by Dr. Andrew Zirschky

Starting in the 1990s, a focus on innovation and particularly disruptive innovation began to take hold in business schools and large companies worldwide. In the past decade, that interest has spread to the Church and to youth ministry, and continues to spread like wildfire in our post-pandemic contexts. Christian leaders are latching onto the promise of innovation design processes as a magic bullet for reshaping and restarting our lives and institutions.

However, innovation invading the church isn’t without its detractors, and we would do well to carefully consider their criticism. It is true that innovation design processes arose in a competitive climate committed to disrupting business as usual in order to overtake competitors, attract new users, and make money — and those assumptions don’t fit well with the Christian calling to ministry which seeks to find correspondence with the action of God. One of the most vocal theologians urging caution is Luther Seminary’s Andrew Root, who argues that every age has a voice (or what he calls a “timekeeper”) that communicates to the culture what are the highest goods worth pursuing with one’s life. While the Church functioned in this role at times in history, today those voices are found in places like Silicon Valley. Figures such as Elon Musk and Tim Cook tell us that disruptive innovation is the highest good: Newness for the sake of newness, and abolition of that which has gone before. One of the problems with this value on disruption, says Root, is that is doesn’t weigh the possible value and salutary (“good for you”) nature of what has gone before. Another issue is the reckless speed that innovation often requires, which leads us ever closer to burnout and exhaustion.[1] But most crucial, says Root, is that the very framework of disruption and innovation is irretrievably soiled by the moral “goods” that are defined and embedded within the framework. Consequently, the processes and methods of innovation potentially “trap more than free the church to be ministers of the living God in the world,” writes Root.[2]

Certainly, Root is correct that innovation processes formed in the crucible of capitalism can smuggle incompatible values into our churches. In 2017, when I helped found the CYMT Innovation Laboratory, this was in fact one of our chief concerns. Yet our solution for this wasn’t to jettison design thinking processes developed by organizations such as IDEO and the Stanford Design School, but rather to put them into vital and mutual critiquing conversation with Christian theology. Following a strand of Christian thought going as far back as Gregory of Nyssa, it’s my contention that it’s possible to salvage cultural forms and fill them with Christian content.[3]

In contrast to using innovation processes, Root argues that life-giving ministry arises out of divine calling and encounter, not through analysis of congregational assets, or echo-chamber brainstorming. The Church needs attentiveness to divine action in prayer, and divine action cannot be controlled or predicted, says Root. And he’s right — to a degree. Certainly, God calls the church to specific, odd, and counter-cultural visions of ministry in particular times and places. However, God’s transformative calling doesn’t drop from heaven in concrete form, and the specificity that is required to enact vision rarely arrives with the vision.

We catch a glimpse of this in the Great Commission, where Jesus instructs his followers to make disciples, teach, and baptize (Matthew 28:16-20). Yet, before Peter can raise his hand to ask how they should baptize, and before John can ask about approved methods for teaching, Jesus ascends into heaven. Since then, Christian history has largely been about people figuring out how to turn this divine calling into concrete form in their own contexts. That requires faithful leadership, and I’d contend, maybe even innovation design processes.

In The Congregation in a Secular Age, Root shares the story of a small, struggling church which starts on a path toward renewed vitality in ministry when they sense a divine calling. Their collective epiphany occurs when a grandfather requests prayer for his terminally ill granddaughter. Though the child doesn’t attend the church with her parents, there is a sudden recognition in the congregation that if they know the child’s name, then care for that child and family is their responsibility. Over a few years, the congregation’s care for this one child expands to include several other families of terminally ill children. It’s a beautiful story of God’s transforming call — and one that completely ignores the practical reality that ministry to terminally ill children and their families can be faithfully undertaken in a variety of ways.

While Root uses the story to highlight the importance of divine encounter, I’d argue that it is in fact a story of a congregation that desperately needs an innovation process. Such a process would lead them into empathy and understanding for the needs of these families, it would direct them to consider ways in which their theological distinctives should shape such a ministry, and it would guide them in ideating and testing the final form of their ministry.

In summary, far from being set in opposition to divine calling, innovation processes that have been amended in light of Christian theology and values, can be vital resources for helping congregations pursue that calling in new ways in new days.

[1] Root, The Congregation in a Secular Age, 129.
[2] Root, 127.
[3] Root’s impulse to jettison innovation thinking is well grounded in Christian history. His approach most closely follows that of Tertullian of Carthage who rejected the categories of Greek thought as fundamentally incompatible with Christian faith in his famous statement, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Others approach innovation thinking with the same sort of spirit that early church father Clement of Alexandria took toward sources of secular knowledge: “All truth is God’s truth.” I prefer a third way modeled by Gregory of Nyssa who believed that cultural forms can be preserved, and filled with Christian content — and this is done through theological reflection and cultural engagement in order to both critique and affirm.