Churches and Innovation

H’s comments last Sunday, on changes and trying something different, inspired me. I’ve jotted down a few of my thoughts, mostly culled from Peter Drucker’s book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which I recently re-read several times.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen very few innovative successes in churches. We usually think of innovation as something that businesses engage in, but there’s no particular reason why this has to be true. Surely innovation does work in business. And surely the church is no business. But that doesn’t mean that innovation can’t work in the church. But the church faces different obstacles, pursues different ends, and uses different tactics.

Why do churches fail? There are a number of reasons. The most important is that churches, like other public-service institutions, tend to maximize rather than optimize. After a certain point, spending even more on the same thing meets with rapidly diminishing returns.

When you go the grocery store, you buy one or two loaves of bread. If you have a large family—or if you really like bread—you might buy several. But you probably don’t buy 20 loaves. What would you do with all that bread? Even though you like bread, you know that the $15 or $20 spent on extra bread would be much better spent on soup, meat, or something else. It would achieve far greater results in terms of satisfying your family’s overall food needs.

But public-service institutions are generally rewarded for effort, rather than for hard results. More effort means bigger budgets and larger programs, even if results fail to follow. They also tend to see their goals as moral absolutes (rather than using moral absolutes to define their objectives), and their programs as working toward those absolutes (rightly or wrongly, consciously or unconsciously). Suggestions that they try something different, in order to achieve better results, are seen as an attack on the organization’s raison d’etre. Failure is often just a reason to redouble efforts. And waste more resources.

So, the first prescription against failure: Have reasonable objectives and realistic goals.

The head of the Crusade Against Hunger is quoted as saying, “Our mission will not be completed as long as there is one child on the earth going to bed hungry.” Yesterday in the London Independent, Tony Blair was reported to say that he wouldn’t relax his agenda until poverty had been eliminated. Many Christians see the role of the church as evangelizing the world. While these ideals may all be laudable, the world is a pretty big place with an awful lot of hungry children and more than its fair share of poverty.

The reality is that these jobs are much too big for any of us mere humans to handle. We have to leave them in God’s hands. We have to trust that He will somehow coordinate all the ongoing efforts, in order to reach as much of the world as possible. That He will provide work for the poor, and food for the hungry. If we try to take on the entire burden ourselves, we are doomed to failure. We may spend all our energy pushing the programs beyond where they’ve achieved optimality. Or maybe we won’t even seriously try, for lack of a reasonable objective.

What we ought to do is ask: What does God want us, in our little corner of the world, to do for Him? What is within our abilities? What will achieve the greatest results with the resources we have? Where are our strengths? And how will God use them as part of His ultimate purpose? It is part of the pastor’s prerogative to help us answer these questions, to take advantage of the opportunities God offers us.

God does indeed present us with opportunities to serve Him. And, here again, churches, as institutions, are often among the worst offenders.

I knew a church who, quite unintentionally, had a certain woman in its congregation. This woman frequently encountered people who were in dire need of salvation. And she befriended them, shared Jesus with them, and brought them to church. These people were from the dregs of society and were largely overlooked by the religious establishment. Within six months, one of the pews was half-full of people who had formerly avoided churches and Christians.

What to do? Convert the unexpected success into an opportunity. Perhaps analyze what this woman is doing that’s working so well. Perhaps there’s some way to duplicate the success. Perhaps there’s some aspect of the church that feeds these people. At least, there’s some aspect of the gospel that she has effectively, consistently communicated to a rejected demographic.

The unexpected success represents a change that has already taken place. It results from an unintentional tactic that has already worked. It is, in fact, the least risky source of innovative opportunity.

And it’s also the most overlooked and despised, because it represents change. The people in the church in question didn’t see that their church was filling up with unbelievers. They didn’t see God working in marvelous and mysterious ways. What they saw was that the faces in their Sunday morning service were changing. That their worship was being disrupted by people they considered low-life undesirables. And they unabashedly, in the name of all that is good, spurned the newcomers. That church had floundered for decades before, and it has floundered ever since.

We all become anxious at change. But remember: Change means opportunity!

Change always means opportunity for the person who’s able to exploit it. In our case, it’s an opportunity to serve. Structural changes. Demographic changes. Even failures represent opportunities.

After World War II, the American Catholic Church saw more and more educated lay people in its parishes. An educated laity is much less likely to accept the word of a priest at face value, without asking questions, without understanding the matter first-hand. By the late 1960’s, there was also a decline in the number of men entering the priesthood, resulting in a shortage of priests. Most of the Church saw these changes as direct threats. But one archdiocese saw opportunity. It took the simple step of appointing lay professionals to handle administrative functions that were previously handled by priests. As a result, it ended up with a different problem. Priests from all over the country wanted to get into this one archdiocese. Because there, and only there, they could do the things they entered the priesthood to do.

Which brings me to the third rule: Practice entrepreneurial judo.

In other words, analyze the efforts of other churches and organizations. Determine where those efforts fall short. Perhaps they fall short because the organizations don’t see precisely what God is doing. Or perhaps because they lack the resources to do the whole job alone. It doesn’t really matter. In any case, find people whose needs are not being met, and meet them. Or, as Paul put it, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

This strategy works especially well in the public-service sector. Since so often public-service institutions maximize rather than optimize. And they overlook unexpected successes and failures.

It is the least risky innovative strategy. Coupled with the unexpected success or failure, the surest sign of opportunity, the pair is quite powerful. And, as we have seen, ignoring them can be deadly.

Entrepreneurial judo also works especially well in the presence of rapid structural change. Indeed, effective innovation is always necessary in the face of structural change. And the most sure-fire indicator of structural change is rapid growth. In other words, when the next big revival hits, lots of churches are going to be put out of business. Because they will fail to meet the spiritual needs of the millions of new christians pouring into the fold. If they hold faithfully to the old model, they will become relics of the past. (Who was it who said that when God bring revival, he shakes things up?)

The only way to survive will be to establish reasonable objectives and realistic goals, look for changes that can be turned into opportunities, and serve by meeting the needs of others.