When is “Innovation” Not Enough … or Too Much?


For the past year or so, I have been a regular reader of and commenter over at Monday Morning Insight (MMI), a website geared toward innovative church ministry (my description). Todd Rhoades, host of the site, seems to have a good head on his shoulders, a heart for reaching people through the church, and a passion for connecting pastors and church leaders with each other and resources that will help them reach people for God’s kingdom. I have appreciated most of what I’ve seen at MMI, especially the glimpses I’ve gotten into how people are doing church in other parts of the country.

Recently, Outreach magazine named the top innovative churches (which, as is to be expected, are all fairly large ones). A fellow seminary student decried the list – “Can you spot more than three innovative churches on this list???” Lists like this aren’t new. In fact, Elmer Towns wrote a book in 1991 called, 10 Of Today’s Most Innovative Churches: What They’re Doing, How They’re Doing It and How You Can Apply Their Ideas in Your Church. (Actually, it’s the last part of that subtitle that scares me…there are plenty of copycat churches around, and I would venture to say that few of them implement the “innovations” as effectively as the innovators.)
Still, lists like this make me wonder a couple things. First, what constitutes innovation? Does it mean meeting in a bar, as my friend’s church does? Or does it mean, for a hymn-based church, to experiment with using guitars and drums? For one church it may mean starting a homeless ministry, for another it’s an outreach into the porn industry. Certainly there is a degree of relativity to innovation; what is innovate to one person or in one setting will be old hat to another.

The second thing I wonder is, do we sometimes place innovation too high in our priorities? I don’t think Todd Rhoades of MMI or most “innovative” ministry leaders would suggest for a moment that that’s true, in spite of the fact that sometimes it may seem that way. Innovation is simply a fancy word for trying things that may not have been done before (at least in a certain context) in order to reach people for Christ who are not being reached by existing means. So innovation isn’t the goal, but rather the means to an end. We do need to be careful, though, that we don’t hold out innovation – or relevance, or authenticity, or any other of the recent buzzwords – as the key to the world’s salvation…or even as the key to drawing people toward Jesus. That position is still reserved for Jesus Christ himself.

Still, the fact is that we live in an attention-deficit world: sixty seconds is an agonizingly long commercial. We want bullet points, not paragraphs. We want our fast food in 90 seconds or less, and our latte in under a minute. We’re also a Frank Sinatra world; we want it our way: not just coffee, but a venti, triple-shot, extra-hot, no-whip mocha. Paper or plastic, debit or credit, for here or to go, traditional or contemporary, the now or the not yet. Innovation in ministry is necessary to reach this culture, but while innovation breeds innovation, it also breeds more of dissatisfaction with what is and what has been. Soon, innovation won’t be enough; it must be rapid-fire innovation. What’s new on Sunday will be old by Tuesday. Generations are no longer be measured in terms of four decades, but two.

And speaking of mochas, I recently read an interesting quote on one of Starbucks’ “The Way I See It” cups: “In my career I’ve found that ‘thinking outside the box’ works better if I know what’s ‘inside the box.’ In music (as in life) we need to understand our pertinent history … and moving on is so much easier once we know where we’ve been.” (Dave Grusin, award-winning composer and jazz musician) There is a timeless historicity to the Christian faith, and we need to cultivate a knowledge of that, to bring new believers up in that history. Perhaps in so doing, we can offer a firm foundation on which innovation may be built.

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