Stop Trying So Hard To Be Innovative

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Note: This article was originally posted on the blog at the Russell School of Ministry.

Our culture is obsessed with innovation. In our fast-paced, technological society, innovation is the fuel that keeps us moving forward. Startup companies build their brand on innovation, and existing brands constantly feel the pressure to develop or acquire new products to stay ahead of the competition. Colleges and universities continue to raise support to fund innovation labs, where students can get support and guidance for developing new ideas. Every industry, from health care, to automotive, to entertainment, is being quickly changed by the innovation conversation, whether they’re ready for it or not. It is everywhere.

Now, I’m not here to rail against innovation. It is a great thing that has enhanced the quality of our lives in an endless number of ways. That said, the allure of innovation does come with some problems. For starters, as Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell point out in their book The Innovation Delusion, one of the downsides to innovation is that it has forced us to look unfavorably at maintenance and maintainers. The fabric of our society has shifted to celebrate and worship innovators. In my city, for instance, everyone wants to work for the latest app developer disrupting the market with their innovation. No one wants to be a plumber or a bus driver. Yet, the very fabric of our society, and my city, runs because of the maintainers. These overlooked folks are the people that make our day-to-day lives possible, despite the fact that we pay them poorly and often complain about the money it costs to maintain almost anything.

Even worse, innovation doesn’t often produce the results we’ve been made to believe. Take for instance Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s findings decades ago that the increase in technology in the kitchen was actually leading to more hours of work, not less. Or what about the reports that our smartphones are actually reducing our cognitive abilities. One could also take a look at our city governments who promise innovation as delivering a better place to live when often innovation takes important dollars from the existing infrastructure. My city, for instance, has innovative projects going on everywhere, and yet, it can hardly keep our public transit system from breaking down. The city looks beautiful, but all anyone can talk about is how you cannot get anywhere on time.

Maybe we spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources on innovation.

When Innovation Comes to Church

So, what’s my point? Well, I see a lot that mirrors our churches. We’ve become as innovation-crazed as the culture around us. Instead of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, we obsess over what Andy Stanley or Craig Groeschel are doing. We spend thousands of dollars to attend conferences to hear new ideas and go booth-to-booth looking for innovative curriculum or programs to take back to our churches. We pick up books or surf the websites of perceived successful churches looking for ideas that can be mimicked or adapted. Our Bible college students chat about which cutting-edge church they want to intern at or get hired at.

The siren call for innovation is captivating us, but is it working? In many ways, not really. Willow Creek’s REVEAL Study was a monumental moment showcasing that our gains in worship attendance do not necessarily translate to disciple-making. Ed Stetzer ironically discovered that church planting is becoming less effective the better we get at it. Barna Group continues to produce data showing that while we’re getting more adept at building large churches, that the nation is becoming less and less churched.

While we’re tripping over ourselves to rush to the next big thing, maybe we need to remind ourselves what ministry really is. No matter how good we get at gathering more people in a room or creating better programs and pathways, ministry is the unglamorous work of relationally doing life alongside others. We can try to hurry it, look for shortcuts or search for silver bullets, but it’s still the same inefficient process the church has championed since its inception. It’s about everyday people discovering and modeling the way of Jesus in the everyday stuff of life, alerting people to the Gospel, while trusting the Spirit to take our broken methods to bring renewal.

Does this mean innovation is wrong? Not at all. We need pioneering folks to intentionally and contextually build bridges to the Gospel in our pluralistic society. But in the end, we always remember that God works through the maintainers. It’s in the preservation of relationships and the commitment to love people where God has us that we see the Kingdom expanded. It happens through the volunteer who keeps showing up to the homeless shelter week after week, building relationships with those who are on the margins. It happens through the church shepherd who spends a decade walking two or three people through a Bible study every week at the local diner, even when they’re tempted to quit. It happens through the local family, who makes choices to be less busy and mobile so they can be hospitable and a constant presence in their neighborhood. It happens through the Eugene Peterson-types, the minister caring for a small church of people, with endless days of home visits, hospital calls, and coffees with those in need of help. It happens through the church that’s intertwined itself in their neighborhood, clothing, and feeding folks despite a razor-thin budget.

Refocusing Our Pursuits

For two thousand years, the church has been seeing God do remarkable work through seemingly unremarkable people and moments. Whatever innovative gains we’ve made, somehow it’s always led us back to this organic, ancient way of doing ministry. As a former innovation addict, it was this realization that changed everything. I got off the “next big thing” fun ride and put myself to faithfully being committed to the people and places where God had me. Once I stopped looking for silver bullets, I rediscovered the simple beauty of life-on-life discipleship and the inefficient ways God works to expand His kingdom. My ministry is now about living in these moments and giving permission for others to see their everyday, messy lives as the place God wants to use them.

I truly believe you can go on this journey as well. Here are a few simple ways to start the process of moving away from the innovation craze:

  1. Trade the next conference, webinar, or podcast for time in your community. Before you sign-up for the next event telling you “how to” do ministry better, think about using the time to be in the community. Go spend a day serving with a non-profit or go visit some of the folks in your church at their jobs. Get a real feel for what God is doing where you are at.
  2. Shadow the best practitioners you know. Go find the most pastoral person on your team or the best neighborhood party throwers in your church and ask to shadow them. Most of us have been spending so much time writing sermons and planning programs, that we’ve lost perspective and even the art of being a practitioner of the way of Jesus in our own lives.
  3. Create a rhythm of missional living. Restructure your week to make loving on and caring for those around you a priority. Adopt a rhythm like Michael Frost’s BELLS (Surprise the World) that forces you to establish a routine of blessing and eating with people regularly.
  4. Pray about reevaluating your scorecard. How can you and your church start celebrating things beyond attendance and budgets? In what areas can you shift the focus to discipleship, empowerment, relationships, community investment, faithfulness? A new scorecard that shifts from simply counting to measuring more holistically might totally change your paradigm for ministry.

My invitation to you would be to find some balance again. In a culture that disproportionately favors innovation, I truly believe we need to rediscover what it means to be a faithful presence. It’s time to stop trying so hard to be a trendsetter, and start looking at whom we’re loving and discipling. Yes, this isn’t a glamorous call. It’s likely exhausting work, frustrating work, tedious work, and more often than not, under-appreciated work. Yet, beautifully, God continues to meet us in the midst of all of this to expand His kingdom.

Church planter & aspiring social entrepreneur in Boston. Also the hub director for Forge Boston. I write about faith, spirituality, and missional expressions.