I’ve been reading a business book lately about what it takes to launch something new in an unstable or uncertain environment (welcome to my life). The book’s got some really helpful business insight, and under the umbrella of, “All truth is God’s truth,” or maybe, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above,” it occurred to me that some of this really good business insight might be good for the Church.
Take the following quote as an example. The author is talking about how important it is, even for businesses who have an establish track record of success, to invest in finding new ways of delivering benefit to their customers:
The amount of time a company can count on holding on to market leadership to exploit its earlier innovations is shrinking, and this creates an imperative for even the most entrenched companies to invest in innovation.
In fact, I believe a company’s only sustainable path to long-term economic growth is to build an “innovation factory” that uses Lean Startup techniques to create disruptive innovations on a continuous basis… but on an industrial scale and with an established cohort of managers steeped in traditional management culture.
Eric Ries, The Lean Startup (34)
As far as business advice goes, I think that’s pretty sound. But I also think that insight might matter for the Church. I have worked with groups and individuals over the years who are trying to start new things to reach new people for Jesus. I have also seen ministry at established congregations from the inside. From my experience, I would say there is a Kingdom truth embedded in that business insight.
If I were to paraphrase Eric Ries for the Church, that quote might go something like this:
The amount of time a company church can count on holding on to market leadership (members) to exploit its earlier innovations (what used to work to get new members) is shrinking, and this creates an imperative for even the most entrenched companies church bodies to invest in innovation.
In fact, I believe a company’s church’s only sustainable path to long-term economic (Kingdom) growth is to build an “innovation factory” that uses Lean Startup techniques to create disruptive innovations on a continuous basis…but on an industrial scale (it has to include the local church but must go beyond the local) and with an established cohort of managers (church professionals and lay leaders) steeped in traditional management (church) culture.
Eric Ries, paraphrased and revised
Faced with the kind of cultural shift that has remade the landscape of American religion almost over night, I think we have to find more and more new yet faithful ways of following Jesus and connecting with people who don’t see any cultural value in church. I’m concerned that if we leave all the innovation in discipleship or outreach to the people starting new things to reach new people, our established congregations will continue to dwindle and close at alarming rates.
We can’t start enough new ministries or congregations to reverse that trend. But what if even the most entrenched congregations or church bodies invested in innovation? What if every follower of Jesus thought part of their job was discovering new ways of following and new ways of connecting in their local communities? What if even the most conservative in theology and practice still made it their job to foster a local “innovation factory” for the Gospel?
OK; there’s something wonderful and right about that term “innovation factory” for finding new ways of following Jesus and connecting to new people; and there’s also something not quite right…
I like the idea that a factory pumps out a product in regular and consistent ways; to think of innovation as something new and different and exciting and tenuous as the regular product of a standard process makes me excited to see if we could actually build the structures and practices that would lead to regular and consistent new ideas and methods and insights when it comes to Christian discipleship and mission.
But I also know that we have a natural tendency to turn the life-on-life discipling journey I think Jesus had in mind (as you go, disciple the nations) into an efficient and standardized process done by professionals (go, make disciples of the nations). So I think we should probably avoid “factory” language in the church.
So what language might we use?
What if we imagined every congregation, every small group Bible study, every home and neighborhood where Jesus has planted his Word as a seedbed of discipleship? And several of those seedbeds together could then comprise an innovation greenhouse, a greenhouse of grace.
You can run experiments in a greenhouse to see which methods produce growth in which conditions. You would expect all kinds of variety of growth and would celebrate all of it while still observing and sharing what you learn in the process. You would even still expect regular patterns and consistent innovations, innovations you wouldn’t necessarily be able to control or even predict, but innovations that arise from the growth you are intentionally seeking to promote.
Maybe what the Church needs is more seedbeds of discipleship in innovative greenhouses of grace. Maybe we need to try out some different ways of imagining daily Bible study or prayer. Maybe we need an environment free of the pressure to get it right that can serve as playground and laboratory for those who desperately want to connect to Jesus, and connect other people to Jesus, in ways that resonate in our current culture.
Maybe we need teams of holy horticulturalists like Paul and Apollos who will plant and water, fully aware that it is the Spirit who grants growth; and fully aware that the planting and watering still matter, and that some new methods of planting and some innovative approaches to watering may be necessary when the soil’s pH is all over the board and drought conditions seem to be worsening.
We need a firm foundation of salvation by grace through faith for Christ’s sake. (Happy Reformation!) And we need to find ways to promote and normalize innovation for the sake of the Gospel, even in our most entrenched congregations or church bodies.
We have to discover new ways of faithfully being Church, new ways of faithfully following Jesus into his world, so that we can connect with people who are disinterested in the Gospel and distrustful of the Church.
We need innovation factories that can run experiments and bring new tools to our proclamation of the Gospel. We need seedbeds of discipleship lovingly cared for in innovative greenhouses of grace.
Sign me up. Anyone else want to play?