Innovation in the Church

As culture changes, our means and methods to engage that culture with the gospel must also change.

With the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, church leaders have been reminded that they need to be innovating. I’m sure that when they hear the words church and innovation lumped together, they probably resort to one of the following four positions:

• Apprehensive—because they don’t know how to innovate
• Indignant—because they don’t think the church needs to be innovative
• Ecstatic—because they’ve been waiting on an opportunity to innovate
• Stubborn—because they don’t believe they need to innovate

When church experts or leading church practitioners encourage churches to innovate, I’m assuming they are telling them to do something new compared to what they’ve been doing. For instance, when churches had to pivot from in-person gatherings to streaming online services, many saw that as innovation. I figure you could call that innovation since Joseph Schumpeter, a seminal thinker on innovation and economics in the early 20th century, characterized innovation as an introduction to a new good or a new method of production, the opening of a new market, access to new sources of raw materials or components and the introduction of new forms of organization.

Schumpeter’s characteristics give us a broad description to at least understand innovation and define it as “the development of something new.”

I believe the church should be actively involved in innovation as it relates to ministry and mission, given we are strong advocates of contextualization. Ed Stetzer has defined contextualization as an attempt to present the gospel in a culturally relevant way. Therefore, as culture changes, our means and methods to engage that culture with the gospel—in that particular time and place—would change as well. But contextualization could also be broadened to include how churches engage the saints for their edification and discipleship.

WHERE DOES INNOVATION FIT WITHIN THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVE?

Having planted, revitalized and pastored churches, I understand how hard innovating will be for churches. Churches are notorious for not wanting to change and constantly evolve to be a more effective and missional church.

I also believe that the church isn’t detached even in a corporate manner from participating in the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28). Not only were human beings to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth,” they were to “subdue” the earth they occupied. In astonishing fashion, God commands humanity to take the raw materials (of God’s good creation) and enhance them.

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The development of the raw materials includes both innovation and technology. Innovations are the new ideas, goods, markets, methodologies, structures, etc., that lead to the development of new technologies or tools that make the innovations possible. Both innovations and technologies—yielding from the raw materials—would bring about the enhancement of God’s good creation and thus the total flourishing of the world. As a result, mankind would end up cultivating a culture rooted in [imaging] God’s glory for the good of creation. In short, this is part of what it means to be human.

But the biblical narrative quickly notes the fall of Adam and Eve. To be clear, the fall or sin of mankind didn’t destroy or disband the creation mandate given to humans but distorted it. Rather than cultivating for the glory of God and the good of others, mankind would pridefully cultivate—innovating and creating technologies—for their own glory and renown (see Gen. 11).

In the unfolding of the biblical narrative we see that God’s ultimate grace has a name—Jesus. Jesus is the “good news,” the gospel for all of creation. And the good news isn’t only that Jesus came to save sinners, but that he came to redeem all of creation and thereby inaugurate the kingdom of God. As such the scope of redemption, as Albert Wolters expressed, is as great as that of the fall. Since sin damaged and distorted the creation mandate, Jesus—through his death and resurrection—is redeeming all aspects of what it means to be human.

When churches fail to innovate and/or leverage technology that would enhance ministry and mission, they miss out on an opportunity to reflect a more complete vision of God’s kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. The reality is, God is not just interested in people coming to know him, but also in his people glorifying him in all spheres of life—enacted individually, corporately and institutionally—as they reflect the already but not yet kingdom.

INNOVATION IN THE MINISTRY AND MISSION OF THE CHURCH

I believe that innovation and technology have a role to play in the ministry and mission of the church. Given that I believe the church reflects the kingdom of God as she lives out her calling as a city on a hill (Matt. 5:14), ambassadors of God’s coming kingdom (2 Cor. 5:20) and as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), the church is therefore a microcosm both independent and interdependent of the world.

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The church has Jesus as her head along with flexible and thus varying ecclesial structures that include church leadership to help equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). But what is the church’s ministry? The church’s ministry cannot be constructed outside of a missional understanding of God and what he is accomplishing in the world.

Any church that seeks to be a missional vehicle of God that shares and shows the gospel of Jesus will inevitably be a body that enacts and reflects a vision of God’s kingdom via individuals, corporate expressions and institutional organizations. Such vision is bound to include innovations—not to mention technologies.

As such, churches might create, adopt or integrate newer innovations and/or technologies that would enhance their missional formation as the people of God. This might mean utilizing digital platforms for discipleship and mission, adopting or experimenting with diverse small group or church planting methods or models, integrating innovative techniques to reach and speak to a more post-Christian audience, or creating other nonprofit or for-profit organizations and/or businesses for the flourishing of the communities and cities where they reside.

If there’s one thing I have learned from over 2,000 years of church history, church methodologies and styles do not come in one size fits all. The methods and tools may change from season to season or from one context to another, but the message and the mission do not change.

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