Lessons from Canoeing Dry River Beds

Reflections on the excellent book by Tod Bolsinger

      Allergies turned into a couple of fevers in the Sears household, and I took the extra time at home to finish reading the book, “Canoeing the Mountains,” by Tod Bolsinger. Bolsinger uses the story of Lewis and Clark as an allegory for modern church leadership. Lewis and Clark were commissioned as explorers, and all the experts of the time told them to expect a river route to the Pacific; yet once they got into uncharted territory, they found no river route, but more mountains. Rather than canoe the mountains, they had to adapt and become mountaineers, just as churches today must come to terms with the reality that the experts of past generations didn’t prepare us for the specifics of our journey, and we have to adapt to survive. However, Bolsinger warns, many do try to canoe dry riverbeds, even though the time has changed, and the river isn’t there anymore.

           I was both refreshed and challenged by the book. With COVID-19, lockdowns and economic problems, many across the country are wondering what is next, in all areas of their life, including church. How do we take the next steps in this very different world?

           Bolsinger has bad news for you who are expecting perfection from your leaders, be it those of us who serve The Fountain as elders, a mentor, a political leader or boss. They (and we) will disappoint. In fact, leading, in some measure, involves disappointing others you lead. It’s hard to break the news to individuals that “normal isn’t coming back.” That can be very disappointing to hear. There is, of course, hope, as well: new, uncharted territory to explore and wonderful discoveries to be made.

           Bolsinger drew attention to how unusual the party of Lewis and Clark was. They were military by nature, and yet collaborative. While it would be simple if churches just consisted of spiritual soldiers all taking their assignments from commanding officers, it doesn’t work that way. Each of us has different gifts and passions, and each community has different needs. This means communicating with each other about our passions and skills and discovering where they meet the needs of our community.

At times, Lewis and Clark empowered the native mother who was with them with a vote, and they did so with a slave, a man named York, as well. Sacagawea and York were unusual traveling companions, and Bolsinger suggests learning from those “native” to the new world we are in, and those on the margins. New and younger voices need to be a part of the discussion of what’s next for churches and how best to reach the unchurched around us.

The author chose a humorous illustration for his closing section. He shared honestly that many pastors and church leaders feel torn between “taking the hill” — that is, charging into their community for evangelism and best connecting with the unchurched and winning them for Christ — and “taking care of grandma.” He makes the later more loving and gentile than the phrase might come across at first when you first hear it. I’ve grown to love many of our oldest members in a special way. I still regularly think of Charles Douglas’s recent passing, as he was someone I connected with really well, and it was my joy to occasionally give him a ride to a doctor’s office. In short, we love our grandmas! Some leaders feel a tension, with only so much time: do we take care of existing members and meet their need; or do we reach out? Bolsinger tells us we have a much harder job: we have to “take the hill WITH Grandma!”

           Bolsinger’s charge is hard, and he knows it. The unchurched are increasingly different from existing church members. They talk different languages, wear different clothes, listen to different music and decorate differently. They are a full-blown different culture. I’m thankful that we started Organic Outreach before I was even here and reaffirmed by a congregation- wide vote that we wanted to reach young families after I got here. That means that all of us are taking care of one another and trying to “take the hill.” We are still navigating that challenge together. 

           DHF’s Rick grace pulled out a quote from Wayne Kent’s final sermon as senior pastor at FCC Decatur and shared it on social media: "If we continue to 'do church' the way we want it done, we will do so at the expense of the next generation” Throughout Bolsinger’s book, he informs the reader to, “Keep going, learn as you go, and don’t stop no matter what.” And I think it’s a good admonition. The destination has not changed, the Gospel won’t change, but our tactics in sharing it will. Challenges will continue to come, experiments tried, mistakes made, even some disappointments, but we have a wonderful opportunity here. A rich history as a body of believers and a growing town full of people who need to hear the Gospel.

           We recently passed the 4th anniversary of my call to The Fountain, then First Christian Church Visalia. More than half of my time here has been impacted by COVID-19 and lockdowns. I had no idea what was in store for me; neither did the Elders. Some Elders have moved or gotten ill, and we have also added new Elders to our leadership team. If you feel like what Bolsinger called a “Grandma” or you’re new around here, please know that we value you both. We desire to honor our legacy, and to adapt. It won’t be easy, but we intend to follow Bolsinger’s advice to, “Keep going, learn as you go, and don’t stop no matter what.”

Matthew 28:18-20 - And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”