By Rev. Dr. William D. Gibson
Don’t you think it’s about time to embrace innovation, for a change? Actually, what we sometimes forget is that innovation is about change. Culture is always emerging — the ever-ticking clock ticks — and it would be an understatement to say the church doesn’t do well to keep up. “The times they are a-changin’,” — always — to reference the poetic genius of Bob Dylan. If you can stomach it, simply look at your news feed for glimpses of the upside-down world of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and the minute by minute, widening political and theological divide.
No misunderstandings intended here; I am not inferring that the church is suppose to become culture… What I am saying is that we — as the church — have been slow to engage culture, move beyond think-out-of-the-box conversations, and actually do more that would accurately reflect innovative ways to influence culture. In our current climate, we’ve got to shift beyond carving out “safe space” and now create more “courageous space,” to riff off one of my ministry team partners, Kristina Gonzalez.
So, what does it mean to be innovative?
One of the most influential books I read as a young, rookie business entrepreneur was Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1985). In the opening chapters, Drucker explained that entrepreneurs can’t help but be innovative. Entrepreneurs innovate. Period.
From Drucker’s perspective, innovation wasn’t a technical activity. It was economic or social. In other words, innovation was wonderfully nuanced by the emotional temperament of humanity. It engaged the deep recesses of our creativity (both producers and consumers), which was often suppressed by sensibility and certainty.
Over the years, the church has tried to embody innovation through the business phrase “best practices.” For the business world, “best practices” were about maintaining quality and establishing benchmarks. In the church, however, we’ve had a tendency to see “best practices” as program options that will ensure our success. If they worked in that church, then surely they will work in our church. A tempting argument.
The problem — as I have alluded — is that the church is not as adaptive as Corporate America. We don’t like change. We are drawn into it kicking and screaming. Or, at the very least, we are so guarded that our fear of change keeps us from operating out of the box.
In 2011, I stumbled upon a valuable little book written by Stephen Shapiro. In Best Practices Are Stupid: How to Out-Innovate the Competition, Shapiro argues that the time has come to be more innovative about the way we innovate. His core argument rests upon this premise:
“Following in the footsteps of others is the fastest way to irrelevancy. Instead, create your own path. Find new and creative ways of staying ahead of the competition. Only through repeated, rapid, and efficient change can an organization survive and thrive in today’s volatile marketplace” (pp. 6).
Neither Shapiro or myself are saying that we should ignore “best practices;” not at all. In fact, it is extremely important to understand what is working in a particular context and why it is working. There are always nuggets that may spark something that works in our setting. But… It’s a mistake to think that a “best practice” is a silver bullet answer for a declining church that lacks creativity and innovation. We’ve got to move beyond a “plug and play” approach to “best practices” and start focusing on what I call contextual problem solving. This is the more robust pathway toward creativity and innovation in ministry.
“It’s a mistake to think that a ‘best practice’ is a silver bullet answer for a declining church that lacks creativity and innovation.”
Many argue that “best practices” for the church allow the church to at least do something. This is true. However, we want to move us from “at least doing something” to actually advancing the mission of the church; to make disciples for the transformation of the world. I desire to make a difference; to change the crazy world in which I find myself. My hope (and assumption) is that you do as well.
So, what would it look like for you and I to be more innovative in our work? What would it look like to engage culture, elevate the gospel above the noise of this world, and challenge ourselves (and others) to change? That will take a very different and practical approach. It’s risky. It’s kind of like… No; I would say it is exactly like “walking by faith.”
I hope you’ll check out our web presence on the Greater Northwest Area website. You’ll learn more about the values undergirding our work and can find resources and ideas to spark movement in you and your mission fields; ideas that help shift your work toward being a contextual problem solver. If we are going to create new places for new people, especially considering our current political and theological climate, then we are going to have to embrace such a time as this. It’s time to innovate for change.