Did you know the seven last words of a dying church? They are captured in one of my favorite book titles of all times, by Ralph Neighbour: The Seven Last Words of the Church: We Never Tried It That Way Before.
Christian culture in most places is shaped more by tradition, conservation and preservation than by innovation. These things have value. Passing down God’s word to the next generation is one of the core tasks of the people of God. At the same time, we need to reinvent appropriate expressions of kingdom lifestyle again and again, for Gen Y and Gen Z, and for the new populations that have never seen an expression of the kingdom. And that requires innovation.
Effective ministry occurs in the tension between conservation and innovation.
Albert Einstein said, “doing the same things over and over and expecting different results is called --- insanity.” This applies in movement ministry. If you have not seen a movement emerge in your ministry, or if your movement has plateaued, one of the reasons may be that you haven’t infused enough innovation into your ministry.
This article will explain the critical role of innovation in movement ministry. I’ll portray how effective catalysts are innovative. And you’ll learn five key ingredients to impactful innovation and some steps you personally can take to become more innovative.
How innovation is critical in movement growth
Movements usually do not grow steadily. The following chart illustrates the typical growth curve of many movements. The vertical axis shows the number of churches in these movements and the horizontal axis indicates the number of years the movements have existed.
Figure 1: Typical S-Shape Growth Pattern in Movements
The growth trajectory of movements is often in the form of a so-called ‘S-Curve’ – as its shape resembles the letter ‘S’ – with growth ultimately slowing down. What needs to happen to make the growth curve go up again? In one movement I am familiar with, when the initial exponential growth slowed down and became linear and slow, the catalyst decided to train coaches who began working with the churches of the movement. They stimulated a new emphasis on starting more discovery groups. They introduced something innovative to the movement. And the movement that had begun to plateau picked up growth again.
Note that when this movement plateaued, what led them into the next stage of growth was a measure of innovation. The catalyst introduced something new, something different, something innovative. This demonstrates how innovation has the power to boost movement growth. Not endlessly, though – unless, at a later point again, measures are taken to reinvigorate growth. You can see the impact of innovation depicted in this figure:
Figure 2: S-Curve and Innovation
Innovation in Jesus’ teaching
Let us ground innovation in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was very innovative. Thing is that all his innovations have been handed down as part of tradition for 2000 years, so it is hard for us to perceive how innovative he actually was. And he didn’t just set an example of innovation. That could be disregarded as “he is the founder, but ours is to merely follow all that has been bequeathed to us.” He also taught on innovation as a standard ministry element in his kingdom.
“Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). Even a scribe, someone who teaches others from the divine Scriptures, frequently comes up with new things from the treasures of Scripture. The job description of a kingdom teacher includes bringing new things out of the treasure.
“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matthew 9:16-17). Jesus talks of new wine, the essence of the kingdom. He also talks of new wineskins, new vessels, containers, forms, structures, or expressions. The point of the metaphor: Every new content needs new and appropriate forms.
Innovation plays a vital role in Jesus’ new kingdom.
Innovation in Effective Catalysts – Findings from my Research
My research has established innovativeness as a quality that characterizes effective movement catalysts and clearly distinguishes catalysts from non-catalysts. We define it as follows: Catalysts use their imagination to come up with creative ideas, and with innovative approaches and solutions.
In the interviews I conducted with effective catalysts, they sometimes commented that a frustration with existing methods had led them to experiment with new forms of ministry. Courage is required to break free from the shackles of church tradition or to challenge traditional methods, especially in the face of opposition from other Christians. Finding a viable alternative requires innovativeness and creativity. One catalyst from South Asia tells his story:
I said: “What is it that we're doing wrong? Why are they rejecting the gospel?” I looked at the culture and looked at the language and our dependency on Western money: it was so power-controlled, and they were telling people what to do. I said, ‘How about doing it the other way round, and letting the people discover what to do by the help of the Holy Spirit?’ I was also thinking about the gender issue. At that time only men could baptize people…. Did Jesus give the Great Commission only to men or to all? Is obedience only for men or for all? In those days I had more questions than answers. If I asked anyone, people in the ministry were very defensive and no-one was willing to give me an answer.
