Q&A with Dustin Benac on Adaptive Church

July 15, 2022
Adaptive Church by Dustin Benac
In his forthcoming book, Adaptive Church: Collaboration and Community in a Changing World, Dr. Dustin Benac, Director of the Program for the Future Church and Visiting Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, explores what it takes for communities of faith to respond to uncertainty and shifting organizational environments. As the book’s release date (August 16) approaches, Dr. Benac answers a few questions about his latest project:
Who might be interested in this book?

It’s for at least three different audiences. First, it’s a book for pastors, people who are leading local congregations. The book talks about what I call the “ecclesial ecology,” with congregations in a central place in this ecology. An adaptive church requires vital congregations and creative and imaginative pastors who are doing good and beautiful work that enriches the entire ecology. It’s also a book for people who are what I call “restless creatives” or “ecclesial entrepreneurs.” Sometimes these people are pastors, but sometimes they’re not. There is a whole host of people who are innovating, within the church and also beyond the church. Then, the third group is the people who are trying to figure out the new language, the new paradigms, the new methods to study a changing church.

Tell us more about the context of your work.

The contextual center for this work is the Pacific Northwest. I was intentional in identifying the Pacific Northwest because it’s a context where religious organizations have a marginal social position. But at the same time, there’s a history of a kind of religious entrepreneurship. It’s a post-Christian context where there’s incredible creativity and innovation happening, and has been happening for a long time. So, many of the questions that individuals in other parts of the country are facing and thinking about right now—a decline in church attendance, the displacement of religion from the center of public life, shrinking budgets—are questions that people in the Pacific Northwest have been understanding and imagining and exploring for decades. As one leader shared, “Innovation is the water we swim in here.” I think this context offers incredible wisdom and insight for other communities and leaders who now find themselves in this post-Christian context.

What about your research surprised you?

This book is one of the few projects that has pre-COVID and post-COVID data. I worked with pastors, leaders, college presidents, and nonprofit leaders across the region in the years before the pandemic. Then, the pandemic hit and I had to circle back and have some more conversations. One of the things I learned was that the pandemic didn’t actually introduce entirely new challenges for many of these communities and their leaders. The challenges were certainly more acute in many ways, but in reality, what happened was that this moment exacerbated and surfaced existing challenges.

The other thing that was really surprising was the relentless hope. People who are leading on the other edge of uncertainty, on the other side of Christendom, they’re incredibly creative and they’re relentlessly hopeful. They’re not anxious about not being the center of public life. They’re not nervous about what happens if somehow religion, and Christianity in particular, is not at the center of the community. They’re actually really hopeful about what’s possible. I call this the power of possibility. There’s incredible possibility in this moment, and that’s what I want people to see in this book.

How does this project connect with the work of the Program for the Future Church?

The subtitle for the book is “Collaboration and Community in a Changing World.” The work that we’re doing in the Program for the Future Church centers collaboration. Also, some of this work and some of the communities that I got to work with established an imaginative template for what we’re trying to do in the Program. We’ve also talked about how the work of the Program for the Future Church is centering and working at the level of the ecclesial ecology. The vitality of the future church requires renewing and rebuilding these connections across the ecology. That certainly includes congregations, but it also includes nonprofit leaders and faith-based philanthropy and educational institutions and all these people who are innovating on the margins and don’t always feel like they really fit in existing spaces. We’re trying to create harbors of hope.

Another way the book is connected with the Program is by providing resources to think about the structure of collaboration and the practices that can guide partnership. That’s something we hope to address in the future as we explore the importance of collaborative leadership, and I’m grateful for the chance to develop empirically-based theories that we will then begin to test out over the course of the next few years.

Can you share a couple of the key takeaways of the book?

I want people who read this book to know that they are not alone. There are other people like you. And not just that, but there are people who are pursuing this richly theologically, scriptural and Christ-centered vision for the renewal of the church and local communities. If I could have readers hear anything, it’s that you’re not alone.

I also want to emphasize that there’s so much beautiful and hopeful work happening right now, right where we are. It’s happening at Truett. It’s happening in Waco. It’s happening in Seattle. It’s happening in Portland. It’s happening around the world. There’s good, beautiful, and creative work that is stirring an adaptive church. And now more than ever, we need more of this type of work, and we need to build the structures that can sustain an adaptive church. I’m hopeful about what’s happening. I’m hopeful about the future.

*Readers can pre-order a copy of Adaptive Church and receive 20% off and free shipping by using the code 17FALL22 at baylorpress.com.

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George W. Truett Theological Seminary