Ministry innovations are more likely to take root in a congregational culture that is receptive to change. Meghan Hatcher who works with the Innovation Lab at the Center for Youth Ministry Training outlines ways congregations can tend their cultural soil so that seeds of change are more likely to flourish.
Talk of innovation is abuzz in the ministry world, particularly in light of the continuing realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. But many how-to resources and prescriptive steps to innovate overlook a key factor in enacting congregational change: the impact of a church’s culture.
A church’s efforts to innovate in any ministry area, say the youth ministry, never unfold in a vacuum. The church’s wider culture has everything to do with whether an innovative ministry idea can take root in the youth ministry, let alone flourish within the broader congregation.
The impact of culture on innovation is a major focus of the Innovation Laboratory at the Center for Youth Ministry Training, a non-profit based in Nashville. In spring 2021, the Innovation Lab conducted research with ministry leaders around the country. The Lab wanted to learn about the joys and challenges facing leaders and their communities and aspects of ministry in need of innovation. One prominent research theme is highlighted in a reflection from a Nazarene pastor in California about innovating amidst the pandemic.
We’ve been given this opportunity to reshape and reimagine our ministry, and it feels like there are certain members of our staff and congregation that are slipping back into “Let’s just go back to how it was,” when some of us are, like, “This is a time when we can discard the things that aren’t working for us and renovate and innovate what we could be doing.
As illustrated, even when some members of a church staff see the need for change, the temptation to “go back to how it was” is strong. This observation epitomizes one way a church’s cultural mindset can unwittingly block efforts to innovate.
To borrow a metaphor from Jesus and farming, a church’s culture constitutes the soil into which an innovative seed is planted. Healthy, fruitful plants cannot grow in depleted or neglected soil. A church’s culture is a living ecosystem that sustains innovation to varying degrees. Healthy cultural soil nourishes innovative ministries that engage people’s assets and needs so the community can experience the love and grace of Christ in profound ways.
The good news is that, like soil, a church’s culture can be nurtured and modified. How can you tend your church’s cultural soil for greater innovative potential?
Taking time to assess the church’s current culture helps provide a snapshot of what is going on and identifies areas in need of modification so that innovation becomes increasingly possible. The Innovation Lab developed a tool called the Innovation Culture Index (ICI) to help congregations self-assess their culture and its impact on innovation. Drawing from empirical research and the wisdom of leaders in innovation design, we identified characteristics that are strongly associated with a church’s ability to foster innovative activity. We grouped characteristics into nine distinct indicators that examine the church’s mindset, structure, relationships, and habits. Click to download the Lab’s free ICI resource to learn more.
No two beds of soil are identical, and the cultures of churches are just as unique. Leaders must recognize that even if your church’s culture appears similar to another church at the surface, it has its own assets, neglected areas, and growing edges. It is tempting to focus primarily on church demographics and fail to consider the peculiarities of the church’s organizational culture or the specific context in which ministry takes place. We must remember that innovative ministry is contextual ministry, and innovation is constantly impacted by church culture. Consequently, an innovation that flourishes in a similar church may not take root in your congregation.
Because a church’s culture is created by the people within a given congregation, the culture’s health naturally ebbs and flows. Changes in leadership or membership, personal challenges facing people within the congregation (like a pandemic), and myriad other factors impact culture. This is why attention to culture must be an ongoing practice. Doing so allows ministry leaders to understand and anticipate potential barriers to innovation as they occur in real time. Too often a ministry preemptively abandons seeds (great ideas) because they fail to take root immediately. It could be that a church’s cultural soil needs attention before the community tries to plant that innovative seed, or another, again.
Through the Lab’s work with churches around the country, we learned that attention to culture is just as important as the process through which innovation actually happens. Anyone from any position within an organization — whether a paid staff person, volunteer, or congregant — has the power to shift culture in meaningful ways over time. Returning to the Nazarene church’s example above, the desire for a ministry to “just go back to how it was” is an indication that the culture’s risk response is in need of attention.
One way to shift from a mindset of fear to a mindset of hope is to normalize routinely talking about failure. Perhaps in a meeting among church staff members, avoid framing failure as “that idea didn’t work so it was a waste of time/money/energy,” and instead articulate failure as tangible evidence of trying something new. Encourage the staff to be on the lookout for ministries that are trying new things, perhaps failing, learning, and trying again. Name these when you see them and celebrate the courage required to innovate! Doing so builds a culture’s tolerance for perceived failure when taking risks and experimenting.
As your church seeks to innovate to meet the needs of those present within your congregation and wider community, considering the cultural soil is a fruitful place to begin. Digging beneath the surface by cultivating curiosity will foster new potential for innovation as you minister alongside your community. Along the way, what you learn will guide your church toward greater innovation in the future.
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The Center for Youth Ministry Training (CYMT) recently received a $1.19MM grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., to fund the next phase of the Innovation Laboratory. The grant will enable CYMT to strengthen the Innovation Lab by building on what we learned from our original cohorts and tweaking our process and strategy for greater impact.