Missional characteristics of an adept church

November 2nd, 2022

Understanding the four key characteristics of missional congregations can help a congregation that wants to move forward and live more missionally. Missional congregations are incarnational, sacramental, creational, and eschatological. Translating these theological terms in everyday language, we can say that missional congregations are contextual, communal, innovative, and visionary. As congregations become more adept at living out these missional characteristics, they will exhibit more canal traits.


The opening chapter of John’s Gospel is helpful in understanding what it means to be incarnational or contextual. Perhaps you are familiar with these words from the King James Bible: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a). Eugene Peterson’s presentation of the Bible in contemporary language puts it this way: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14a MSG). This image of “moving into the neighborhood” captures in everyday language the nature of the incarnation of Christ. Jesus is present and real right where we live, right before our eyes. We literally can reach out and touch Jesus. And Jesus in return can touch us.

Available from MinistryMatters

What does it mean to be an incarnational or contextual church? An incarnational church is present and real right where we live. Those in the community can touch the church. And the church can touch them. For a church to be missional, to participate in God’s transforming work, it must be contextual. It must touch others and be touched by others. How does this characteristic apply to swamp, reservoir, and canal churches? 

Swamp Churches—A swamp congregation has little or no contact with the community. A swamp congregation is not becoming flesh and blood because a church that is not alive and vital cannot become flesh and blood. In fact, the swamp congregation is dying and returning to dust. A dying congregation is moving in the opposite direction of incarnation. 

Picture a congregation that is surrounded by some houses, a school not too far away, and one or two small businesses. The congregation’s only connections to the community are collect- ing money for backpacks at the start of school and assembling a Thanksgiving basket for a needy family. They have no per- sonal contact with the school children or the needy family. The congregation cannot figure out why no one comes to worship or Bible study. In its mind, it is engaging the community. Remember, being contextual requires touching others and others touching you. This congregation is to some extent touching others, but they do not allow others to touch them. 

Because swamp churches do not share themselves with others, they cannot become flesh and blood in their neighborhoods. The swamp congregation described above holds the mindset that it does its part, but people don’t reciprocate. The reality is the congregation is still operating with an inward mentality; it does nothing to allow those in the community to touch and see that they are real. 

Reservoir Churches—A reservoir church has contact with the community. People come to its clothing closet or monthly soup meal. It is touching those in the community and to some extent allowing those in the community to touch them. Unlike a swamp congregation, folks in the community know the reservoir church exists. When they encounter the congregation, they are made comfortable because people in the congregation are polite, but they are not made to feel welcome in a sense of being known. A reservoir church becomes flesh in the sense of becoming a familiar place that provides a service, sometimes even a necessary service. The church is a place to go for goods, but it remains only one of many places to go for goods. Those who come do not experience the fullness of being known. They are treated like clients and feel like clients, just as they would at any other social agency. They experience the physical presence of the congregation, but most of them never experience the life- giving blood that is transforming. 

Canal Churches—A canal congregation becomes flesh and blood in the community, touching the lives of others and allowing others to touch it. It does so by taking an active interest in the lives of those in the community, by going to the people rather than expecting people to come to them. It builds rela- tionships daily by meeting and engaging people away from the church edifice, not simply showing up for worship on Sunday. A canal congregation knows its neighbors and prays for them daily. A canal congregation partners with local organizations for the benefit of the community. It is part of the lifeblood of the community and the community would not be the same without it. A canal congregation is contextual because it is committed to being part of the daily lives of those around the church. This must be a congregation-wide effort, not just something the pas- tor does. Each person in the church can be a channel running between church and community. This is how a canal congrega- tion is fully present and real in a community.


We use the word community in relation to many different entities in society and the church. Most of us participate in several different communities at the same time. We may be part of a work community, a community where we live, some other organization like a sorority or fraternity, and so on. Each of these different types of communities is bound together by a common story, a shared narrative that shapes the ways members of the community engage one another. For example, a work community’s story may recall the company’s founding and the colorful characters that have made an impact over the years. The story may also feature the traditions and practices that bind people together. Such a story may be inviting to new people, or it may deter others from feeling they are part of that company’s community.

