The place we’ve never been

Our congregations can be places of innovation

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It was early 2007 and our son and daughter were strapped into their booster seats in the back of the minivan. My wife was in the store picking up a few items, and I was watching the kids. They started getting fussy, so I looked for something to distract them. I couldn’t find any books or toys, and I was beginning to panic when I remembered—my new iPhone had the YouTube app! I quickly took out the phone, found the Crazy Frog video, hit play and handed the phone to the back. Problem solved!

It’s no longer a novelty to watch movies, YouTube or TV on our phones, but in 2007 it was awe-inspiring. It’s incredible how in just a few years the pace of innovation has increased to the point that with our phones we can watch something anytime we want and also summon a car, pay bills and get a workout plan.

It doesn’t take a futurist to notice we live in a time of rapid change. Most of us love this cheaper, faster, smarter, more connected world. But I wonder if we are also celebrating innovation in the church. Consider what your church is doing. What have you innovated and changed since 2007, the year the iPhone came out? We’re used to a yearly update of technology. What updates have you avoided installing and why?

When we embrace change and innovation in our congregational ministries, we affirm future generations, give witness to God’s power and find new ways to bless the world around us. How can our congregations become places of innovation?

Why is change important?

Change is a challenge. We live with a number of biases we often don’t recognize. One that is relevant to change is “loss-aversion;” we like things to stay the same. In Out of the Maze, the follow-up to the classic Who Moved My Cheese, the main character, Hem, wishes for a return to how things used to be. Unfortunately, his cheese has moved. Not only does Hem have no cheese, now there are apples instead.

Sometimes we want church to be the one space in a sea of change where we can count on consistency—we want cheese, not apples. To be alive, however, is to be in a constant state of change.

When we consider the challenges that come with doing something new, it’s helpful to understand that people naturally respond to innovation differently. The innovation adoption curve created by Everett Rogers identifies five categories of response to an innovative idea.

The “innovators” themselves are the smallest group (2.5 percent). The second group of “early adopters” (13.5 percent) are open to trying new ideas. The third group, the “early majority” (34 percent), pick up an innovation quicker than average. Another third of the group (34 percent) are the “late majority,” and they eventually come around to a new idea. The final group are “laggards” (16 percent), and they reject the new idea in favor of tradition.

It is not hard to see how these categories play out in our local churches in everything from making changes to the worship format to trying a new approach to the summer children’s program, from introducing a new outreach ministry to revamping the church’s committee structure.

When Vincent Donovan, a missionary to the Masai, returned to the U.S. he wrote this about change: “In working with young people, do not try to call them back to where they were and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place may seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before.”

This quote challenges me to think about the next generation and my role in passing on to them a faith that declares the deeds of the Lord, trusts in him and keeps his commands in a way that takes us both to a new place. (Psalm 78:4-8).

Why are we afraid?

Thinking about a journey to “where neither has been before” can be frightening. But if we are honest, we wrestle with fears and accept innovation in other areas. I expect few of us still have an old-style TV in our homes; it’s likely to be a high definition flat screen. We have high speed internet and not dial-up connections. Cars today have airbags and a back-up camera, and based on a recent commercial, “smart park” is coming soon.

So, why are we nervous about innovation in the church? I think at the core it boils down to fear. Fear is a natural emotion when avoiding change because it feels like losing control. Yet if fear is what drives us, we have a theological issue. When we operate in fear we’re not operating in love (1 John 4:18).

It also implies our view of God is too small. Psalm 78:4 says, “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.” When we stop talking about God’s power and wonders, we fear he’s not big enough to handle change or we live like he’s just as surprised by change as we are. We live as if somehow God is caught unaware by the future, even something as profound as COVID-19.

This is obviously not true. Jesus doesn’t push us from behind; he pulls us into the future where he already stands. In the Gospels, Jesus says, “Follow me” 29 times. Does our fear keep us from following?

Our churches have instigated incredible innovations since the pandemic this spring. Churches have moved Sunday gatherings online, created virtual spaces for small groups, initiated creative porch drop-offs and engaged new technologies in a myriad of ways. But would we have made these radical changes without this pandemic push?

Getting started

I think about innovation in ministry every day. I work with students who are reflecting on their own local context—their church, nonprofit or local community—and are seeking ways to create something new. The story of how Tabor Ministry Entrepreneurship and Innovation (MEI) graduate David Walstedt’s innovative thinking impacted children in Uganda is one example.

School in Uganda is free for all, with one stipulation: children need uniforms and specific shoes. Many children do not attend school because their families cannot afford shoes. If families can afford shoes, parents purchase one pair and their children rotate these shoes. When the shoes fit, that child goes to school. When the shoes are too small, the next child in line takes them and off to school she goes. It’s a familiar cycle in areas of poverty.

Walstedt saw this cycle firsthand. A veteran of numerous trips to Uganda, he had developed relationships and a heart for the people and country. His heart broke to see children refused school entry because of something so basic as a pair of shoes. But he lived in Dallas, Texas. What could he do about it? Through the MEI program, Walstedt created a nonprofit called Uganda Shoe Trees which addresses this need and impacts hundreds of children and families.

Walstedt tackled a need in Uganda; you may feel called to do something locally. How does a congregation begin thinking entrepreneurially and innovatively?

  1. Pray. Ask God to provide open eyes and ears to the needs in your community. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide you as you consider starting something new.
  2. Become anthropologists and study your community. What do you see? What could be improved? Could your church leverage something small that would make a big impact?
  3. Read a book together. I recommend Starting Something New by Beth Booram.
  4. Talk about it at your weekly gathering. Get people on board to dream about your local community and your unique opportunities.
  5. Experiment. Try things, don’t worry about failure. See what works. Each year I take MEI students on an international trip. One year a missionary in Paris told us, “We do anything and everything we can think of to connect with our neighbors for the Gospel; it’s like we throw ideas against the wall to see what sticks.”
  6. Evaluate, assess and try again.

For the sake of the next generation, let’s start thinking in entrepreneurial and innovative ways in our local contexts and around the world. What are we still doing that is past the “sell-by” date? Who knows, maybe we will lose our fear as we travel with our youth to a “place where neither have been before.” Let me know if our team of Tabor MEI graduates can help.

Rick Bartlett
Rick Bartlett is associate professor of ministry and director of theological education at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren school in Hillsboro, Kansas. He and his wife, Karen, have two adult children.

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