Innovation Takes Courage

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What if there was an explosion of innovation in the church today? Imagine the effects of innovation on discipleship, community, racial reconciliation, hospitality, and giving!

These are just some of the giants waiting for ministry leaders to tackle. These are outward facing issues that can connect with our mission statements. Suggesting they can be conquered is both faith-filled and audacious. It will take courage to aim innovation at these problems. 

We also need courage in addressing the internals of our churches and organizations.

Stagnating ministries need to pull the emergency lever. With the ever-increasing effects of cumulative change, the end can come swiftly. Leaders experiencing this sort of crisis will often point to external forces that create a final crisis. Things like COVID-19. When a stagnating ministry hits an existential crisis, free fall can set it. The reality is that stagnation has more likely been a slow-growing cancer.

The triggering event is just the last stage of an almost irreversible slump toward obsolescence. In their book The Founder’s Mentality, Zook and Allen’s research suggests that about 5 to 7 percent of companies are either in free fall or beginning to fall into it. If this is true for industry, I believe the number must be double or more for ministries. Leading a stagnating ministry takes enormous amounts of courageous leadership to change course.

A triggering event might include a mortgage payment for a church with a building they can no longer afford. It could be a sexual harassment lawsuit revealing a toxic organizational culture. It might be as simple as the inability of a ministry to attract and hire staff because the mission has fallen into irrelevancy. These triggering events are best seen as gifts. They create the conditions for change and courageous leaders embrace them for what they are.

Sustaining ministries have a different set of challenges.

Existing ministry structures and paradigms are often the roadblocks for venturing down unknown, innovative paths. Signs that these roadblocks are going up are many. You might begin to sense that you are good at what you do, but this is competence in the status quo. You might have climbed the organizational ladder and now look down on a familiar domain. Unfortunately, the domain becomes the problem.

Sustaining ministries have time to make the sort of changes that can bring renewal. Even so, building a sense of urgency is paramount to getting stakeholders on board for the sort of change required. Avoid the temptation to tweak the existing systems. Instead, use the time to make wise changes. Adopting a significant change in mission can be done without severe trauma to the people involved. Disruptive change does not have to mean harm to the people involved.

You need courage to make significant, innovative change if you find your ministry stagnating or sustaining.

I believe we have a crisis of innovation among ministries today. There is no doubt that we find stellar examples that buck this crisis. Yet, there are brutal facts we must face. The Christian worldview is waning in Western society. The enormous cultural and religious shifts around us are making decades of ministry irrelevant. Despite creating the conditions for massive innovation, the COVID-19 epidemic has not produced a wave of innovation. Legacy ministries continue to use many of the same methods and systems developed for a previous generation.

There is hope.

There is great hope. We are awash with innovation outside the ecosystem. The people that sit in our pews, read our fundraising letters, and pray for us have been conditioned to accept innovation. Each new generation seems more welcoming and embracing of innovation. We have tools, systems, and new methodologies. Do we have the will to put them to work?

It starts with ministry leaders like you. Let me encourage you to see a problem worth solving, ride the wave of innovation that is washing over us, take action, listen well to your stakeholders before devising solutions, and stretch your faith by thinking big.


Adapted from The Innovation Crisis: Creating Disruptive Influence in the Ministry You Lead by Ted Esler (© 2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission. 

TED ESLER is the President of Missio Nexus, an association of agencies and churches representing about 30,000 Great Commission workers worldwide. Ted holds a PhD in Intercultural Studies (Fuller Theological Seminary, 2012).

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