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On Innovation

A few months ago, I did something I don’t often do. I attended a candidates’ forum during a provincial election campaign. I don’t tend to expect much from politics or politicians, and my low expectations were barely met during this event. There were plenty of platitudes and evasive non-answers, plenty of posturing and sniping, plenty of “questions” from the audience that seemed like either lightly informed speeches masquerading as a queries or fastballs down the middle of the plate for a preferred candidate. This is, it seems, what passes for political discourse these days.

But there was one question that stuck with me long after the forum and the election had passed. The question was put to a specific candidate and it went something like this: “Do you consider yourself an innovator? What innovative practices and policies would you implement if elected?” The candidate’s response was awkward, inarticulate, and uncomfortable, but the basic gist of it was, “I don’t really see myself as an innovator. My strengths lie elsewhere so I leave the innovation to others.” I had little doubt that this was true. I also had little doubt that this was the wrong answer. To out yourself as “not an innovator” in the quest for public office is tantamount to political suicide. Not surprisingly, the candidate didn’t come close to being elected.

I’ve been thinking since that night about how I would answer a question like that. Many people’s expectations of their religious leaders are very similar to that of politicians—It’s your job to fix the problems and get us moving toward a better future! How would I have responded if asked a similar question? Well, I might have been able to dress it up in better language, but I would have said essentially the same thing. Innovation isn’t really my thing. My strengths lie elsewhere. I’m not really the guy to come up with new visions, new programs, new hooks to attract disgruntled customers. I’m much more comfortable working within existing structures and systems, sometimes pushing against the edges, sometimes reminding us of their value and why we need them. I’m not really much of an innovator.

The problem is, our cultural moment seems, to many, to demand innovation on the part of the church and its leaders. People are leaving the church in droves. The forms are thought to be stifling and unimaginative. The presentation lacking, in a world where we are never more than a click away from a better option. The theology is deemed to be oppressive, archaic, irrelevant, unfashionable, unpopular. We need innovators to reimagine, rebrand, remarket, repackage! This what the data produced by the sociologists says, but most pastors don’t need a sociologist to tell them this. We see this every week in our pews and in conversations inside and outside the church. Unless something changes, it seems, the church is in trouble. So step up, all you innovators and catalysts for change! We need you, now more than ever. It’s all enough to make a non-innovator cringe with dread.

I spent some time in this world when I was younger. People were convinced that the church needed newer music, better music, cooler coffee shops, spruced up presentations of rigid and confining understandings of Jesus, funnier dramas, “seeker sensitive” extravaganzas with bells and whistles and barbecues and balloons—the list went on and on and on. Innovation was an imperative. Jesus demanded it, for the sake of all the lost. It was exhausting. And mostly ineffective. I’m at a place in life now where I hunger for simpler things. The reading of Scripture, prayer, a few good words, some liturgies that have stood the test of time, bread and wine. These are the things that sustain me and which give me hope, even in the post-Christian wilderness.

I’ve been pondering this week’s gospel text from the gospel of John all morning as I prepare for this Sunday’s sermon (sermons themselves could use some innovation, according to many… the mode is outdated… we need something more interactive and engaging than dreary monologues from religious professionals! I’m not entirely unsympathetic to such views, even as I cling to the idea that these, too, can be redeemed…). It’s a short text, but it hits hard:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

There’s nothing particularly innovative about the command to love. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it goes at least as far back as the Torah. Jesus gives it some fresh impetus and expands it to the category of “enemy.” And in this context, the “as I have loved you” bit points to a foot washing, self-emptying, sacrificial kind of love that was and remains revolutionary. But in the end, Jesus is reframing a very ancient commandment. How will the world know who my followers are? They will be the ones who love one another well.

It has been good for me to sit with these words today. They remind me that the church is not a marketing strategy and that faith is not a technique. Jesus does not send his disciples out as salesmen with a pitch, but as those who have been loved into a different way of understanding and being in the world. He is looking for innovators, certainly, but only in when it comes to the ways in which Christ-like love will make its way in the world.


