The Myth of the Innovation Time-Line

"To do anything new in church or pastoral ministry, you've got to start a new church."

I've heard this said more than once, especially from young pastors or youth pastors who are frustrated with the obstacles of visioning or blazing trails within an established and tradition-laden structure. You'll hear it too from those who are in tune with the cultural conversation about where the church is headed and what it has to offer to the world but are also aware and sensitive to the power-struggles and complexities of churches that have roots.

I myself have said something like this on more than one occasion but I'd like to take a moment to be critical of this position. Church after church has been started and planted because of this basic observation and yet, you might also argue, that church after church has been killed by this perspective. Pastors give up on old structures to start something new and thus the true roots get lost and the wisdom of the ancient is thrown into a barrel to be sifted through selectively by some young seminary graduate who likes "the liturgy." The narrative of the Christian story gets hijacked by the innovation time-line. Rather than identifying with our story, the story of where we came from, we identify with some new idea about what the Church should have, do, say, or look like. "This is what the church is, what it's doing, and if you're not doing it, then you're falling behind" has become the dominant paradigm for church visioning.

But who does this time-line really belong to? Is it really for the whole church? Would it be healthy if every church embraced an identity of the "cutting edge"? For some churches this time-line and this identity are nothing more than a myth and they should stay that way.

It's ok for churches to do new things. Thank God that new churches are getting started and that contexts are being created where the best critiques of the church can be implemented quickly and harmoniously. But it's also ok for old churches to do old things. It's ok for a new idea for one church to be the old idea of another.

At our church, for example, we're introducing the idea, slowly but surely, of doing "small groups" (revolutionary, I know). And while on the innovation time-line we might be "behind," while by the time we get this idea going it'll be old news to everyone else, the timing will probably be just right for us.

We need to be innovative,yes, and with the right motivation. But we also need to stop pastors from embracing a time-line and an identity which isn't really theirs. While it might be an old idea by the time it gets implemented at some churches, it doesn't mean that it's behind... it might be right on time for that church. Pastors must re-embrace the freedom of having their hand on the pulse of their own congregation rather than on the pressure gauge for catching up with the culture. In Christ, we have the freedom to become nothing more than that which our congregation needs which is nothing more than exactly who we are.