Mastering the In Between: How to create enduring solutions in unpredictable times

David Smith, author of Mission After Christendom, writes, “Every day the church must wake up and ask herself, ‘What kind of day is today?’ for no two days are alike in her history.”

So, what kind of day is today? I would suggest that we live in a time of liminality. Liminality is defined as that time when “what used to work, no longer works, but what will work has not yet been discovered.” Liminality is expressed in the intersection between two sigmoid curves.

An example of a liminal state is preteen boys in tribal societies who are wrested from their mothers, circumcised and live together for a season with the men of the tribe across the river before their initiation into full manhood: no longer children, but not yet men.

Another example of liminality is the people of Israel when they were carried off into captivity, sitting by the rivers of Babylon. Everything they knew about connecting with God through a temple and a calendar back in Jerusalem no longer worked. How they would connect with God in a foreign land had not yet been discovered. But it would be discovered.

Liminality involves discarding what no longer works to create space for what will work. There was a time when King Hezekiah had to actually destroy the bronze serpent that Moses had fashioned—one of God’s temporary tools that he used mightily for a season that now had outlived its usefulness (2 Kings 18:4).

COVID 19 has put all of us in a liminal state. Churches that were packed on March 8, 2020 were cavernously empty the next Sunday. And for this past year we’ve been swimming in this liminal space, trying to figure out how to fulfill the mission of God in our new reality.

But we, like the Israelites, can figure this out. For its first 270 years, the church never had a church building. Perhaps their missional task, in their time of liminality, was to figure out how to fulfill their mission, once they had a permanent meeting place. A bit ironic isn’t it?

Any time there is a global shift in climate, every species needs to adapt, or it will soon be extinct. Extinction, for us, is not an option. In liminal times, there is confusion because the path is unclear, but the good news is we are not victims of a future state, we actually get to help create that future state. But how?


Since the day of Pentecost every church has had to continually solve for five problems if they were to grow and thrive. These five “jobs” are found in what my colleague Matt Engle and I call “The Church Engagement Framework.” The framework acts as every church’s operating system, which supports any program you might choose to run on that system.

  • Attract: The ability to make people aware that your church exists
  • Get: The ability to get people in the door for the first time—whether for a weekend service, online service or a special event
  • Keep: The ability to retain visitors, start them on their engagement journey and “close the back door”
  • Grow: The ability to grow disciples in your church’s growth model, whatever that might be. A growth model is your de facto theory of growth and change. “If people do _____ (e.g. small group, giving, serving, etc.), they change and grow into a disciple.”
  • Multiply: The ability to develop leaders who are multiplying the mission of the church through their leading of small groups and ministry initiatives, giving over $500/year to the church[1], serving internally or externally, inviting, discipling and advocating for the church. We usually call these congregants “engaged” because they are engaged in multiplying the mission of the church.[2] They have moved from consumers of the mission to contributors to the mission.


A co-worker of mine, who worked with Google for many years in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, once told me that at Google they defined two types of problems. The first type were what they called complicated problems. Complicated problems are really difficult, but there is a known solution. So, if we had all the parts of a car’s engine on the floor in front of us and were asked to build the engine, well, that would be a complicated problem. But if we had all the right tools and an instruction manual, we could build an engine. We may not enjoy the work, but we could do it.

Complex problems, on the other hand, are problems for which there is no known solution, in which case, the best thing we can come up with is a hypothesis for what might solve our problem and then run an experiment to validate our hypothesis.

The following are five steps to solve complex problems:

  1. Clearly define the problem you want solved around Attract, Get, Keep, Grow or Multiply. For example, “How can we get people that no other church is attracting or getting?
  2. Create a hypothesis of what you think might solve the problem. A hypothesis, you remember, goes something like this: “We believe that if we did _____, it would lead to more of (or less of) _____.” So, your hypothesis might look something like this. “We believe that if we began a 45-minute service on Thursday evenings, with childcare and children’s programs, it would lead to more unchurched people in our city coming to our church.”
  3. Run your experiment for a short period of time (e.g. Thursday night service for two months).
  4. Measure the results.
  5. If it is successful, keep improving it. If it is not successful, what did you learn? What else can you try to solve your problem? Don’t stop solving if first experiment didn’t work.


King Solomon probably invented this experimental process. He started with a problem he wanted to solve—to discover “what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives” (Ecclesiastes 2:3). The entire book of Ecclesiastes is his lab notes, documenting his work to solve this problem. He created hypotheses, ran experiments around pleasure, riches, accomplishments, great projects, etc. Then he measured results and repeated the process over and over again, until he finally found his answer in Ecclesiastes 12:13. “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” If Solomon, who was the wisest of the wise, couldn’t discover the right path through personal inspiration but had to experiment until he got it right, how can we expect to do any better?


[1] National giving data tells us that approximately a third of churchgoers give nothing to their church, a third give $1-$500 per year to their church and a third give over $500 per year to their church. Those who give over $500 per year account for over 90 percent of all gifts to the church.

[2] AGKGM can also be used for any ministry segment within your church. What will you do to AGKGM millennials, young families, college students, digital ministry, etc.


This article was extracted from Issue 5 (Spring 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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