14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Linda Swab #

    As a sister in the non-innovator camp, your thoughts once again resonate with me. Simple holds so much attraction. Thank you.

    May 17, 2019
  2. sheidebrecht #

    You keep nailing it right on. It’s not all the fancy innovative programming cafe’s, whatever but how people in the churches express their love for one another that is totally attractive. This is our church in Delhi’s strength. Thanks Ryan

    Sent from my iPhone


    May 17, 2019
    • I’m glad to hear this about the church in Delhi! Thanks very much.

      May 18, 2019
  3. Here’s a thought: the church is not dying; it’s just gotten up and gone elsewhere, leaving buildings and pews as evidence of it’s having passed that way.

    May 17, 2019
    • Yeah, certainly these are mostly the problems of the West, not the global south.

      May 18, 2019
  4. You want new?
    “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.” ― Simone Weil c 1950

    May 17, 2019
    • Well, actually, the post was pretty clear that “new” was not what I was inclined toward, so…

      (But thanks for the quote.)

      May 18, 2019
  5. John H Neufeld #

    Your comments on innovation raised several questions for me:
    I wonder why the innovative ideas are not very welcome in church circles (in fact many seem to be resisted rather than embraced).
    I wonder whether the upcoming summer event in Abbotsford under the theme “Igniting the Imagination of the Church” will contribute to increased innovation in our circles.
    I wonder whether bringing innovation and creativity to sermons isn’t the prime responsibility you and other pastors already have. Surely we don’t expect church members to provide innovative ideas on this.
    I wonder whether we have taken enough effort to notice innovation and creativity in process with Scripture itself. Do we need to practice imaginative re-reading and re-interpreting of scripture so that ancient texts are freed to speak powerfully to current situations?

    May 18, 2019
    • Yes, the questions occur to me, too, John. The story of the church and worship and the life of discipleship will always, at its best, be marked by a combination of fidelity to received forms, traditions, liturgies, and practices, and creativity in interpreting and living out the story. I don’t think an idea is good simply because it is innovative but neither do I think we ought to just slavishly adhere to the way things have always been done. It’s a bit of a dance between tradition and creativity, I suppose. And not always easy to get it right.

      May 18, 2019
      • John H Neufeld #

        I find the narrative in Neh 8 to be helpful. The people asked for a re-reading of Torah after exile, and Ezra etc “read with interpretation” not just reading the ancient word but giving the sense in the light of the moment. So that the people understood and they celebrated with a BBQ because they understood the relevance for their changed circumstances. An example of being both rooted and winged; having a foundation but going beyond it.

        May 18, 2019
      • Yes, the ancient word + in the light of the moment. Both, as you say, are important.

        Two follow up points:

        1. I hope it was clear that I wasn’t saying in the post that the church doesn’t need innovators. Even if I was offering a kind of muted critique over panting after innovation for its own sake, I recognize that it is necessary. I was mostly saying that I’m simply not one of them.

        2. It’s interesting to think about these themes in light of the move of some younger ex-evangelicals to the “high churches” where there is more of a sense of a connection to the ancient Christian liturgies and traditions. Maybe a sign that innovation has been emphasized or prioritized in some corners of the church for too long, and this is the necessary corrective? Although, I suppose there is movement the other way, too—people who were formed in the high churches and found them stifling and who hunger for something innovative. I suppose that one’s context, as always, shapes what one sees.

        May 21, 2019
  6. mike #

    I really don’t see how implementing anymore cultural innovation is going to stop or even slow the mass Exodus from Organized Christianity, much less draw people to back to the Church building on Sunday. It’s over for the Institutional Church, the Gospel has been so watered down that it’s unrecognizable from a good TED talk.

    May 19, 2019
    • I’m not quite so pessimistic, Mike. While I certainly see evidence that would support your claims, I see counter-evidence, too. Maybe it’s blind hope, but on my better days, I try to focus on the latter.

      May 21, 2019

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