Every Church an Innovator

Just as Jesus responded to the immediate needs of his community, the church is called to an innovation process that places empathy at its core.

by Floyd Thompkins and Byron Bland

Illustration by Terri Scott

Every community desires to equip young people with the spiritual, social and psychological skills that are needed for them to have a bright future. This is especially difficult in economically and socially challenged areas and neighborhoods. Yet fewer young people are attracted to our churches. More, alarmingly, the rates of violence and death among middle school and high school youth rival that of some areas where active armed conflicts are taking place. It is also not evident that the old model of youth ministry is working even for middle to upper class neighborhoods. The old ways are inadequate and the new ways have not yet arrived.

The questions and needs of youth in contexts of trauma and poverty demand a response that is neither generic nor socially neutral to the issues of reconciliation and restoration. Theology and biblical preaching are not irrelevant but are also not wholly adequate. The challenges of youth in poverty demand a theological perspective, as well as best social services practices and psychological intervention and support. But how do we bring together those disciplines to describe a new model of youth ministry?

The Center for Innovation in Ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) is leading a new approach to the challenges of youth, as well as many other issues in ministry, through the process of innovation. In this collaborative work, each discipline must accept the notion that it alone does not have an adequate answer to the problems of youth in poverty, or other issues we might encounter. Or, more succinctly, the disciplines need one another to describe an effective answer to the questions and needs of people in our congregations and communities. Drawing together divergent disciplines to solve a common problem is a difficult task. Thankfully, a process of innovation, such as the model we use at the Center for Innovation in Ministry, can help identify the inadequacies of old ways and help envision the new ways that have not yet arrived.

What Is Innovation?

Over the ages, philosophers have identified imagination as one of the core faculties of the mind. They have also noted that imagination functions in two modes. The first, imitative imagination, creates the mental images that we use to analyze our world. The second, creative imagination, puts things together in the new and ingenious ways that we use to see what is not yet. We call creative imagination innovation.

Innovation becomes critical when we encounter a world in which the old no longer works and the new has not yet arrived. In the church, many efforts have emerged under the umbrella of innovation including creative responses to practical problems, theological responses to societal changes and interdisciplinary exploration of emerging spiritual modalities. In the previous century, such efforts include Habitat for Humanity, which changed the way the church interacted with housing and poverty, and the sanctuary movement that influenced both immigration policy and how the church regarded the “strangers” among us.

At SFTS, we have embraced this focus on innovation to build the Center for Innovation in Ministry in partnership with our brothers and sisters in the world around us. We are laying the foundation not in brick and mortar but in our reading of the New Testament. Jesus announced that the kingdom of God “has come near” (Mark 1:15); with this knowledge, we must now live our lives in new and different ways. New and different define Jesus’ call to us.

The Center for Innovation in Ministry identifies leading practitioners and thought leaders in innovation. We call these people Innovative Disruptive Disciples of the 21st Century. The title is a way to acknowledge that innovation is not destructive but is creatively disruptive. But, we must be cognizant that one of the markers of innovation is that it is not normative and therefore there is a tendency to cast it as continuous or dangerous. As with Jesus, who came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), we aim to hold up the church’s mission against the light of collaborative innovation. Without this intentional recognition we could miss the most important and essential innovations, as did the Pharisees and the religious leaders of the past.

Why Do We Innovate?

The theological construct of design-centered innovation is the paradigm of responding to felt needs. This is why we always begin with empathy as the first step in the design process. People will simply not promote, adopt or accept anything that they do not recognize, need or want. Design thinking almost always begins with observations, engagement and immersion with the individuals and groups that will be end users.

This empathetic approach is also directly reflected in the ministry of Jesus. Though his message was that he was the Son of God, it was Jesus’ healing that drew people to hear the message. Dr. Gregory Love, associate professor of systematic theology at SFTS, points out that Jesus’ ministry did not draw crowds until he began to perform miracles. It was the immediate, physical healing that the people sought, and Jesus responded to them by offering what they needed.

This is why the church is called to the work of innovation. Ignoring or denying the needs of people and their changing desires is simply not biblical and Christ-like, no matter our intention. When faced with hunger, Jesus does not only preach to the gathered or offer prayer for their ills. Recognizing their immediate needs, Jesus feeds the crowd.

How Do We Innovate?

Creativity may strike like a lightning bolt, and inspiration might come from a most unlikely source. But innovation often requires a process. At SFTS, we often employ the Human-Centered Design Process originally created by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, known as the d.school. The Stanford model is extremely important to ensuring that the Center for Innovation is not seen as a cemetery of ideas but instead a seminary of servants.

Structurally, the Center on Innovation in Ministry embraces three intuitions about the nature of innovation which connect with historic characteristics of the church. First, no one can own innovation, but we can recognize and connect with where it is happening. This means that innovation is essentially a communal activity, just like church worship. Second, no one can create innovation, but we can encourage and nurture its growth, just as the church itself attempts to create places and spaces where people can find Christ. And finally, no one can constrain innovation, but we can help focus its energies and spread its influence. We see this as directly connected with the movement of the Holy Spirit that blows where the Spirit pleases and does not always tell us where the Spirit is coming from or exactly where the Spirit is going (John 3:8).

One example of an innovation tool we are constructing at SFTS, in partnership with Darkwood Brew, is Convergence, an online virtual lectionary of innovative church resources. Through this platform, we are constructing intentional ways for streams of creativity to flow to and from the seminary. The scholars for SFTS and other seminaries will add to the database of resources. However, pastors can submit other resources that will also be added after consideration of a panel of pastors, theologians and engaged lay people. Other opportunities are emerging based on the felt needs of mental health, domestic and societal violence, updating congregational church administrative structures, and outreach on broader and deeper ways to the millennial Christians.

Going Forward

Every church and religious organization is a center of innovation. Design, collaboration and evaluation are the keys to getting it right in the keeping of one simple mission statement: keeping Jesus relevant for the present generation. Jesus himself said he came to fulfill the promise and power of what was before him by reshaping and enlarging the scope and influence of his message to the world: “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly,” (John 10:10). The church can embrace the tools of innovation to better ensure that our ministries are both faithful to Jesus’ mission and responsive to the needs of our world.

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