To Recover or to Adapt?


You may have heard about the Eighth Letter conference that was held in Toronto last week. The question behind the conference: “You’ve got 15 minutes to communicate your most pressing message to the Church. What will you say?”

That’s a great question. I didn’t attend the conference, but I’m very interested in the different kinds of answers that might have been presented.

For a limited time, you can hear what Tim Challies said for free. Tim writes:

My letter focused in on getting the gospel right…So while I was not booed off the platform and did not have anything thrown at me, my impression was that the message was not particularly popular.

In the comments, Nathan, one of the organizers of the conference, writes this:

From a more personal preference, I expected a bit more. You were talking to seasoned church folk, many Christian leaders and as one commenter assumed I would think, “why did you say something we already know?” Of course, the gospel is important and central, but I think you would also have to give credit to the fact that the very reason why most people were there was because it was their belief in the gospel that brought them there. In a lot of ways, you could have taken your letter verbatim from a gospel tract. At some point there has to be a little bit of credit given to the people in the church can handle some solid food, not just milk.

What’s going on here? What’s at stake is the issue of whether the church’s greatest need is to recover or guard the deposit of the gospel, or whether its primary need is to adapt to new realities. That seems to be the great divide in ministry approaches these days.

I’m reminded of the two types of challenges described in the book Leadership on the Line


  • Technical Challenges: “Every day, people have problems for which they do, in fact, have the necessary know-how and procedures. We call these technical problems.”
  • Adaptive Challenges: “But there is a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community. Without learning new ways – changing attitudes, values, and behaviors – people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment.”

I hope I’m not imaging things, but this seems like a good grid to understand the ways people respond when asked what the church needs. I hear a lot of talk in some circles about sticking to our core. I hear a lot of talk in other circles about liminality and experimentation and adaptation. Both approaches were on display last weekend at the conference.

Many today – the young, restless, and reformed crowd – tend to focus on recovering and guarding the gospel. Our most pressing need, they say, is to guard what we already have.

Others – younger evangelicals, emerging, etc. – focus on what has to change and how we need to adapt.

Do we primarily need to guard the good deposit, and center our ministries around it? Or do we need to adapt to new contexts? Or do we need to do both? The way we answer this question will make all the difference in the world in how we approach ministry – or in what we say at a conference.

To Recover or to Adapt?
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada