Innovation: The Impossible Mission

Ronnie Fung - Arrow 12 (2013/14) 
Maylands Church of Christ 

TIME Magazine listed the selfie-stick as the one of the top-25 great inventions of 2014.[1]  In case you’re not aware of what a selfie is, Wikipedia gives this definition: “a self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone. Selfies are often shared on social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. They are usually flattering and made to appear casual. Most selfies are taken with a camera held at arm's length or pointed at a mirror, rather than by using a self-timer.”[2]  A selfie-stick, therefore, is a “stick” to which you can attach a device (usually a smart phone) and be used as an extension of your arm to achieve a better selfie.  If this is all new to you, you may very well be the minority. The world of selfies is enormous.  Which is probably why the selfie-stick earned the accolade of being on this top inventions list. Someone identified the enormity of this “movement”, thought innovatively, and is now probably making lots and lots of money.

Personally, I’m not fascinated about the selfie-stick as much as I am fascinated about it making this top-25 list.  When you break it down, a selfie stick simply allows a phone device to be attached to a long metal rod.  Just so we all understand, the stick can’t take any photos; it’s the phone that takes the photo.  Take away the camera function on the phone device, and suddenly the selfie stick just allows a person to hold a cordless phone on a stick at two arms length away.  That doesn’t sound so innovative anymore does it?

And I guess that’s my point.  Many innovations are more about modifying an initial idea than it is a new idea.  For example, the selfie stick enables people to take a better selfie, which, generally speaking is simply a photo.   The selfie stick has modified the way in which people capture a moment, but it’s the innovation of the camera that revolutionised the way images were captured.  

But isn’t the photograph just a modification of a previous “innovative” idea?  I cannot say when it happened, but at some point in human civilization someone thought to himself or herself, “If only I can capture this moment beyond my own mental memory.  If only I could express this onto something physical so that I can show others what I saw or felt” (could it be that cave paintings were innovative “devices” for this?)

The point is this: It’s important to realize that behind every innovation is a primary idea which generates the inception of that innovation.  And for the most part, every “new” innovation builds upon the previous “new” device, methodology or model.

So why is this worth mentioning when it comes to innovation in leadership?  Change is an inevitable reality of life; the call for church leaders to think innovatively is a critical one.  The antidote to complacency and decline is vision casting.  And behind effective vision casting is innovative leadership that promotes relevance not obsoleteness.  Pioneering into areas that are unknown and unexplored requires creative thinking and, sometimes unorthodox methodology.    The only constant is change, and with that, leaders must readily adapt in effective ways that balance creativity, risk, and calling.

But there also can be a pitfall to the constant pursuit of innovation that every leader should be wary of.  With the church losing its general relevance in a world of increasing secular thinking (at least in the western world), it feels like there is more pressure for church leaders to be more innovative, more edgy.  The constant search for new, creative, and cutting-edge can leave many forgetting about the “why” (purpose) behind the “how” (innovation).  It’s very subtle, but it’s quite easy to be innovative just for the sake of being innovative.  And that’s not innovative leadership.

I recently began a ministry opportunity to “re-plant” a church that has struggled over the better part of the last decade.   There is a church building, but there isn’t a congregation; there is just our core team.  As we began to meet and pray, there was a sense that we were situated to be as innovative as we could be.  With no previous congregation to manage, we didn’t have to worry about the difficult process of change.  And with no immediate expectation to run a service, we were afforded time to dream innovative ways of doing ministry.  A commonly expressed sentiment was this: “let’s not do church as we’ve always done church just because it’s how we’ve always done it.”

This sentiment is probably one of the reasons our core came together.  We envisioned a church that would not be bound to tradition or unwritten “rules” of how to “do church.”  We saw an opportunity to redefine and unpack church terminology that is often loaded with preconceived notions (for example, why does the word “service” leave an impression of 4 songs, a time of communion, offering, announcements, a sermon, and a closing song?)  It is our hope and desire for this church to stand out in the community in a good way.  As we started to shape this vision, it was apparent that we all wanted to try new things and not just do what we’ve always known.

And this is where I almost made a colossal error in my pursuit to be an innovative leader.  One day I was in my office planning for our informal weekend gathering. And the question was, “what are we going to do this weekend?”  We had agreed as a team, that even though we were not ready to launch a public service, it would be beneficial to meet together, worship and spend time in the Word.  As I thought about how to best utilise that time, all I could think about was singing worship songs and giving a small devotion/sermon.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  After all, it is a group of “veteran” church attenders who would probably expect nothing short of that.  But there was a perceived problem buzzing in my head.  I kept thinking to myself, “But how is this different?  If we want a culture of being different, we need to begin that culture now.” 

All of the sudden, in my head, singing worship songs with guitar and keyboard was “so yesterday”.  Preaching a sermon was “old school”.  “What is the new and relevant way of doing these things?” I was pondering.  I think the appropriate phrase to describe what was happening in my mind is, “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”  I had fallen into what I think is a subtle yet slippery pitfall of innovation in leadership:  innovation is a tool used towards achieving a mission; innovation is not the mission itself.

You see it’s in our vision to be different, but not just for the sake of being different.  If that were the case, it wouldn’t be our vision to be different, but rather, it would be our mission to be different.  And clearly that is not our mission.  Our mission is to proclaim and demonstrate God’s reign through Jesus Christ.  It’s the mission of God to spread the gospel about Jesus.  That’s the mission. What we want to do is promote the mission in ways that adapt to the ever-changing world around us.  If the mission requires us to try some crazy idea, then we go with the crazy idea.  If the mission requires us to keep doing what we’ve done, then we don’t change a thing until it looks like we need to.  Being different with purpose is innovation in leadership; existing to just be different is a disaster in the making.

You could argue that the church was God’s original innovative design to which the Missio Dei would be spread through.  No matter how innovative church ministry has been over the years and no matter how innovative church ministry will be, the fact remains that all these “innovations” have been simply modifications of the original design by God.  Throughout history, the church has had to adapt and be creative in order to have impact in its context and local neighborhoods.  But underneath the different models, philosophies, and methodologies, church ministry has always been undergirded by this foundational idea:  the spreading of the Gospel would rest on not-so-perfect people to love other not-so-perfect people, and with the help of a very perfect Spirit, to bear witness about a very perfect God.

Without a doubt, there will be a church that will innovatively come up with something that will be the “selfie stick” of churches.  And when that happens, the temptation will be for every church to think, “We need to have that selfie-stick!  The future church depends on it!”  But before we elevate innovation above the mission itself, it’s good to remember that one doesn’t need a selfie-stick to capture a moment.  In fact, one doesn’t even need a camera to capture a moment.  Innovation in church leadership is being able to see that perspective and discern how to keep the church effectively active in her mission.

 Bottom line, innovation is important, but it isn’t king.  We all know who the King is. 


[1] TIME Staff, ‘The 25 Best Inventions of 2014’, TIME, (published online 20 Nov. 2014)

< http://time.com/3594971/the-25-best-inventions-of-2014/>, accessed 24 April 2015.

[2] “Selfie.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.,

26 April 2015.  Web. 28 April 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selfie

Comments

I would be interested to know what Ronnie decided to do on that Sunday morning he speaks of - what did that meeting look like?