Another catalyst from Southeast Asia describes this willingness to go against the grain:
“What everybody else was saying “Don't do” - that usually works in our case!”
These quotations illustrate that some catalysts are willing to fly in the face of established ministry methods and have the courage to try innovative approaches.
Effective catalysts have an innovative mindset – a general suspicion of inherited forms, programs, and resources. This mindset encompasses a willingness to break the rules of what is considered good and right, and fearlessness to try out new things.
Effective catalysts reported on surveys that they have incorporated these two best practices into their lives, and assess them to have contributed to their movement catalyzing:
Best Practice 1 – Constant Examination: Related to the innovative mindset comes a constant desire to examine, analyze, evaluate, and improve, as permanent practices. This catalyst encapsulates the essence of this practice:
“We lived with a somewhat critical eye to what was happening in the movement. We lived with a complete contradiction…encouraged with what was going on around us and skeptical that it was near as good as it seemed.”
Best Practice 2 – Experimentation: Often catalysts try out something new for a certain predefined time frame, and then evaluate. Depending on the evaluation, they either adopt the innovation, abandon the experiment, or further modify it until it works.
Key Innovation Ingredients
The following has been enriched with insights from my wife Anna, a transformational coach who has worked as an innovation catalyst on a team that introduced innovation across a large mission organization (click here for her website).
Innovation in many cases starts with a small working group. The following five ingredients are essential to their innovation work:
Identification of the key issues needing innovation
Identification of root issues needing addressing
Thorough process with stakeholder input
Development of preliminary solutions
Formalization of innovation.
1. Identification of the key issues needing innovation
Any lasting innovation starts with an in-depth diagnosis of the status quo. Key evaluation questions to ask include:
What is not working in our ministry? This looks at current problems.
What is not happening in our ministry, compared to our stated vision and mission, and against our faith goals? This looks at gaps between the status quo and the desired future.
Once a long list of issues is developed, the team needs to decide which of those is most essential to address. The key question to ask is:
Which issue is most critical for us to address in pursuit of our mission?
2. Identification of root issues needing addressing
Once the key problem that most needs addressing has been identified, its underlying issues need to be understood. Key questions to ask are:
What are the factors affecting what is not currently working in our ministry?
What are the factors hindering or preventing things from happening in our ministry that our goals say should be happening?
Asking these and similar questions, the team creates a long list of all negative factors that influence the issue they want to address.
Addressing the problem as such is not sufficient. Root issues of that problem need to be identified. This is done by answering the question:
What factors are influencing which other factors?
Once a few root factors are identified, the deep-level underlying factor needs to be identified. This can be done by first clarifying the relationships of these negative factors with one another. A great way to do this, is to write all negative factors on a board and create a factor map. You can do this by marking with arrows: what factors influence which other factors.
It’s important to go deep and not rush to solution development. Quoting Einstein again: “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution.” (Einstein & Infeld, 1938:92)
When you have identified the one or two deep-level underlying factors, whatever innovation you create will need to be the solution to that factor.
Important: Consider this an initial diagnosis. Assume the initial diagnosis is flawed. The diagnosis is not final, and in the process of innovation creation, you will need to revisit this initial diagnosis and add more precision to it. On the basis of this initial diagnosis however, you can now begin developing a preliminary simple solution.
3. Thorough process with stakeholder input
We want to stress at the outset that the process of innovation is more important than having perfect solution to the problem. Therefore, it is important to include a few key players as early as possible. You’ll deal with five kinds of people in the diffusion of innovation, as the leading innovation theorist Everett Rogers has made widely known (Rogers, 2003). The percentage indicates how many of each group are found in most innovation contexts.
Figure 2: Adopter Categories in Innovation (Rogers, 2003)
The first to include in the innovation process are innovators and early adopters. The core innovation group needs to also consider which key leaders and influencers they need to inform or possibly get approval from. The innovation process does not need start with everyone; it can start with a few. These few, though, need to be the right people.
Thorough healthy processing of the introduction of innovation, as much as possible, creates ownership. Better to have a good solution that people own than to have a great solution without buy-in.
The process consists of requesting input from the key stakeholders, listening with an open mind, using the input to shape the solution, then feeding back the improved version of the solution. This must be repeated as many times as needed, until the innovation has gained so much traction that it gains enough acceptance among early adopters to be introduced at a wider level.
4. Development of preliminary solutions
For introducing a new ministry approach or initiative, piloting is beneficial.
For creating a new product, like a resource or tool, crafting a prototype is hugely beneficial.
For both, the benefit is that you can let them succeed on a small scale, while learning lessons in the process and improving it further, before going public or formalizing it. That way you have a proof of concept, and the positive testimonials of those who benefited from the pilot or prototype will give your innovation credibility and the process traction.
A key innovation-creating question to ask is:
What would it take to make xyz happen?
It is good to develop several solutions at the beginning, rather than fixate on one too early. Keep them simple. Avoid the trap of coming up with an elegant solution. Complex problems tend to defeat elegant solutions. Assume the initial solution is inadequate.
Once the working group favors one solution, invite feedback from potential users, then make adaptations based on their feedback. Continue this as iterative cycle until a growing number of those giving feedback express that they like it and will use it. The innovation needs to solve a problem of those you hope will use it. It needs to address one of their pain points, and convince them that using the innovation will bring them immediate benefits.
5. Formalization of innovation
Only when a sufficiently large group of early adopters like the solution enough that they are ready to actually use it, can the innovation be formulized. This means leadership announces the change in ministry approach or the introduction of the new product.
In communication about the introduction of innovation, the image of the burning platform creates the urgency often necessary to overcome the reservation to change: “We are on a burning oil rig. It is safer to jump into the unknown than to stay put.”
Growth Path toward becoming more innovative
Here are specific steps you can take, gleaned from the lives of effective movement catalysts and my own experience:
Make time in your regular schedule for deep evaluation and innovation.
Take the initiative to address issues in your organization that need innovation, irrespective of your position and authority.
Develop the habit of asking yourself imaginative questions, like: “What would it take to make xyz happen?” Or: “If I knew for certain that I wouldn’t fail, what would I do to make xyz happen?”
Find at least one buddy in your organization with whom you can process innovative ideas.
Schedule regular sessions in your team meetings devoted to deep evaluation and innovation.
How innovatively have I personally been acting?
How innovatively have we as a ministry recently functioned?
What issue burdens me most – that either isn’t working or isn’t even happening – which if not addressed, could likely prevent us from fulfilling our mission?
What would it take to make this work/happen?
What Are Your Thoughts?
I would love to hear from you. What are YOUR thoughts? What is your experience? Leave a comment below! If you prefer to private message me, you can use the contact form.
Learn more about the other Catalytic Qualities besides Innovation in my book Movement Catalysts. You can order your copy here!
If you found this helpful, please share this blog with your network!
Emanuel Prinz – Father’s Beloved & Movement Activist
Recommended resource if you want to dig deeper:
Esler, Ted. 2022. The Innovation Crisis: Creating Disruptive Influence in the Ministry You Lead. Chicago: Moody.
Other resources referenced:
Einstein, Albert, and Infeld, Leopold. 1938. The Evolution of Physics. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Ensari, N., Riggio, R. E., Christian, J., and Carslaw, G. 2011. Who emerges as a leader? Meta-analyses of individual differences as predictors of leadership emergence. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(4), 532–536.
Neighbour, Ralph. 1973. The Seven Last Words of the Church: Or We Have Never Tried It That Way Before. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Stogdill, Ralph M. 1974. Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research. New York: Free Press.
Zaccaro, Stephen J. 2007. Trait-based perspectives of leadership. American Psychologist 62, 6-16.