The Biggest Elephant 5 – Formulaic or Flexative

‘It’s not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent,

but the most responsive to change’

                                                                             Charles Darwin

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This is the fifth in a series of posts on the topic of what I call the ‘Biggest Elephant’ in the ‘Mission Operations Room’, namely Church Leadership. In this series I have mentioned a number of characteristics of the Australian Church (that I have called the ‘lesser Elephants’) which are to various degrees causal factors in the Western Church’s chronic lack of missional fruit. These include issues such as persisting with the standard, long-failing ‘SIC’ church model as the platform for mission, ‘SIC’ being an acronym for Sunday-Centric, In- Drag (into Sunday services) Christendom-Form, (i.e. the same centuries-old basic form of church); the continuing use of 90% plus of available Church resources for the maintenance and operation of the expensive, and chronically missionally failing, standard church, rather than mission to local communities; the lack of Cultural Intelligence in developing culturally appropriate missional strategies; and the repeated use of previously failed outreach activities and many more. See ‘Something Completely Different’ for a more detailed explanation.

The relevance of Church Leadership to missional failure is quite obvious, because it is only leaders (at all levels) who are in a position to bring about the urgently needed substantive change, and to deal with the systemic roadblocks that continue to vitiate missional endeavours. The tragedy is however that, with a very few glorious exceptions, they do not!

This leads me to the subject of this post, one that I believe is central to any future missional success, and that is what I call ‘Flexative Leadership’.

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In terms of missional leadership there are two very different approaches that can be taken. They are –

Formulaic – A term I use to describe the traditional leadership of the ‘SIC’ Church model and its missional strategies.

Flexative – A term coined to describe the type of leadership and leaders required for the current missional challenge.

First – Formulaic Leadership

Formulaic thinking about local mission is the mindset that is controlled by following formulae. It generally follows a formula as to where and when the ‘church’ meets, i.e. in a purpose built, or rented building; follows a formula for what is done in the ‘meeting’, i.e. the ’Liturgy’ whether written or assumed; implements outreach programs (formulas) for mission that are almost always imported from somewhere else, even overseas, where ‘they were a great success’.

Formulaic thinking assumes that the future has a certain degree of fixity and so is predictable, this to a large extent based on what has happened, and how things were done, in the past.

Formulaic thinkers start with a fixed ‘End’ in mind (e.g. a Classic church plant), set in a predictable and fixed future physical-cultural context. Then they use a set formula to achieve that ‘End’, usually a formula they’ve used before.

The example of the Church Plant usually follows a well tried formula that goes something like – build or obtain the use of a fixed facility, in a fixed place where a fairly fixed model of ‘church’ and ‘church’ style is established, which will operate at a fairly fixed time, (usually on Sundays or at least weekends). The formula includes the gathering of the resources needed to enact it, i.e. funds, personnel, property etc.

Second – Flexative Leadership

In contrast, ‘Flexative’ thinking[1] is a form of reasoning or problem solving which assumes the future is largely unpredictable (a very relevant ‘Truth’ in our time), but when we arrive there it can to a significant extent be controlled through human action. To put it another way, it is about adapting to and managing whatever cultural context ‘turns up’ and whenever it does so. 

Flexative thinkers start with the resources available and set out on a journey where the ‘End’ (even Ends) is not necessarily pre-determined and indeed may in fact vary, or it can even be that new ‘Ends’ appear along the way.

The Flexative thinking leader starts with the goal of winning the lost. They then ask the question ‘where do the lost, the neo-pagan members of society already regularly gather’? Having determined the answer to that question (which may be a pub, workplace, Café, Playgroup, Club etc) they then say ‘Then let’s go there!’ and do what is necessary to create or shape a Missional Community in that location or activity.