The church is no different. It also has a story with colorful characters. It has traditions and practices that bond individuals together. For many Christians, baptism and Communion are the central elements of those traditions and practices. Baptism and Communion recall the broader Christian story, but they also capture the story of the local congregation. The importance of baptism and Communion to the Christian community cannot be understated. Through baptism one becomes part of the great cloud of witnesses across Christian traditions, but also part of a specific local congregation. Partaking of Communion, one continues to live out the connection between God and neighbor.

In both baptism and Communion, the community shares its common story and continues to participate in that story. In baptism, we enter a community that commits to form us as we grow in discipleship. In Communion, we live out our discipleship by sharing God’s grace as it has been shared with us. Although baptism is a one-time event, the work of formation is ongoing. Communion—whether we partake weekly, monthly, or according to some other schedule—gives us an opportunity to be God’s ambassadors. At the Lord’s Table, we are renewed for that work. Communion nourishes us for our work as disciples. That includes accepting our individual and communal calling to be God’s ambassadors in the community. We truly must give ourselves away as Jesus gave himself away for us.

Swamp Churches—Swamp congregations may like the traditions of baptism and Communion but never truly embody the story they tell. The truth is, most swamp congregations have very few baptisms because there is little new life in these churches. They may come to the Communion Table monthly, just because they are in the habit of doing so, but they do not recognize how this sacrament links them to a story larger than themselves. In swamp congregations, the story is flat because participants are just going through the motions. They take the consecrated elements but are unmoved by the spiritual encounter. A swamp congregation is more interested in preserving the tradition of what has happened in the past and misses the ongoing call to live the story in the present and future.

A community that no longer sees itself as living the story is going to die. It begins to develop a story of hoarding and focusing on itself. Their story only takes place within the church walls. It does not extend to those outside who may hunger for a new story.

A living story comes to life through action. If you have ever watched a movie through 3D glasses, it appears that the action is jumping off the screen and coming right at you. The story feels alive. Maintaining a tradition is not a bad thing. But if it becomes rote, it does not bring the story to life, just like the story never comes alive in a bad movie where the actors are obviously just mailing in their performances. A congregation is called to live the story and not simply mail it in.

Reservoir Churches—A reservoir congregation is living out the story. Some people in the congregation may do things by rote, but most people see themselves as participants in the story. These congregations have more baptisms than swamp congregations. And in some cases, they start forming individu- als in the story at a young age. These congregations are taking the story of Communion seriously and giving themselves away in some fashion.

The challenge for these congregations is the tendency to do for people instead of with people. Imagine a congregation trying to reach a group of college students. The congregation forms a committee to determine how to reach the students. They decide the best approach is a Saturday event of some type around lunchtime. They are all very excited and start making extrav- agant plans to welcome the students to the Saturday event. They ask the few students who are in the congregation to help them spread the word. These students agree to spread the word but share that Saturday at noon is not a good time because of football and basketball games. The committee glosses over the students’ comments and charge ahead. Three months into the new Saturday effort the committee is disappointed by the low turnout and ready to give up on reaching students.

This scenario plays out repeatedly in many reservoir congregations. Someone comes up with a good idea and a committee is formed. The committee charges full steam ahead without con- sulting those they are trying to reach. They are seeking to touch the community but are not leaving space for the community to touch them. Planning to do something in the community with- out consulting those they seek to reach comes across as paternalistic. It sends the message, “We know what is best for you.” Certainly, this is not the intent of the congregation, but it is the result of not allowing the community to touch them.

Reservoir congregations are different from swamp congregations in that they take seriously the call to share the bread of life with the world. They come to the Lord’s Table with an understanding that God is calling them to live out what is being given and experienced. Unfortunately, reservoir congregations miss the fact that Communion is about building community together and not dictating the shape it takes. It requires making space for those you seek to be in communion with so they can help shape the community. Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that anything goes. What is shaped together needs to reflect the body of Christ. But a shared vision is more likely to be successful than a dictated one.

In reservoir congregations, we see the importance of sharing the story but also the importance of how that story is shared. The way we invite others into the community matters. Why would someone want to be baptized into a story that they have no part in constructing? To touch others, we must share our story. But to allow others to touch us, we must allow them to become a part of the story.

Canal Churches—A canal congregation is fully living out the story. It is touching the lives of others and allowing others to touch them. Baptism is more than just a ritual. It is the beginning of the journey toward becoming a disciple. The community has structures in place to help everyone entering the community—babies, children, and adults—to begin this journey. For instance, it takes more than a class to learn to practice stewardship by committing prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It is an ongoing process no matter where you are on your spiritual journey.

Communion in canal congregations deepens the way an individual is being formed to share their gifts with God and neighbor. Living out Communion means being invitational in the same way we invite all to God’s Table. It means we come to God’s Table not simply because we are in the habit of doing so, but because we are truly opening ourselves to God. We come with the expectation that God will touch us.

Returning to my example of a congregation starting a college ministry, a canal congregation would start by inviting college students from the congregation and students not yet a part of the congregation to help shape the ministry. In this way, they are seeking to touch the lives of the students but are also open to the students touching them. Certainly, this is more work with no guarantee of success. But it is a more relational approach that moves beyond a swamp and reservoir mentality.

Canal congregations truly embody the story of Communion by giving themselves away to others in order to bring others around the table. Canal congregations continually seek to “draw the circle wide”—an image made popular by the hymn of the same name by Gordon Light and Mark Miller. The work of expanding community is always challenging, but canal congregations understand this is their calling.


Through the prophet Jeremiah, God reveals that something new is going to take place. God is making a new covenant. The old covenant was created to establish Israel as a nation. The laws were given to Moses on stone tablets.

The new covenant will be written in the minds and hearts of God’s people (Jer 31:31-33). The new covenant is an innovation on the old covenant. It is created in a way that maintains boundaries and order but allows a certain freedom since it is not literally written in stone. Innovation is not simply doing away with everything that has come before it. Innovation creates space for a new thing to take place by lifting some of the confining characteristics of what has gone before, while continuing to stay in alignment with the same purpose or mission.

In Jeremiah 31, God reveals that the old covenant is going away and a new one is coming. The new covenant is still about God’s laws. The expectation is that everyone will embody these laws in new ways and not just see them as words written on stone. The point of innovation is not just to do something new but to do something new that moves toward a positive change. When he healed on the Sabbath, Jesus offered an innovative interpretation of the law, one that would benefit the community, while the temple leaders who challenged him still saw the law as written in stone.

Swamp Churches—Swamp congregations struggle to innovate because they operate as if everything is written in stone. For example, imagine a congregation having a conversation about moving the family Christmas Eve service to the community center down the street. The traditional service would stay at the church, but moving the family service might con- nect with more families. A backlash develops. What if another family shows up? How will it impact the two families currently attending the church? A swamp congregation is so inwardly focused it cannot innovate because it feels like the things it holds dear will be taken away. These congregations cannot seek to be fully alive because they exist simply for the sake of survival. Hunkering down and settling for mere existence is not the way to be fully alive.

Swamp congregations often avoid innovation because it feels like drastic change. Although innovation does, in most cases, require change, change is not necessarily a negative. Swamp congregations fail to see that it is possible for innovation to maintain the purpose while making life more vital in some fashion. For example, the ability to ride an escalator and not walk up a long staircase is for most people a positive innovation. But it is an innovation that serves the same purpose—moving people from one place to another.

Reservoir Churches—Reservoir congregations do a little better at innovation. They understand that you cannot simply hunker down and expect others to find you. For example, a reservoir congregation would likely not have an issue with the idea of moving the family Christmas Eve service to the community center. In fact, it may even embrace the move and think about cookies and other things to share with the families who come. The hitch is that the reservoir congregation is going to plan the service without the input of anyone connected to the community center. The service may be exceptional, touching those who come. The problem is those attending do not have an oppor- tunity to return the touch. Being innovative is important, but innovation should include input from those with whom you seek to be in relationship. Your innovative ideas may get people to events, but they will treat the events like an attraction that you visit until the next attraction comes along, unless you seek their input and focus on building relationships.

