(5) Failing to protect the past while creating the future
A fifth common mistake is trying to create the future without protecting the past. The only innovative leaders who can get away with ignoring the past are those who have no past to protect (startup ministries and church plants in their first year or two). Everyone else has a past to protect, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril.
This is a trap pastors and leaders in turnaround situations often fall into. It’s easy to see why. They arrive at a church that has declined or grown stale, so they rightfully turn their attention to the people the church is no longer reaching. But if they ignore the people who remain, it won’t be long until they lose them as well.
Consider the recent debacle at JC Penney. Concerned about their decreasing share of the marketplace, the board of directors hired a new CEO to come in and lead the company into the future. When he arrived, he made a ton of changes designed to reach new customers. But in the process he alienated almost all of the small remnant of customers the company still had. Sales tumbled. The stock crashed. He was fired.
The same thing happens in churches all the time.
That’s why I’m such a big proponent of innovating and making changes at the fringe whenever possible. It allows a leadership team to protect the past while creating the future.
In order to survive over the long haul, a church has to morph and change over time. But to do so in a healthy way, it has to keep one eye on the past and one eye on the future. Those who put both eyes on the future eventually lose the foundation they’re attempting to build on, while those who put both eyes on the past eventually miss out on the future.
At North Coast, one way we protect the past and create the future is by offering different worship styles in our venues. We don’t want to force people to choose between the past or the future. We want to offer both.
Obviously, sometimes that can’t be done. If the past is toxic, sin-filled or resistant to what God is up to, it has to be killed off. But most often, protecting the past is simply a matter of allowing yesterday’s methods and preferences to live out their lifespan and usefulness. It’s a way to honor and acknowledge what God has used in the past without letting it define or kill off the future.
Frankly, this was a hard lesson for me to learn because I’m future oriented by nature. I used to idealistically think everyone else should be so as well. My motto was, “If you love Jesus, you’ll learn to love a subwoofer for the kingdom.”
I was wrong.
I ignored the wisdom of Jesus. He not only said, “New wine needs to go into new wine skins.” He also said, “No one who has tasted the old will want the new.”
Both statements should speak powerfully to our attempts at innovative leadership. When we create the future, we need to put it into new wineskins. But we protect the past by understanding that no one who has tasted the old will want the new. Instead of jamming it down their throats, we need to let them savor the old while we’re putting the new into the new wineskins.
Innovation is never easy. But it’s essential. Without it our ministries and churches will eventually die. Jesus will continue to build his church no matter what we do. But if we want to be a part of what he’s up to, instead of being relegated to the sidelines as a spectator, we must innovate and change.
But to do that, we must understand how genuine innovation works in the real world—and that’s often quite different than what many of us have assumed and been told over the years.