing beneath these trees on my last research trip to the region, I find that I’ve returned, still trying to ask a different question. “I know this place,” I think to myself. I know this space, many of the people throughout the region, and the possibilities to which it points.
Yet, the place also feels foreign and curious. I recall a similar night in Seattle only a few months earlier. After leaving the Parish Collective’s [PC] Inhabit Conference gathering for the evening, I took the ten-minute ferry ride across Elliott Bay toward Alki Beach, where I was staying. As I exited the ferry, the stillness of the night enfolded me, but darkness was nowhere to be found. The city’s luminescence danced on the waves and then raced toward the heavens, reminding any spectators of the promise of this global city. In neighborhoods and streets beneath and beyond Seattle’s skyline, the PC is inviting individuals into an ordinary, everyday, placed ecclesial existence. This slow, patient posture sees the possibility for a more rooted life together, one that brings more life-giving forms of connection, and begins restitching structures of care and connection.
The Parish Collective is inviting individuals into an ordinary, everyday, placed ecclesial existence.
Remembering that night in Seattle, I consider how the striking similarities and fundamental differences between these two adaptive hubs make what once felt familiar more foreign and what once felt foreign more familiar. “It is no longer clear to me who ‘my people’ are,” I later note. “If I had to choose, I think it would be impossible. My thought, my reflection, my imagination have become so entangled with and emerged alongside both [organizations] that it is difficult, at least in my mind, to separate one from the other.”
As a researcher, I am always looking and listening for the distinctive features of the communities I study, as well as the surprising resonances between disconnected communities. After years of work across each context, however, I now inhabit a boundary-spanning role, connecting the good work of these two communities. I know in this moment that I can stand in this liminal space—creating meaningful connections that will nourish ongoing work and ministry—but I will never be able to fully belong in either context.
In this particular spot of time, standing in the shadow of the ponderosa pines, I encounter an imaginative luminescence amid a familiar darkness. Their work and wisdom kindle a way of seeing and being that attends to the adaptive possibilities that support an adaptive church. As existing structures fracture in this hinge time, these two hubs and similar expressions beyond the region offer a template for Christian organization, education, and leadership beyond certainty. The life of faith is far from certain, but leading faith communities in the Pacific Northwest and serving in context beyond this region requires embracing the characteristic uncertainty of many of our communities of faith. As one leader shared: “The systems that have carried us for the last few hundred years are waning. We are on the cusp of something new.” The wisdom of an adaptive church requires taking new forms of organization, education, and leadership together; new structures of belonging require all three: organization that promotes encounter, education that supports transformation, and leadership that protects the conditions for this essential and fragile collective work.
To borrow language from William Wordsworth, the work of these hubs offers other communities of faith a “renovating virtue.” As Wordsworth puts it:
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
Renovating virtue, whence . . . our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
Composed in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, during a period of cultural and institutional transition, Wordsworth describes latent possibilities in “spots of time” that “nourish” and “repair.” And, as Wordsworth notes, this virtue can “lift us up when fallen,” inviting our communities to imagine and pursue the incarnate possibility that God has imprinted on our ordinary existence.
These hubs are crafting and recrafting how individuals see and inhabit an ecclesial ecology.
Insofar as the stories of this volume offer “renovating virtue,” an adaptive church requires something more than rebuilding or remodeling existing structures. It requires renovation of a collective imagination. Grounded in place and connecting around the challenges communities of faith face, these hubs are crafting and recrafting how individuals see and inhabit an ecclesial ecology. Their work displays renovating virtue in its finest form. Without denying the cataclysmic challenges individuals and communities are currently facing, an adaptive church sees renovating possibilities within and on the other side of uncertainty.
1“Hinge time” comes from one of the participants in this research. The phrase refers to a decisive transition between one way of organizing religious life to another.
2Derived from the Latin root renovare, “renovating” describes an act of renewing, restoring, or reviving. Far from a solitary endeavor, virtue requires a connection to a broader community, finding its proper end in relation to others. Renovating virtue, as described here, also requires wisdom to discern the appropriate form of response at this particular site of rupture.
From Adaptive Church: Collaboration and Community in a Changing World by Dustin D. Benac. Copyright © Baylor University Press, 2022. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.
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