[This is the first of three posts inspired by Tod Bolsinger’s book, Canoeing the Mountains. Flourish San Diego recommends this book for any church longing for culture change and transformation.

We also invite you on June 1, 2017, to join Tod Bolsinger and Flourish San Diego for a Transformational Leadership Lunch and Canoeing the Mountains Seminar. Click HERE for more information.]

The church in the West is in decline. I could give you a bunch of statistics to convince you, but my guess is you probably don’t need any convincing. If you’re a pastor, a ministry leaders, or a church member, you’ve probably experienced it firsthand.

Why is this happening? At least part of the answer has to do with the fact that we live in an age that many are calling “Post-Christendom.” Post-Christendom is what comes after what has long been called “Christendom.”

Ok, let’s define these terms.

Christendom and Post-Christendom

Christendom was an age that lasted for about 1500 years—from the time the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity until about the middle of the twentieth century. Darrell Guder refers to Christendom as the “centuries in which Western civilization considered itself formally and officially Christian.”[1]

In Christendom…

  • when a baby is born, the baby gets baptized.
  • everyone is expected to go to church.
  • “missions” is what happens far away and “revival” is what happens at home.

Or as Alan Kreider puts it: “In Christendom everyone is a Christian.”[2]

But the Christendom era is no more. We now live in a Post-Christendom age.

No longer do we assume a person is a Christian or even approaches life from a generally Judeo-Christian worldview. No longer is the Bible accepted as a source of authority or truth, or as a guide for how to live. No longer do churches or pastors automatically hold positions of prominence in our communities or our culture.

This is a completely new reality and it has become a huge challenge for the church. Some would call it an “adaptive challenge.”

The Church is Facing an Adaptive Challenge

The first chapter of Tod Bolsinger’s book, Canoeing the Mountains, is called, “Seminary Didn’t Prepare Me For This.” This is the cry of every pastor in a Post-Christendom world.

According to Bolsinger, seminary prepared pastors to do essentially three things: 1) provide for Christian education, 2) lead worship services, and 3) provide pastoral care.[3] However, “[all] that we have assumed about leading Christian organizations,” Bolsinger states, “all that we have been trained for, is out of date.”[4]

A Post-Christendom world requires new skills.

The problem is we don’t know exactly what skills are needed! This is what Ronald Heifetz calls an “adaptive challenge.”

An adaptive challenge is a problem for which we do not yet know the solution. It is a problem that “cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high.”[5]

Here’s an example of an adaptive challenge.

In 1804, Lewis and Clark set out to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. They travelled the Missouri River to its source, expecting to find another river they could calmly canoe to the Pacific Ocean. What they found was the Rocky Mountains.

It was an adaptive challenge because they hadn’t prepared to climb mountains. They had no experts who could tell them how to navigate the Rockies.

Lewis and Clark had to adapt.

In Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger uses this as an apt metaphor for the church in a Post-Christendom world. The church prepared for a calm canoe ride, but here we are facing the Rocky Mountains—with no experts who can tell us what to do!

The very nature of Post-Christendom as an adaptive challenge requires the church to adapt.

Solving the Post-Christendom Challenge

The question is: What kinds of adaptations are required for a Post-Christendom church to truly be the church God is calling it to be?

The answer: We don’t know, yet! Discovering the answer to this question will require risk, experimentation, and adventure.

Of course, churches tend to shy away from adventure. Churches prefer safety. They lean toward predictability. But choosing to adventure is itself a first step in the process of adapting.

Here’s the reality: “We are in uncharted terrain trying to lead dying churches into a post-Christian culture that now considers the church an optional, out of touch and irrelevant relic of the past.”[6]

The sooner we accept this, the better. There are no experts who can tell us exactly what to do in a Post-Christendom world. We need to learn and discover while striking out on the adventure of navigating Post-Christendom.

This is why chapter two of Canoeing the Mountains is titled, “Adventure or Die”!

That about sums it up, doesn’t it? If we, the people of God, can’t find the courage to take risks, to try new things, to strike out on an adventure—our churches will die.

I know. That’s a bummer of a place to end this article. But there’s more to be said. How do we begin to find our way through Post-Christendom? How do we embark on this adventure? Read Bolsinger’s Canoeing the Mountains for a deep dive into those questions. And I’ll address those questions in my next two articles.


[1] Darrell Guder, Missional Church, pp. 5-6

[2] Alan Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, p. 94

[3] Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains. p. 13

[4] Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains, p. 28

[5] Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line, p. 13

[6] Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains, p. 31



Markus Watson
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