Radical vs. Possible

I like to change things. It is in my personality to not take what is handed to me as a given. This is not to say that I am a contrarian, but, rather, that I like the potential of something far more than I like its present reality.

What I always get stuck on, however, is how to get to that change I see.

On the one hand is what could be called radical change. This is the kind of change where what you do tomorrow looks nothing like it did today. The processes are different. The expectations are different. The rewards are different.

This is the kind of change I experienced each and every time my wife gave birth to another of our four boys. Yes, it was still parenting, but adding a new child into the mix made the situation completely different. People would say to us, “Yeah, but after a certain point, isn’t another kid just another kid?” To which we would respond, “No. Having another kid is having another kid.“*

This is also the kind of change that is foisted upon you. You have no control. You must change or you will cease to be relevant or effective. Not surprisingly, my efforts to force radical change were not successful. I could be ignored, but you can’t pretend like an economic collapse or a fire that destroys your church building isn’t happening. You change or you die.

On the other hand, there is incremental change. This is the kind of change where the differences between what we did yesterday and what we will do tomorrow are significant enough to be meaningful, but they somehow “make sense.”

When I first arrived at the church I previously served I made a few significant changes to the order of worship. I moved this here and that there, and I extended the “Children’s Time” to a full blown 10-15 minute liturgy that became a congregation wide favorite part of the service.

These were changes I could, and did, introduce. I didn’t ask. I just did. The key was that those changes, in some way, made sense. The congregation had a frame of reference for what was happening. They didn’t know why I moved the “Welcome and Announcements” from the top of the service to after the Confession, Assurance, and Passing of the Peace, but they were able to make it work because the pieces and parts somewhat resembled what they had known.

Too often, we (I know this is true for me) want the radical change. We want it to happen now. We want things to be different now. But all too often we sacrifice what is possible in our pursuit of what is radical.

Steven Johnson calls pursuing incremental change seeking out “the adjacent possible.” His contention is that all innovation is “the story of a gradual but relentless probing” of what could come next given the pieces and parts at our disposal. “Evolution advances,” he says in Where Good Ideas Come From, “by taking available resources and cobbling them together to create new uses.”

I take heart at this. You or I don’t have to come up with a completely unthought of idea in order for things to move forward. All we have to do is take a look at what we’ve got available to us and ask, “What could we do with this stuff?”


*Yes, four sons. Comedian Jim Gaffigan recently tweeted, “Do you want to know what it’s like to have a 4th child? Imagine you’re drowning and someone hands you a 4th child.” Too true. Too. True.