How Ministry Ideas Spread

In his 1997 book Reinventing American Protestantism, theologian Donald E. Miller described a “revolution” taking place—an outbreak of paradigm-breaking church models that were changing the face of congregational life across denominations and traditions. This sudden influx of church innovation had caught many people by surprise. What was causing this change, and who were its guiding voices? 

In the following decade, a new model emerged of a centralized church often led by a dynamic pastor open to entrepreneurial approaches to ministry and church leadership. Yet few looked beyond these high-profile pastors to the developing social systems that not only facilitated their innovations, but also drove the new ideas’ diffusion throughout the country.

As churches today look to take advantage of new digital opportunities, navigate our polarized society and collaborate across denominations in gospel outreach, the task of innovation lies at the core of the calling for pastors and church leaders, yet understanding how ideas spread is often underappreciated. 

The story of Leadership Network demonstrates how new ideas can grow and gain traction. Arising at a point within a church subculture where innovation was not valued and leadership skills were nearly absent in pastoral training, Leadership Network developed a model that transformed congregational life and continues to foster innovative conversations today that we can all learn from. 

A Crisis of Leadership

To understand the North American church’s current emphasis on dynamic innovation and concentrated collaboration between pastors and ministry leaders, it’s important to know that it came about largely as a reaction to seismic shifts in both societal and religious trends in the late 20th century.

The cultural turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s and the twin influences of a nascent neo-evangelical movement and the popular Church Growth Movement provoked a crisis among many pastors. While infusing a renewed evangelical vibrancy among churches and pastors, both movements had reinterpreted mission to prioritize growth and expansion. The resulting growth and centralization of churches—some reaching over 1,000 in attendance—left a discernible need for pastors to manage this growth. According to former Christianity Today executive vice president Keith Stonehocker, by 1980 it felt as if pastors were being thrown into an entirely new and complex world of leadership and left to either sink or swim. 

When the Christianity Today board of directors tapped publishing veteran Harold Myra to lead their reinvention in 1980, he turned to editor Paul Robbins to conduct a national study on what needs were at the forefront for American pastors and church leaders. Robbins interviewed more than 90 pastors and discovered that for pastors of medium and large churches, there was a consistent feeling of being isolated and overwhelmed. These pastors wanted and needed resources to help them lead their congregations and manage their growing organizations. They also preferred to learn from fellow pastors who had innovative, effective strategies that they could use. 

In response, Robbins founded Leadership Journal to address the sheer magnitude of this need. The magazine proved so popular among pastors that it began turning a profit after only its third issue. While individual articles were intriguing, Robbins attributed the magazine’s success largely to its pastoral forums. In these published discussions, pastors and church leaders tackled difficult or controversial problems reflective of many churches. These forums proved so dynamic that Texas entrepreneur Bob Buford expanded this model—with the initial aid of Robbins and Myra—into regular collaborative gatherings through the founding of Leadership Network in 1984.

A successful entrepreneur, Buford experienced a religious awakening in connection with the death of his son that led him to dedicate his wealth and leadership expertise to help pastors and churches. Mentored by organizational management theorist Peter Drucker, and guided by such influential men as consultant Lyle Schaller and chaplain of the United States Senate Richard Halverson, Buford envisioned Leadership Network as bypassing the task of innovation to instead focus on the challenge of innovation diffusion. Identifying megachurch pastors as significant drivers of church innovation, Leadership Network began convening gatherings of pastors for collaboration and encouragement. Pastors such as Rick Warren and Bill Hybels were among the many who cycled through these gatherings, sharing what would soon emerge as two of the dominant paradigms of church leadership in modern American religious history. 

Innovation Diffusion

In his influential 1962 book The Diffusion of Innovation, communication theorist and sociologist Everett Rogers offered an outline of the nature of innovation and why certain innovations take root while others fail. Modern history is replete with innovations that failed to gain widespread adoption even as they offered significant advancement. Rogers admits that innovation is a daunting task—few are able to offer ideas or products that meet the standards of creating a relative advantage that remains compatible with the existent model, yet avoids exhausting complexity while offering immediate utility that delivers tangible results.

Yet Rogers argued that diffusion of these innovations was equally complex, focused on both how and why they spread. He learned ideas are diffused across a spectrum from innovators and early adopters, to the late majority to laggards (see chart):  If, as Rogers suggests, only 2.5% of any community are true innovators, the effectiveness of diffusion is the dominant challenge of successful advancement of an idea or product. 

Rogers identifies four key features of diffusion: 1) an initial innovation that meets an acknowledged need of a market or community, 2) clear channels of communication through which the application and benefit of the innovation can be transmitted, 3) a broad span of time during which the innovation can pass through phases of adoption, and 4) an interrelated network of leaders that can adapt and expand the initial innovation to meet the needs of the expanded market or community.