Reservoir congregations must do new things. But they cannot fall into the trap of planning more events that are merely attractional. They need to include others in developing the new idea so they will feel a part of what is taking place. To some extent, being innovative is the easy part. The challenge is being innovative in a way that helps to build relationships with others and makes the community as a whole better.

Canal Churches—Canal congregations understand the importance of innovation. Canal congregations are looking for ways to do new things that will have positive impact. There is a willingness to think outside of the box and experiment with new approaches. It does not mean everything works, but individuals are invited to think and act on “What if we...?” without fear of getting shut down.

A canal congregation embraces the idea of moving the family Christmas Eve service, and it then looks to partner with individuals at the community center to develop the service. The goal is not simply to take what was done at the church and transplant it to the community center. The goal is to share the Christmas story with the families who come in a manner that connects with them. Perhaps the service takes the form of a play or production that allows the children to participate but without a lot of preparation. Canal congregations understand the need for doing new things in a manner that includes voices beyond the congregation. Canal congregations are also more innovative because they are willing to fail. Canal congregations are not hung up on things having to turn out perfect. This frees them to try new things without the fear of hearing, “I told you it was a bad idea” or “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” Innovation is perceived as a way of further participating in God’s transforming work and not a burden that detracts from everything the con- gregation holds dear.


The book of Habakkuk is helpful when thinking about visioning. Habakkuk questioned God about the dire circumstances of his people. “And then God answered: Write this. Write what you see. Write it out in big block letters so that it can be read on the run. This vision-message is a witness pointing to what’s coming. It aches for the coming—it can hardly wait! And it doesn’t lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait. It’s on its way. It will come right on time” (Hab 2:2-3 MSG). Imagine seeing hopes and dreams about how your congregation can participate in God’s work of transformation written in big block letters so you cannot miss it, no matter where you may be!

The truth is, most congregations have a vision. But is it a vision that pulls them toward the future God is bringing to fruition? Is that vision filed away in a desk drawer and rarely mentioned unless someone happens to bring it up? Congregations must always live in the tension between where they are in the present and where they need to be in the future. Unfortunately, too many churches are satisfied with where they are and have no vision for where they need to be in the future. A vision that truly points toward God’s future requires more than lip service.

Swamp Churches—Swamp congregations are satisfied with the status quo. Certainly, these congregations are not writing in big block letters, “We want to stay just as we are!” But what they say and do has the same effect. Swamp congregations talk about what they used to be and avoid conversations about what they can become. The latter requires a vision for moving forward in a way that alters the congregation’s story. In many cases, it is not that they cannot embody a different story, but they choose not to.

Imagine a congregation that thrived as the family church. It was known in the community as the family church. But in recent years, only three or four families have been attending. The church is still living out the narrative of being a family church, yet it no longer has a thriving children’s ministry or nursery. A developer builds a new apartment complex within walking distance of the church where young and mostly single twenty-something and thirtysomething adults are renting. Instead of reimagining its story to reach young singles, the church continues to have a vision of being the family church. It is not that young single neighbors are opposed to family, but they cannot picture themselves in the church’s story.

Swamp congregations struggle because they are unwilling to alter their story even when it is time to do so. The vision never moves beyond what the church is now or what it used to be. Often these congregations believe they are honoring current members and being faithful to the past by preserving their story instead of seeking to live into God’s future.

Reservoir Churches—Reservoir congregations have a vi- sion for the future. Reservoir congregations know that simply maintaining the status quo will lead to death. They want others to join them in doing God’s work. These congregations construct visions around reaching people and doing things for the community. Reservoir congregations are committed to the pres- ent but have an eye on the future as it relates to the church moving forward.

Returning to the example of a congregation that sees itself as a family church, a reservoir congregation finds ways to adapt that story to carry it forward. For example, it reframes the story to reach out to the twenty- and thirty-somethings in the new apartments by saying, “We are a church where you can be a part of our diverse, intergenerational family.” Reservoir congregations are willing to alter their story when it ceases to be a compelling vision. But the focus of the story is still the church. These congregations are unwilling to embrace a narrative that does not center around themselves. The vision must still fit inside the box of who they want to be.

Reservoir congregations have an opportunity for moving toward a new future. When they adapt their stories, they may move outside of the box in ways they never imagined. But these congregations can fall back to swamp congregations if the adapted vision fails. The tendency is to become inwardly fo- cused and not to think about other ways of adapting. Because reservoir congregations focus on doing things for people, they are vulnerable when individuals outside the church reject their narrative. Reservoir congregations have to work hard at keeping current members engaged in ways that allow them to adapt their story for the future.

Canal Churches—Canal congregations have a vison for the future that requires discerning where God is leading them. It is not that swamp and reservoir congregations are not discerning, but that canal congregations are more willing to alter their story to follow where God is leading. This requires recognizing the importance of helping individuals on their faith journey right now but also having an eye toward where God will lead the congregation next, even if it is a 180-degree change. The truth is, most congregations are unwilling to alter their story significantly because they will feel displaced. Canal congregations believe others can enrich their story in a way that helps them participate more fully in God’s transforming work.

Continuing the example of the congregation that was known as the family church, a canal congregation is willing to let go of that story and adopt a new story. For example, the new story may focus on finding community with others who are seeking a place to belong. Certainly, this new story is not a complete departure from the idea of family, but it is not focused on maintaining the family theme. The goal is to develop a story that connects with those in the community who you are seeking to reach. It is important to involve those in the community as you construct a new story. Deciding how to move forward cannot simply be determined in a church committee room. It must emerge from conversations with people in the community.

Canal congregations are truly seeking to be connectors in the way they live out the gospel. Their vision reflects this commitment to connecting with those inside and outside of the church. The challenge for canal congregations arises when they cease to connect with those outside of the congregation and settle for making decisions based on their own preferences. Canal congregations must work hard to fully engage insiders and outsiders at all times as they seek to live out the vison of participating in God’s transforming work.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Whether a congregation is a swamp, a reservoir, or a canal shapes the way it takes on the missional characteristics of being contextual, communal, innovative, and visionary. All these types of congregations can feel they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. A swamp congregation feels caught between closing its doors or giving up its identity. Neither seems like a good choice. A canal congregation feels the pressure of constantly trying to live into God’s vision or receding toward becoming inwardly focused. And neither seems like a good choice.

Part of this tension is that a congregation never has the luxury of resting in place. Congregations are constantly hav- ing to think about how they can continue to move positively into the future instead of receding in a negative direction. For congregational leaders, this constant need to move forward for fear of falling backward can feel overwhelming. For leaders in swamp and reservoir congregations, just getting beyond the sta- tus quo seems overwhelming and hopeless. They need practical first steps to help their congregations become more missional. Here are a few questions to help a congregation figure out where it falls and needs to move.


  1. What is the story the congregation believes about itself? What is the story outsiders believe about the congregation? 
  2. Who is the congregation seeking to touch beyond the church? 
  3. Are we willing to do anything differently? If yes, what? If no, is it time for us to close? 


  1. What is the story the congregation believes about itself? What is the story outsiders believe about the congregation? 
  2. How are we allowing others to touch us beyond the church? 
  3. Are we willing to change our story to connect with others? If yes, how? If no, are we willing to move toward a swamp mentality? 


  1. What is the story the congregation believes about itself? What is the story outsiders believe about the congregation? 
  2. Are we becoming complacent in the way we touch lives and they touch our lives? 
  3. Are we continuing to discern where God is leading us? If yes, how? If no, are we willing to move toward a reservoir mentality? 

These questions are a way of entering into a discussion around being missional. I am not suggesting every congregation should be or can be a canal congregation. But I do believe we need more reservoir congregations. We need more congregations that are not hunkering down and just living out their time, congregations that are truly committed to participating in God’s transforming work. It is true that congregations cannot escape being stuck between a rock and a hard place, but they can decide a missional way of moving forward.


Excerpted from The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place by F. Douglas Power, Jr. Copyright © 2020 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

comments powered by Disqus