The words “church” and “innovation” have been lumped together for quite some time. In fact, Ed Stetzer co-authored a book called 11 Innovations in the Local Church over ten years ago. So it’s not new. However, with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, many have reminded church leaders how they need to be innovating.
I’m sure that when pastors and church leaders hear the word “church” and “innovation”, they probably resort to one of the following four positions:Apprehensive—because they don’t know how to innovateIndignant—because they don’t think the church needs to be innovativeEcstatic—because they’ve been waiting on an opportunity to innovateStubborn—because they don’t believe they need to innovate
When church experts or leading church practitioners encourage churches to innovate, I’m assuming they are telling them to do something new compared to what they’ve been doing. For instance, when churches had to pivot from in-person gatherings to streaming online services, many saw that as innovation. I figure you could call that innovation since Joseph Schumpeter, a seminal thinker on innovation and economics in the early 20thcentury, characterized innovation as:Introduction to a new goodIntroduction to a new method of productionThe opening of a new marketAccess to new sources of raw materials or componentsThe introduction of new forms of organization
Schumpeter’s characteristics give us a broad description to at least understand innovation and define it as “the development of something new.”
However, let me be clear: just because a church “innovates” doesn’t make them innovators. Below is a chart that displays the “Life Cycle” of innovation.
In looking at these stages, many churches would be considered “Late Majority” or “Laggards.” For instances, streaming church services online or conducting some kind of ministry on a digital platform may have been “new” to some churches, but it wasn’t new. Such innovation (and technology) has been in existence for quite some time.
Nevertheless, I believe the church should be actively involved in innovation as it relates to ministry and mission, given we are strong advocates of contextualization. Ed Stetzer has defined contextualization: “Therefore, as culture changes, our means and methods to engage that culture—in that particular time and place—with the Gospel would change as well. But contextualization could also be broadened to include how churches engage the saints for their edification and discipleship.”
Having laid that brief groundwork, I want to help pastors, church leaders, and church members think biblically about the role of innovation, and then conclude with some sound theological questions church leaders should be asking during this heightened time when churches are being told to innovate.
Where Innovation Fits Within the Biblical Narrative
Having planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, I understand how hard this will be for churches. Churches are notorious for not wanting to change and constantly evolve to be a more effective and missional church.
I also believe that the church isn’t detached (even in a corporate manner) from participating in the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28). According to God’s command in Genesis, not only were human beings to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth,” they were to “subdue” the earth they occupied.
In other words, in astonishing fashion, God commands humanity to take the raw materials (of God’s good creation) and enhance them.
The development of the raw materials includes both innovation and technology. Innovations are the new ideas, goods, markets, methodologies, structures, etc., that lead to the development of new technologies (tools) that make the innovations possible.
Both innovations and technologies—yielding from the raw materials—would bring about the enhancement of God’s “good” creation and thus the total flourishing (shalom) of the world. As a result, mankind would end up cultivating a culture rooted in [imaging] God’s glory for the good of creation. In short, this is part of what it means to be human.
But the biblical narrative quickly notes the fall of Adam and Eve. To be clear, the fall (or sin) of mankind didn’t destroy (or disband) the creation mandate given to humans but distorted it. In other words, rather than cultivating for the glory of God and the good of others, mankind would pridefully cultivate—innovating and creating technologies—for their own glory and renown (see Gen. 11).
In the unfolding of the biblical narrative we see that God’s ultimate grace has a name—Jesus. Jesus is the “Good News,” the gospel for all of creation. And the “Good News” isn’t only that Jesus came to “save” sinners, but that he came to redeem all of creation and thereby inaugurate the kingdom of God.
As such the scope of redemption, as Albert Wolters expressed, is as great as that of the fall. In other words, since sin damaged and distorted the creation mandate, Jesus—through his death and resurrection—is redeeming (all aspects of) what it means to be human.
Applied to churches, when churches fail to innovate and/or leverage technology that would enhance life—that would enhance ministry and mission—they miss out on an opportunity to reflect a more complete vision of God’s kingdom inaugurated by Jesus.
The reality is, God is not just interested in people coming to know him, but also in his people glorifying him in all spheres of life—enacted individually, corporately, and institutionally—as they reflect the already but not yet kingdom.
Innovation in the Ministry and Mission of the Church
In light of what I briefly described above, I believe that innovation (and technology) have a role to play in the ministry and mission of the church. Given that I believe the church reflects the kingdom of God as she lives out her calling as a city on a hill (Matt. 5:14), ambassadors of God’s coming kingdom (2 Cor. 5:20), and as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), the church is therefore a microcosm (both independent and interdependent) of the world.
The church has Jesus as her head along with [flexible and thus varying] ecclesial structures that include church leadership to help equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). But what is the church’s ministry? The church’s ministry cannot be constructed outside of a missional understanding of God and what he is accomplishing in the world.
Any church that seeks to be a missional vehicle of God that shares and shows the gospel of King Jesus will inevitably be a “body” that enacts and reflects a vision of God’s kingdom via individuals, corporate expressions, and institutional organizations. Such vision is bound to include innovations—not to mention technologies.
As such, churches might create, adopt, or integrate newer innovations and/or technologies that would enhance their missional formation as the people of God.
This might mean utilizing digital platforms for discipleship and mission, adopting or experimenting with diverse small group or church planting methods or models, integrating innovative techniques to reach and speak to a more Post-Christian (biblically illiterate) audience, or creating other non-profit or for-profit organizations and/or businesses for the flourishing of the communities and cities where they reside.
If there’s one thing I have learned from over 2000 years of church history, church methodologies and styles do not come in “one size fits all.” The methods and tools may change from season to season or from one context to another, but the message and the mission do not change.
Questions to Ponder
We are in a season where the “church” experts are encouraging church leaders to innovate. But I want to caution churches and church leaders—don’t innovate for innovation sake, nor innovate to be the cool or hip church.
It is important to understand theologically and missiologically why churches would (or should) innovate or leverage technologies.
Once you have a biblical and missional foundation for innovating (a new way of doing something) and utilizing technology (making, consuming, or using tools not only for practical purposes but for the enactment, exercise, expression, and enhancement of God’s kingdom on earth), here is a list of questions you might want to ask yourself before, during, and after implementing innovations and technologies:What does God’s word teach about this area?Would this innovation or technology distort our understanding of what God’s word teaches?Why are we wanting to implement this new innovation or technology?In what ways do we believe this new innovation or technology will enhance our ability to participate in the mission of God—in shaping a people in Jesus’ image and reaching a lost and dying world for Christ?Is our church’s identity more rooted in “how” we do church or “why” we are the church?Have we come to worship (rely too heavily) on our current technology (model or method)? In other words, have we succumbed to worshipping the “tools” of the church rather the “King” of our church?Is what we are currently doing in the form of methods, models, or styles the most effective way to [currently and contextually] equip the church for the work of ministry?What scares us in creating, adopting, or integrating this new innovation or technology into our church?
I understand this crisis has once again brought up the subjects of “innovation” and “church.” And I understand that this makes some people nervous, others roll their eyes, and others go crazy innovating.
Nevertheless, I believe in innovation. Innovation (and technology) rightfully viewed, and thus used, can enhance the ministry and mission of the church.