Dan Kimball: Beyond ‘Outside the Box’

“When it comes to innovation, there should be no group on the planet that strives to think creatively like the local church does.”

I was in a church planning meeting recently, when someone used what has become somewhat of a cliché phrase: “Let’s think outside the box.”

A young woman in her 20s heard it and said, “Why do we even need to say that? Shouldn’t Christians always be existing outside the box?”

It was in interesting question. When it comes to innovation, there should be no group on the planet that strives to think creatively like the local church does—but not simply for sake of innovation or to be caught up on the latest church trends. Whenever we think of innovation, our motives, hearts and minds should first and foremost be aligned with what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9: “I become all things to all people.”

Paul had such a passion for people to know and follow Jesus that it drove everything he did. This is what should be behind innovation: being innovative for the sake of people.

The young woman’s question struck me. If we care about people knowing Jesus, we should be thinking outside the box at all times, and not just in creative planning meetings. Being outside the box should be normative. I believe that the younger you are, the more this way of thinking comes naturally to you.

I was once in a meeting at a church in which the elders spent over 45 minutes discussing the pros and cons of changing where coffee is served in the fellowship hall. This was an older and dying church, and these were extremely wonderful people. But they were afraid of change—even shifting what part of the room they served coffee was a big decision.

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In that context, changing where the coffee was served in a room was “innovative.” Most of us aren’t in worlds like that, but it did cause me to ask myself: Could I be doing that in my world? I may not stress about where the coffee is served, but in my context, am I truly living outside of the box on a regular basis? Do I ever get stuck in ideas that were once innovative but are now considered “inside the box” to younger people?

Here are three questions we need to ask ourselves when it comes to thinking outside the box as normative.

When we hear of new ideas from younger generations, do we listen?

When you look at music, the arts, technology—so often the ideas of innovation come from younger minds and voices. For those of us who are getting older, are we open to hearing new ideas without becoming defensive?

If we were back in the in the pre-Facebook days and had a young, college-aged Mark Zuckerberg-esque innovator come to me saying he has a cutting-edge idea for how our church could expand its online presence, I hope I wouldn’t have said, “We already have a website—we don’t need any new forms of interacting online.”

When we hear of new ideas, can we also be a voice of theological wisdom?

I do think that have a role to play as we get older, especially when it comes to “screening” new ideas through a theological lens. My biggest concern in today’s fast moving world of change and innovation is whether we pause enough to think through the theological ramifications of our new ideas.

I do think age and experience can provide some insight into how trends come and go, while the gospel is eternal. I want to make sure that openness to change is normal—but not at the expense of wise, solid thinking through a scriptural lens.

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Could there be a growing trend in which innovation in the church consists of less of a focus on “being innovative”?

This may sound contradictory. But one of the things I keep sensing more and more is a growing desire for the church to go back to more simpler roots.

I recently talked with yet another young person who grew up in a large, evangelical church, and as they hit their 20s, they became burned out on the way the church has become so obsessed with being hip and different. They are now in an Anglican church, shedding lights, big screens and moving videos for a much simpler form of worship.

Now, this person very much embraces technology and innovative communication in day-to-day life. But when it comes to church, could we be seeing a trend in which innovation, ironically, becomes about being less innovative? There are still plenty of high-energy, loud pop rock-oriented worship gatherings where multitudes of younger people go, so I don’t see this as the massive trend, but it does seem to be coming up more and more. Time shall tell.

But no matter what changes we make or don’t make, I’m glad to be reminded by a young person that living “outside the box” at all times for the sake of the gospel should drive all innovation in the church.