At the Innovation Lab, when we give a presentation, lead a workshop, or engage in conversation with a ministry leader, we always start by defining what we mean by “innovation.” We start here because the word “innovation” comes with a lot of assumptions. 

When someone hears the word, they’re likely to think of technology, engineering, or other STEM industries. “Innovation” conjures images of products that are flashy, brand new, and rooted in technology and the latest trends. But innovation in ministry doesn’t always look like that. 

Innovation must be entirely contextual. 

Memorial Drive United Methodist Church completed our Ministry Transformation Lab and implemented an idea that transformed their congregation by helping people build meaningful relationships. The idea? Launching a unique form of small groups with a focus on storytelling.

Small groups are a valuable tool used in many churches to deepen connections and create lasting bonds among group members. But the concept itself isn’t exactly bright, shiny, or new — which is precisely the point. 

By the Lab’s definition, innovation in ministry happens when an idea:

  • Addresses a particular need in a community,
  • Aligns with the mission of the church,
  • Draws on a community’s assets, and
  • Is led by the Holy Spirit.

Innovation emerges in distinct ways that are unique to each church and community.

With guidance and support from the Innovation Lab, a team composed of staff, volunteers, and teenagers from Memorial Drive UMC learned about a crushing challenge facing young people in their context: the paralyzing fear of not being good enough to live up to unrealistic expectations.

Young people’s participation in the small groups surrounds them with caring adults and peers who remind them that their worth isn’t rooted in their ability to measure up, but in God’s infinite and unconditional love for them. The church calls the initiative StoryTellers and the groups prioritize deep listening, mental health advocacy, and a redefinition of the “success” narrative in their context.

Innovation is less about the “what” and more about “how” and “why.”

At the Lab, we often find that innovation is less about the “what” and more about “how” and “why.” StoryTellers is an innovative ministry not because of its form (small groups) but because of the ministry’s unique purpose and the posture through which adults and young people engage with each other.

Implementing StoryTellers met a felt need at Memorial Drive UMC and the small groups have been a source of life for the church as a whole, transforming how they approach discipleship in West Houston. That is the goal of our Ministry Transformation Lab — to guide faith communities through our Theological Innovation Process so they can develop ministries God will use to change lives.

God, the great innovator, is calling the Church to create new expressions of ministry that engage communities and meet people’s needs in diverse ways. What would an innovative ministry look like in your faith community?

We’d love to help you explore how God is calling you to innovate in your unique context. Let’s talk.

About the author: Lindsey Johnson is the Innovation Lab Coordinator at CYMTShe has worked in church ministry and youth ministry as a lay leader for over 20 years.