Doug Paul: Overcoming Obstacles to Innovation—Part 2

The challenge of charting a new course in a new normal

In Part 1 of our interview with innovation strategist Doug Paul, he explained what kingdom innovation looks like in the context of the church, and why the church has fallen away in recent decades from its history as a cultural pioneer. More importantly, though, he talked about how the church can return to its innovative roots. In part two of the interview below, he looks more closely at some of the stumbling blocks church leaders face when trying to innovate and the role of innovation in the pandemic-era and post-pandemic church. All of that, and more, is covered in-depth in Paul’s new book, Ready or Not: Kingdom Innovation for a Brave New World (100 Movements, Sept. 2020)

Kingdom innovation consists of five phases: Identification of the challenge; ideation, where we come up with new ways of thinking about things and develop a prototype for something new; experimentation; iteration of the prototype into something we can reproduce; and finally multiplication. What’s the biggest obstacle pastors face when trying to innovate through this process?

When we get to phase three, which is experimentation, we take that prototype for a spin and actually see if it does the thing we think it can do. For pastors, this is the most skipped stage, bar none. Most pastors will never experiment. We have been programmed not to, because we know how to run programs. We’re used to running plug-and-play program church. Because it worked in the past, we know it’s going to turn on and work again.

But the problem with experimentation is, we don’t know that it’s actually going to work. It could just be that it looked good in our heads. It could be a giant belly flop. Some of the things that work best come from the failures in experimentation. Pastors will sometimes scale something way too quickly. They’ll go from, Hey, this was a good idea that we had in this workshop room, to scaling it for the entire church five weeks later, never having tried it with a single person. Then a year later, we’re like, Man, that didn’t work the way we thought it would. You’ve actually poisoned the well for whatever that big idea was to start with. But you can iron those things out in experimentation.

Another problem many people face when trying to innovate is what you call the curse of knowledge. It’s a huge reason why innovation sometimes fails. Can you talk about this phenomenon?

There was an article that came out in 1990 about 10 of the most innovative churches in the United States. I went back to that article, and I don’t think you would look at it and think a single one of them was anywhere close to innovative anymore. We’re only talking 30 years ago. Now, we usually innovate because we have a very strong sense of mission: to solve a problem we’re facing. But when we eventually become successful at that thing, the mission switches to protecting the innovation itself.

This happened with Sunday school. It was one of the most wildly innovative things of the last 500 years, but most people don’t even know why it started. The original mission of Sunday school was to see that vulnerable kids got a good education and actually came in contact with the gospel. No one is looking at Sunday school anymore and going, Man, this thing is so wildly innovative! Can you imagine? Over time, the mission instead became what I call protecting the vehicle of Sunday school. We have just as much need right now for vulnerable kids to get a good education and to come into contact with the gospel. Sunday school just isn’t doing that.

That’s what happens over time with the curse of knowledge. We stop being able to see other ways of doing things, and we start to protect the things of the past that we have staked our reputation on. I think that’s because, particularly in the United States, we are obsessed with appearing successful. If we happen to stumble across something successful, we are going to guard that, and eventually that becomes the mission itself: protecting and guarding. It’s a reflection of who we are, and that’s a fundamental identity question for leaders. Where is our identity staked? Is it staked on being perceived as successful, or is it because Jesus says you’re his?

Over the past year, many church leaders have expressed their optimism at what the church will look like when it emerges from the pandemic. I think the root of what they’re saying is the idea that necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, of innovation. Have you seen that to be true in the past year in the larger American church?

I’m a little less optimistic. I think there’s reason to be suspect of that for a couple of reasons. One, I think it’s really hard to overstate the degree to which everyone wants to “return to normal.” No one likes to feel uncomfortable all the time, and leadership of the church in 2020 was one giant uncomfortable place. Now, we have some really tried and true patterns of what it looks like to lead in the church that are real ruts. I think when COVID does come to an end, we’re all going to be dropped back into those ruts again. Pastors are going to have to choose if they want to dig their way out, because everyone else is going to be saying, Can’t we just go back to doing what we were doing before? The degree to which we desire that familiarity is so strong that I’m a little dubious of these new ways of doing.

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I think sometimes doing things digital, for example, is code for lazy. We think we’re innovative now because we’re trying stuff online. Well, you’re doing things online, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s innovative. It just means you’re way behind. It doesn’t mean it’s effective. It just means you’re online. Because remember, kingdom innovation actually has to work.

“As leaders, where is our identity staked? Is it staked on being perceived as successful, or is it because Jesus says you’re his?”

And one of the things we’ve seen during this pandemic is that we are getting really depreciating returns on that online investment. There was such a wave of enthusiasm for it the first two months, but Barna, who is releasing research on the topic, says about 20% of people who were attending church pre-COVID have not been to a physical or digital service in more than six months. That doesn’t make me feel terribly optimistic around our ability to be really innovative going into the future. I actually am optimistic about some things, though.

I think something else is happening. I think COVID has shown pastors, for the most part, who is leaning in and who is leaning out, who has spiritual maturity and who doesn’t. People who are leaning in are essentially saying, Look, I don’t like online church, I don’t like if we are physical. I don’t like sitting miles away from everyone. I don’t like the fear of singing out loud and feeling like I might be catching something. I don’t like the way we’re doing small groups. The list of “I don’t likes” goes on and on, but they’re showing up anyway. That’s resilience, and that’s a mark of spiritual maturity. They’re showing us who we can build with in the future. We’re also seeing a group of people who are leaning out, who are just kind of done. I’m not saying they’re not Christians or they’re bad. I’m just saying it’s showing something about their spiritual maturity that they think they can do it on their own or that it’s just not worth coming, or that no one else really cares whether they’re there or not.

There is reason to believe that the U.S. church needs a sifting to happen, where God actually wants to get it down to the people who don’t just culturally call themselves Christians but are actually disciples of Jesus. These are the people who are really in, who have wild imagination for what the future can look like and have never been more enthusiastic about the future of their church. These are the people we get to build the future with. These are the people God has set aside for such a time as this. I’m optimistic about that.

Can you give us a projection of what the post-Covid church might look like? What about the greater future of the church?

I think we’re not going to really know for three years. This isn’t one of those things where we’re like, Okay, now we’re done. The way the vaccination rollouts are happening, the fear that people are going to hold for a while, and the financial ramifications of what we’re seeing, [are going to impact the church for years]. There was an article that came out last October from Religion News Service that said they’re predicting that within 18 months, 1 in 5 churches is going to need to close, because they’re not financially viable. There’s a shaking that’s happening, and we just don’t know where the dust is going to settle yet.

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“Innovation is just having the courage to join God in what he is already doing and what he already wants to multiply.”

I think you’re going to have a group of churches who immediately just snap back to normal. And not just back to normal in what we do programmatically. It’s really going to be like an ostrich putting its head in the sand moment. People come to church because it is the safe, stable place, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it can be so difficult for churches to change. In a world that feels more and more like it’s in upheaval every day, we’re looking for institution, particularly the church, to give us stability, security and safety. But if the church is now a place of instability that feels unsafe, then what are we doing? Where do we go? I know where we go: It’s called Jesus. But I think that’s the emotional reaction people have, and I think you’re going to see the majority of churches do that. There’s been such trauma in 2020, and unhealed trauma leads to PTSD. And I think the effect of PTSD will be a lot of churches who just stick their heads in the sand.

Now on the other hand, I think you’ve got a number of pastors, maybe 15–20%, and I say this completely anecdotally, who have had a shaking. They’ve had some kind of paradigm shift and a real stirring in their heart and their spirit for that primal, original calling God put on their life. I think they’re going to try new forms of gospel expression. And that doesn’t mean that they’re killing Sunday morning. They might strip Sunday morning down to the bare essentials and just try stuff.

Now my hope/fear goes back to the experimentation thing we were talking about earlier. I think sometimes we can go from zero to 60, but there are ways of experimenting well. There are ways of reinventing your church without blowing it up, so I do hope there is some temperance that comes with what happens when we feel like we’re on the other side of COVID.

What about small churches with limited resources?

The good news is that the most important innovations that are waiting for us are not expensive. They’re just waiting for people who are going to do the really hard work of solving some really big social problems. For instance, Alpha is not expensive to run, and for a group of people, particularly Gen X-ers, it is a huge phenomenon. What we need is someone at the edges to actually figure some of this stuff out, and people who are in small churches have just as much access to that as anyone else. I think sometimes we do think innovation takes a lot of money, because we tend to scale up to some of the glitzy, sexy stories. In terms of social movements, which is what the church is, it rarely takes that much money. What it takes is lots of courage, lots of the Holy Spirit, lots of imagination, and then perseverance to keep going at it despite the failure. You can be a small church pastor and have those things in spades.

Any parting thoughts?

We don’t need to be afraid of the future. The church and the gospel are not at risk. The Bible says God is already at work in the world, and he is already in the future. Innovation is just having the courage to join God in what he is already doing and what he already wants to multiply. That will often lead us to places that are unknown, or to doing new, unknown things. And whether God is calling you to take a giant step or a small step, we don’t need to be afraid of the future, despite all of the waves in the sea of chaos that seem to be coming around us. We know how the story ends.