Innovation in the Church

Last fall, George Couros, Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning in the Parkland School Division (Story Plain, Alberta, Canada) wrote this great post about 8 Characteristics of the “Innovator’s Mindset.”

You can read the article for yourself, but the reason I wanted to post it here is that what Couros writes about innovators applies not just to the field of education, but also resonates in the congregation, as well.

Each of us, as baptized Christians, is called to reach out beyond ourselves to the world around, to share the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. This is, in fact, the ONLY reason the church exists. It’s not for great fellowship; it’s not for good music; it’s not for creating warm, fuzzy feelings with the Creator. Our job is to share the gospel. Full stop. How do we do that? We go – beyond the four walls of our building. We make disciples (students and followers of the Way of Jesus). We baptize and teach people about Jesus and his Way, so that those whom we have taught can go and do likewise. There’s always a sending. Always.

The way this reaching out looks changes from time to time and from place to place. What has worked for First Lutheran in the past, is very likely not what will work today. In fulfillment of our Baptismal promises to BE the church in the world, we all need to think of innovative ways to get the gospel message to folks in our current setting.

According to Couros, innovative thinkers are empathetic; they are problem finders; they are risk-takers; they tend to be well-networked; they are observant; they create; they are resilient; and they are reflective. You may come to different conclusions about how Couros’ article relates to our work as the Church, but here are some thoughts I’m working on.

Empathy – Couros writes that we first need to understand WHO it is that we are serving, so that we know HOW to innovate ways of reaching them. We need to understand where people are coming from, what their experiences are, what needs they have, and then determine from that what gifts of our own we might bring to bear on their behalf. This kind of empathy doesn’t come from giving our best guesses about what people need, but rather from building relationships and asking questions.

Problem Finders – As we build relationships and learn to ask good questions of our friends, then we can turn to working on problems ALONGSIDE those whom we are called to serve. Finding problems to solve isn’t exactly our job, but relational work with others leads there as we learn what is important to people. We’re not there to do work FOR others, but with them. Together, we help people learn to innovate, we help to reframe issues and questions. But we don’t assume. That relational work comes first, and we need to get good at asking powerful questions. Couros wrote, “The invention of the home computer started with the focus of, ‘How do we bring the experience of a powerful computer into the homes of families?’ Many capstone projects developed by students in their classrooms start with first finding, and then solving problems both locally and globally.  How often do we as educators immerse ourselves in a similar process?  If want to be innovative, we need to look at questions first.” Our questions will look different from those related to technological innovation, but questions is where we, too, need to begin – not with answers, and certainly not with trite answers that don’t relate to where people are coming from.

Risk-Takers – A question we really need to ask of ourselves time and again is: “What are we willing to risk for the sake of the gospel?” Couros wrote about “best practices” (by which we often mean “those things we’ve done the most and know the best”) are “the enemy of innovation.” What are we willing to change? In what ways are we willing to go off the beaten path, the path of the tried-and-(formerly) true? Taking risks is about change, which I know people generally hate. But remember this: change is inevitable. We simply can’t not change, and we also can’t go back to what’s past. The question becomes, are we going to settle for the change that leads to decay, or are we going to choose to risk change that might well be transformative – for ourselves, but more importantly, for the world, who needs us? This is NOT a rhetorical question. Let’s talk about this.

Networked – Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens when we learn to beg, borrow, and steal from other people who are having success. But that requires that we get out of our own four walls again. We need to poke our heads out of the hole and see what’s going on elsewhere. This was part of the reason I invited people to head down to First Christian Church on Good Friday and check out their Tenebrae service. It was to break us out of the pattern that we have established and see what other folks are doing. Not so that we can copy it, but so that we can see that “different” does not equal “bad.” Seeing different ways and approaches even to worship services sparks new ideas, and the greater the variety, the more new ideas come about. I’ll repeat Couros here when he says “Isolation is the enemy of innovation.” Get out there and experience something different. Then bring it back and let’s work it around to see how we can tweak it to fit our context.

Observant –  This, to me, is much the same concept as Networking above. It’s about deliberately looking for connections and TRAINING ourselves to look for connections. After some practice observing connections, it becomes second nature. Thinking of a practical example from my own life, I’ve noticed that managing a museum is a lot like pastoring a church in some respects. There are obvious differences, too, but there are certain things that are remarkably similar. Non-museum people won’t observe those similarities, but since I’ve had a foot in each world, it’s easy to make the connections. And this is why I’m able to explain some church-related things to my non-churchy museum friends. I see patterns common to both worlds, and I can translate. It’s because I have a network that gives me a vocabulary to span both worlds. How might this kind of adaptive and integrative thinking be helpful in our Great Commission work?   This, too, is innovation.

Creators – Couros writes, “So many people have great ideas, yet they never come to fruition.  Innovation is a combination of ideas and hard work.  Conversation is crucial to the process of innovation, but without action, ideas simply fade away and/or die.  What you create with what you have learned is imperative in this process.” In other words, “Innovation without works is dead.” This is why we need everybody in the church rowing. In the past, it was OK (it was never ideal, but it still managed to work, more or less) to follow the 80/20 rule – 20 percent of the people did 80 percent of the work and the financial support. That doesn’t fly in a small congregation like ours. We all need to do more than just show up on Sunday morning. This work belongs to all of us, as baptized and commissioned Christians.

Resilient – Sometimes our risks don’t pay off on the first go-around. That’s OK. We need to learn to embrace failure as a teacher and be encouraged that we at least tried. We can’t let false starts and outright disasters deter us from trying again.  Jesus never promised us an easy road to success (TV preachers’ claims to the contrary notwithstanding). Persevere!

Reflective – Couros states this just about perfectly: “What worked? What didn’t?  What could we do next time?  If we started again, what would we do differently?  What can we build upon?  It is important that in [working on God’s mission] and innovation, we sit down and reflect on our process.  This last point is definitely lacking in many aspects of [the church] as we are always “trying to get through [from Sunday to Sunday]”, yet reflection is probably the most important part of [church work].”

Innovation in the life of the church can and probably should have a certain inward component: It’s good to think about and apply the concepts of innovation to things like our worship and our governance structure, for example. But we have to remember that those things exist BECAUSE of the Great Commission, not in place of them. We absolutely NEED to move our focus more to the outside. It’s only in connection to the Great Commission that the work we do within the currently gathered body has any meaning at all, apart from a sort of narcissistic and hyper-individualized satisfaction we get (aka “What I get out of going to church”). This kind of thinking may itself be innovative for some of us. That’s fine. Let’s begin there.

For you members of First Lutheran, let me ask this question: How can the leadership (myself included) of this congregation help you to embrace innovation as a way of being the church? How can we help you learn to embody this even more than you are now?

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