Leading When the Water Level Drops Dramatically

My grandparents owned a vacation cabin on a lake in north-central Florida for almost forty years.

It was nothing fancy, but it was extremely meaningful. Four generations of the Briggs family spent precious time on this little piece of property nestled deep in the Ocala National Forest. The property was finally sold last year, but the memories I will carry with me for years to come. In those four decades, few things changed on Owens Lake, but the most significant change was the gradual drop in the level of the water due to long-term drought. While it provided extra lakefront property at no extra charge, it posed a significant problem for many property owners.

Several years ago, my oldest son and I were canoeing around the lake one afternoon. As I paddled, I noticed dozens of docks that no longer touched the water’s edge. Built years prior, when the water level was at a more normal level, these docks around Owens Lake served the purpose of connecting the land to the water. Once they served their purposes, but now none of those docks fulfilled their functions. Useful years ago, they were now irrelevant.

Our family cabin was one of the few properties on the lake that did not own a dock. On my canoe ride, I wondered if I were a property owner with a now-useless dock on my property what I would do.

  • I could add on to the dock and extend it another 15-20 feet out into the water. It would be involve a great amount of time and money, but the dock would be useful once again.
  • I could dig a narrow canal from the lake to the dock’s edge. It would involve more backbreaking work without a sustainable, long-term solution. It would function until the water levels would change again.
  • I could disassemble the dock and enjoy an unobstructed view. But, I’m still left with the same reality: no functioning dock.
  • I could disassemble the dock and start over, rebuilding one that extends out into the water – but if the water level goes down even further in the next several years I would have the same problem.
  • Or, the simplest option: I could ignore the issue and leave the dock as is. It doesn’t solve the issue, but if I don’t mind looking at it, who cares about the status quo.

But there was one more option I considered: I could build a floating dock. It’s not as stable as a dock permanently attached to land, but no matter what the level of the water, it would never become obsolete. Ironically, on the entire lake, not a single property owner had a floating dock.

The Changing Landscape

For years, if not decades, the North American Church, has been experiencing an eerily similar dilemma. If the land is the mission of God, the water is culture and the docks are local churches, our purpose is to work to connect and make accessible the mission of God with the current culture.

If the land is the mission of God, the water is culture and the docks are local churches, our purpose is to work to connect and make accessible the mission of God with the current culture. Click To Tweet

But we’ve noticed the water levels gradually receding. The stable churches that once met the needs of connecting God’s mission to the world with the cultural waters in previous generations are now hardly touching the cultural waters of today. Though the docks haven’t moved since they were built, the cultural water levels have changed significantly. These docks may be stable and impressive, but they are mostly useless and irrelevant.

But all this was before the coronavirus hit.

The New Reality

We’ve all witnessed how COVID-19 and its massive, unprecedented global impact has drastically impacted the water level in our cultural lake in a manner of just a few weeks. It’s left our permanent dock forms of how we “do church” to be even farther away from the current shoreline. Yes, there is still water in the lake today, but the current level is not anywhere near where it was just a few short weeks ago. Many churches have shifted to online church – and this is a good start for the immediate future. But this is just the beginning of a massive long-term shift in how the Church in North America connects to the new, lower cultural water levels.

Based on these unprecedented changes in water level, changes none of us ever imagined, churches in North American now have a decision to make moving into the future:

  • Do we add on to our already existing churches – new programs, styles, buildings or staff – but still running the risk being obsolete again in 15-20 years as the cultural water levels change again?
  • Do we ignore the issue altogether and let our churches continue on as they always have – further distancing our churches from the new reality, and in participating in God’s mission?
  • Do we give up and shut our church doors, either out of convenience or desperation?
  • Do we dig up the old docks of how we did church in the past and build another one with a different model, approach or style – but still run the risk of becoming irrelevant as the uncertain water levels rise and fall again?

Or, do we cultivate a mindset of adaptability by committing to learning how to construct floating docks, even when there is no instruction manual to follow?[1]

The Challenge Before Us

Certainly, building floating docks will lack the stability and predictability of the old pre-pandemic dock mindset we knew and cherished so much.

We will, most certainly, be challenged in learning new skills and engaging in new activities.

We will, most certainly, be required – involving much pain and discomfort – to unlearn our old dock-building ways in order to relearn new approaches.

We will, most certainly, get wet in the process.

But if our churches are to remain true to its purpose – connecting the mission of God to people, regardless of water level – we must be willing to lead courageously, creatively, and compassionately in the future. This is where our trust in the Holy Spirit must deepen and broaden. The Spirit is the great floating dock builder. From the beginning of time, and the beginning of the book of Acts, we can trust that the Great Floating Dock Builder will once again join us, guide us, lead us, and comfort us at the beginning of this new reality.

If our churches are to remain true to its purpose - connecting the mission of God to people, regardless of water level – we must be willing to lead courageously, creatively, and compassionately in the future. Click To Tweet

We may have been people in the past who cherished our permanently constructed docks, but in the new reality we must be the kinds of people who are committed to building floating docks – and willing to let go of the luxuries of stable-footedness and staying dry we once cherished.

The kingdom leaders of the new reality are called to construct floating docks together. This way will most certainly require unbelievable amounts of courage and sacrifice – especially our own personal preferences and ways we’ve used to “do church.” But the purpose of God’s dock-building mission still remains: to connect the cultural waters to the solid ground of Jesus Christ.


[1] The concept of the floating dock comes from the introduction of Eldership and the Mission of God by J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt (InterVarsity Press: 2015). Used by permission.


You can find a growing library of Resources for this new season of Church Leadership here

J.R. Briggs

J.R. Briggs is a National Trainer & Equipper for Fresh Expressions U.S. He is also the Founder of Kairos Partnerships, a ministry that seeks to love the Church by caring for Her leaders. His role with Kairos Partnerships is expressed through coaching, consulting, speaking, equipping and writing serving a wide variety of leaders, pastors, churches, non-profits, ministries, companies and denominations. He is affiliate faculty member in practical theology at Missio Seminary and guest instructor at Friends University in the Masters of Arts in Spiritual Formation program. He has guest lectured, taught and spoken at over a dozen colleges, universities, and seminaries around the U.S. He also serves as the Director of Leadership & Congregational Formation for The Ecclesia Network. He is an author, co-author and contributor of ten books that seek to equip and care for kingdom leaders. J.R. and his wife Megan have been married for over 15 years and have two sons, Carter and Bennett. They live in the heart of Lansdale, PA.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *