The Kind of Innovation the Church Needs
Usually, the only way to change a large, complex system is to create a new and better alternative. Over time, it wins over the next generation and the kind of change that once seemed impossible becomes all but inevitable. I believe this is how we can fix Christianity. We need to go back to the drawing board, innovate, and reimagine how we do church “from the ground up.” However, this is easier said than done.
Harvard Business Review published an article titled, “Why Companies Do ‘Innovation Theater’ Instead of Actual Innovation.” According to the article, many companies, and I would add churches, "...know they need to change, but often the result has been a form of organizational whack-a-mole – a futile attempt at trying to swat at problems as they pop-up without understanding their root cause." In other words, surface-level solutions are not likely to get us very far because everything we do in church is really the product of “root causes” or underlying beliefs and structures we usually take for granted and seldom call into question.
Doing church is often like being fish unaware of the water we’re swimming in. We just assume things are the way they are because it’s the way they've always been! Of course, we know from studying history that this is not actually true. The Church has not always been separately incorporated business entities run by paid clergy and staff who produce programming and events to attract a mostly passive audience. But because this model is so ubiquitous, it tends to limit our imaginations of what else is possible. I also know from personal experience that it is especially difficult to be aware of how the system works while being an active participant in it or even more so, a beneficiary of it.
There's a quote sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein that says, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." Put another way, we cannot expect to change a system using the very same tools, methods, and materials that we used to build it in the first place. More leader-centric preaching, programming, and production are not likely to create the kind of deep systemic change that is needed. Why? Because they are part of the very system we’re trying to change. Systemic problems require systemic solutions. We need more than new ways of doing the same old thing. We need a new system altogether.
I’ve learned that not all innovation is the same and have come to think of church innovation in three layers. The first layer is strategic innovation and it is the most common. It is churches creating new means of accomplishing the same end goals without any fundamental change in structure. Strategic innovation can be a new program or target demographic, a new technology that enhances the worship experience, or even a new worship format. It is innovation that focuses primarily on WHAT the church does.
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, many churches had to “pivot” from in-person Sunday services to offering them online. They adapted what usually happens on physical stages to digital screens, which was a novel strategy in many ways. Yet, it was also essentially the same attractional, content-based, staff-led, Sunday service model, only with a new delivery method. As a result, despite much discussion of change, once in-person gatherings could resume again, most churches understandably reverted back to the way things were before.
The next layer down is structural innovation. This layer addresses more of the underlying structures that drive HOW we do church, such as the role of clergy, buildings, finances, organizational structure, etc. If strategic innovation is like software (programs and apps), structural innovation is like the operating system (windows or iOS) that runs in the background. There are many movements experimenting with alternative models of church like dinner churches, house churches, discipleship movements, and hybrid physical+digital churches, etc. Alternative approaches to leadership might also be included in this category like polycentric/multi-vocal leadership models.
The deepest, most comprehensive layer is what I would call systemic innovation. It views everything we do, including how and WHY we do it, as an interconnected whole. It involves examining our underlying beliefs and assumptions, questioning existing structures, and of course, reevaluating much of our strategy. It is not only becoming aware of the water we’re swimming in but asking, where is this water even coming from? As the saying goes, “every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets.” A systemic approach seeks to understand WHY we’re getting the results we’re getting.
Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:18, 20) Many are looking at some of the unhealthy fruit of Christianity in the U.S. and recognizing there is something wrong with the tree. The question is: If the tree is sick, how deep does the sickness go? Is it merely a strategic problem? Do we just need a little pruning and better and more effective programs? Or, are the problems structural? Do we need to change the model of how we do church? Or perhaps, could it be that our problems go all the way down to the roots, to some of the underlying theological and cultural assumptions we’ve inherited?
Based on my experience and observations, Christianity is in need of a complete, systemic overhaul starting at the roots, up the trunk, and all the way through its branches and leaves. All forms of innovation are important and valuable but we believe systemic innovation is the Church’s best hope for a better future. That is why we’re seeking to create a fundamentally different approach to church from the ground up, one that is truer to the essence of what the Church is and what it's for, and one that makes better sense for an increasingly diverse and connected world.
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