A Thought on Innovation in Ministry

There's a lot of talk in the church right now about "innovation." Of course, it's not everywhere. There are certainly those who'd say there isn't a lot of talk--not near enough!--about innovation in the church. Some say that's the very problem with the church! But, from where I am sitting, as I finish up my M.Div., and keep an eye on the jobs that are out there, it seems like everyone wants innovation.

I get it. We're discovering that the methods and strategies we've been employing in ministry for the past several decades aren't working the way we want them to. They're no longer cultivating healthy congregations or nurturing good attendance. We're shrinking in significant ways (or so the research would suggest), and we don't want to shrink. So what's the answer? It must be innovation. We must come up with new methods and strategies. We must innovate. So we're becoming all about innovation. Any church, we think, that wants to revitalize its ministry and get more people involved has to be innovative and hire innovative leaders.

There's something a little discouraging to me about that. Not only is it discouraging because I rarely think of myself as an "innovative leader," so there are fewer and fewer job descriptions out there for which I feel I really fit the profile. And not only because it seems that with "innovation" at the fore, words like "attentive" and "patient" are going out of style. But what is really discouraging to me is that, while it seemed like the church (and especially youth ministry) was beginning to take a "theological turn," it seems that our anxiety has gotten the best of us and we're running back to methods and strategies again.

Now, don't get me wrong. Methods and strategies will always have their place. But to to take a theological turn is to leave methods and strategies for later. A turn to the theological is not fundamentally concerned with fixing the "problems" which the church faces--low attendance and waning influence--but with attending to the presence and action of God in the depth of lived experience. That is to say, effectiveness and strategy take a back seat for attentiveness and faithfulness. And, where innovation is so focused on moving forward--not taking "no" for an answer and not accepting failure as an option--a theological pastoral attentiveness is open to the possibility that where God is present and active is in a place that isn't improving and isn't going to improve. Our first motivation is not innovation, vitality, or expediency. Our first motivation is God's invitation. And if we import any assumption concerning where and how God is moving, we may miss what God is actually calling us to be.

Ministry is about going where God has already gone and participating in what God is already doing. In this sense, the concept of "innovation" in ministry is misleading. And ambition can be dangerous. sometimes God goes where there's no potential to accomplish anything. Sometimes you must "...make it your ambition to lead a quiet life..." (1 Thes. 4:11). So, while I understand the impulse to be innovative, it's much more important to be theological. If we're willing to minister not out of anxiety but out of faithfulness, then we must begin not by being "innovative leaders" but by being patient and attentive followers of the crucified Christ.