Flexative leadership, as the word itself indicates, is highly flexible, and so will be fully prepared to adopt Paul’s attitude to –

become ALL things to ALL people so that by ALL possible means I might save some’ 1 Corinthians 9:22

That is a verse that appears to have been removed from the Bibles used in many churches. I would suggest that this is because Formulaic thinking, with the limitations applied by its emphasis on Forms, doesn’t allow for ALL! (Upper case letters my emphasis)

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The Flexation mindset can best be illustrated by a number of basic principles-

1. The Bird in Hand Principle
‘Flexative Thinkers’ start with what they have. As an illustration, if a cook were to act Flexatively, he or she would concoct an unknown dish with whatever ingredients were already available in the kitchen pantry, not follow a known recipe for what he/she wanted to make.[2] Whereas the ‘Formulaic thinker’ decides in advance what they want to make then, generally following a previously used recipe (formula), or ‘what we or others have done before’, goes and purchases the required ingredients. 

The ‘Flexative thinker’ says ‘Start with what you have’ instead of waiting for the perfect conditions to arrive. This may be for example: a bunch of Christians who have five dollars each for a coffee and are willing to meet at the same time each week in a local Coffee Shop.

It can also use an existing activity, e.g. a Playgroup, Self-defence group, Craft group etc. that may be turned into a Missional Community. These are examples of using already existing activities where many unchurched and de-churched people already attend and converting them into Missional Communities.

All this is in stark contrast to ‘Formulaic’ missional thinking which will seek to garner new, usually expensive, resources to create a specific ‘End’, e.g. a Church plant. Whereas the ‘Flexative’ thinker just asks the question what resources already lie at hand that I can use to create or form into a Missional Community?

2. The Lemonade Principle
There is a saying that ‘If life deals you lemons, make lemonade’. Applied to mission, this principle describes Flexative thinking that will be willing to exploit whatever resources are available and the opportunities that turn up, whenever they do so and however unexpected they may be. This characteristic is a combination of entrepreneurship, opportunism, creativity, and especially adaptability. Sadly, these attributes are not generally found in any abundance in contemporary churches.

3. The ‘Lego’ Principle

This is the key mindset needed for the unpredictable, successive waves of cultural change rolling towards us on our missional journey into the neo-pagan micro-cultures of 21st century western society. It requires that the missional vehicles are constructed from something like a ‘Lego’ set. That is, the vehicles initially constructed for mission can be broken up and reconstructed into new forms as often as changing cultural contexts require. Such change-readiness makes it essential that the MCs created must be both small and very low cost.

This way of thinking and strategising for mission to Australian society is as far distant from current Formulaic ‘SIC’ platform strategies as can possibly be, where a planned-for ‘End’ is determined at the beginning of the process. An example of this is the fixed model Classic church plant in a fixed place, with a fixed style for a fixed cultural context, which generally meets at a fixed time.

Rather, the ‘Lego Mission’ mindset is one where the strategy is just to start something with the resources available (what’s in the pantry) and the ‘End’ (better ‘Ends’) will emerge through a process of ongoing ‘Lego’ reconstruction. Indeed, this is a ‘let’s see what works’ and a ‘making it up as you go along’, then ‘making it up again’, approach.

‘Flexative Mission’ is really a journey of continuing experimentation and vision modification, that exploits opportunities as they appear over the horizon, and has the capacity to reinvent itself as the cultural context changes or other changed circumstances occur. Tragically, it is also a process for which very few current church leaders are selected, psychologically suited, gifted or trained.

I am acutely aware that the analysis and proposals contained in this article will be extremely unpopular with many congregational members and leaders. However, I am firmly convinced that if there is to be any prospect of reversing the longstanding, well documented dismal missional performance of local churches then nothing less than a break away from the ‘SIC’ church model, especially in terms of the neo-pagan mission to Australian society, is required.

Tragically, this issue, the Biggest Elephant in the Mission Operations room, continues to be unaddressed. Meanwhile decline continues and the ‘Iceberg’ gets closer- for-

‘ ‘It’s more missionaries we need, without more missionaries we will lose’.[3]


[1] ‘Flexative’ is my, I hope more helpful, substitute term for the concept of ‘Effectuation’ which is sometimes used but difficult to understand.

[2] The bird in hand principle or “making do with resources at hand” was first introduced by Levi-Strauss in 1967 specifically in the context of Arts, Crafts and Science.

[3] A paraphrase of Air Chief Marshall Dowding’s comment on Pilots during the Battle of Britain.

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