In Uncharted Territory, Adaptation is Everything

By Tod Bolsinger

August 27, 2016

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23


Someone consulting a mapAccording to historical geographer John Logan Allen, the moment Meriwether Lewis and his scouting party from the Corps of Discovery crested the Lemhi Pass looking for the Columbia River and found only miles and miles of snow capped peaks, was when his “geography of hope” gave way to the “geography of reality.”  And a disappointing reality it must have been.

When a mental model dies, a painful paradigm shift takes place within us. It is disorienting and anxiety making. It’s as if the world as we once knew it ceases to exist. Meriwether Lewis makes no comment about that world-rearranging moment in his journal, but Sgt. Patrick Gass describes his reaction some days later, saying that they “proceeded over the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.”  This is exactly the moment that the church faces today with the demise of Christendom and a changing topography of faith. In this new culture a new missional mental model is needed, and a new way of leading — and learning — is necessary.  Adaptive leadership is about “letting go, learning as we go, and keeping going.” As one scholar puts it: “Adaptive leadership consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face.”

In many ways, even though the Scripture tells us that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10), the growth of the gospel beyond Judaism to the Gentile nations was just this dramatic and unsettling to the first Apostles.  Even Peter floundered in disorientation as he sought to respond to the new thing the Spirit was doing and be faithful to the traditions he had been taught all of his life.  (Galatians 2:11ff).  But as this fledgling movement inspired by the resurrection of Jesus Christ spread throughout the Roman Empire, a former Pharisee, now named Paul, heard the voice of God call him to be the “apostle to the gentiles” (Romans 11:13), and led the church into a new season of creativity and expansion.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul offers us his wisdom for faithful adaptation: without sacrificing our convictions, we adapt to those whom we will serve.  We don’t ask seekers to become religious in order to find Jesus, we become more like Jesus who became like us.  We don’t ask those whom we are serving to accommodate us, we accommodate them in order to serve and lead.

This principle is hard for most of us. It requires giving up our privilege and comfort. It will feel like we are losing something precious to us.  Once we have a clear conviction and a way of doing things, we tend to hold on to it at all costs.  But what we learn from Paul in the first century and the Corps of Discovery in the 19th century is equally applicable for leading in a rapidly changing, disorienting season today.

While leadership in uncharted territory requires both learning and loss, once we realize that the losses won’t kill us, they can teach us. And mostly, we learn that to thrive off the map in an exciting and rapidly changing world means learning to let go, learn as we go and keep going no matter what.


In what ways do you find yourself having to accommodate the people you lead and serve today?  How do you feel about having to make these accommodations?

What is one concrete way that you can apply Paul’s principle of 1 Corinthians 9 to a group of people whom you are trying to reach with the gospel, serve or lead?

How do you discern the difference between what is a core conviction that cannot be compromised and something that you can adapt or change for a greater purpose?

In what ways do you need to grow in your leadership to be more like Paul in this way?

What do you need from God in your own life to be able to be more adaptable for the sake of God’s mission and your leadership?


Oh God, you are unchanging and ever faithful. You are the same yesterday, today, and forever.  But in Jesus you also took on human flesh, condescended to be with us, felt the pains of being a human, and bore our sins in your body.  As we seek to be part of your redemptive purposes in the world, help us discern between what we should never change and what can be adapted.  Help us know the difference between the truth of something and the form it takes, the conviction that we must hold and the changes we must make.  Help us be wise, courageous, creative, and true.  Help us to become more like Jesus everyday.  And it is for his glory that we pray.  Amen.


This devotional was adapted from Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. InterVarsity Press. 2015


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: Leadership and Decision Making in the Christian Community (Acts 15)

Tod Bolsinger

Executive Director

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Associate Professor of Leadership Formation Fuller Theological Seminary Tod Bolsinger joined Fuller Seminary in 2014 as vice president for vocation and formation and he now serves as Senior Fellow at the D...

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