The Innovation Equation: Problems + Limitations = Innovation

Very few churches have thrived for decades, let alone centuries, but the church itself has prevailed for 2,000 years because a continual renewal process is part of its nature. As some churches decline, new churches emerge with new ways of reaching people. At its core, innovation is the church being the church.

But now that innovation has also become a buzzword, well-intentioned leaders can lose sight of the real purpose and value of innovation.

There are pitfalls in the pursuit of innovation.

Sometimes churches decide innovation means they should always have the latest and greatest technology. In reality, investing in the latest technology says more about purchasing ability than it does about an innovative mindset.

When people assume there’s a technology solution to every problem, technology becomes a hammer, and everything looks like a nail. But sometimes technology can make things slower, more expensive or less effective.

If we decide we’re going to pursue innovation at all costs, we can find ourselves making decisions that don’t add up. For example, over the last five years has not had an app for our church. As the creators of the YouVersion Bible app, we know how to build one. We’re also aware of companies that build apps. We’ve held back as a matter of restraint. When we asked ourselves why we needed a church app, we kept coming to the same conclusion: not yet or not now.

Coming up with new ideas that don’t solve a problem is innovating for innovation’s sake. Just because ideas are new doesn’t mean they’re a good use of our time and resources.

Innovation should solve a problem or create an opportunity.

(which is essentially solving a problem we didn’t know we had). If we’re doing something that doesn’t achieve either, we’re doing it for novelty or to say we did it first.

Purposeful innovation is driven and shaped by our mission. If it doesn’t make our church more effective in its mission, then why do it?

Our best ideas happen when we face real problems with constraints.

Limited resources plus increasing passion equals unlimited innovation.

We start with a clearly defined problem that’s keeping us from furthering our mission. We simply have to figure this out. Then we look at the resources we have—not what we’re missing, but what we have to work with right now.

It might be tempting to feel like we need more things in order to do new things: approval to hire a developer, a marketing budget for that campaign we want to launch, or an expanded facility for the ministry we want to start. But the constraints we face are the perfect breeding ground for innovation. At, we’ve come up with our most significant innovations when we’ve been up against a wall—in some cases, literally. Many years ago, we did a big capital campaign to build our very first building. The building that felt like a huge win as we moved in felt way too small one year later. We didn’t have the ability to build another one or expand, but we knew we’d be limited in reaching more people if something didn’t change.

Back then, we didn’t think we could go beyond three services in a weekend. Very few churches were. Through an unforeseen turn of events, we discovered we could. Late one Saturday night, the wife of our senior pastor, Craig Groeschel, went into labor. Without many other options for Sunday morning, we played a video of Saturday evening’s message.

When it worked, we realized we could leverage video teaching. Not only could we offer more services at one location, but we could also open new locations. That discovery became a key part of our strategy. Instead of building bigger buildings for large crowds, we built smaller buildings more often for a fraction of the cost.

Recently, we hit another obstacle with our facilities. At some locations, we were maxed out at six weekend services, but we didn’t want to strain our team by requiring more of their weekend. Instead, we divided our team into shifts that cover eight or more services. We ramped up our volunteer leaders, and now staff work in shifts that overlap for peak times: Saturday evening through mid-day Sunday, or Sunday morning through Sunday evening. This small change effectively increased the capacity of our facility by 33 percent, created more opportunities for volunteer leadership and opened up new options for people who struggled to attend at other times.

Constraints can guide us toward innovative thinking.

In fact, I’d argue that if we aren’t facing any natural constraints, we should create some. Could we reach the same number of people if we cut our budget in half? What would our project look like if we were to do it in half the time or with half the team? The goal here isn’t to force our team to pay the price with an unhealthy work schedule, but to spur creative problem solving.

Consider businesses once known for innovation. As they grow into wealthy corporations, they lose their edge. They’ve spent too long buying instead of creating. Plentiful resources can actually make innovation more challenging. So be careful what you wish for, or maybe I should say be careful what you pray for. It could just be the anchor that keeps us from innovating.

If your church faces problems with limited resources, congratulations …

You have an ideal environment for innovation. If your established church is stuck or struggling, congratulations. Innovation is within your reach, especially when you introduce constraints. Instead of wishing ourselves into different circumstances, we need to embrace our current situation. Wherever we are as a church, we have everything we need to do whatever God has called us to do.

Read more from Bobby Gruenewald »

Bobby Gruenewald is pastor, innovation leader at Life.Church. Connect with him on Twitter: @BobbyGwald

Bobby Gruenewald
Bobby Gruenewald

Bobby Gruenewald is pastor, innovation leader at recognized him as one of the 100 most creative people in business in 2011. Bobby is an Outreach magazine contributing editor. His column, “Innovate,” appears in each issue.