My former pastor Mike Smith once said something to the effect, “Don’t say that Baptists have never done a certain thing. Baptists have done a lot of things they may not be doing now.” This is true of the church at large. Every form of ministry was at one time new and untried.
In a missional church class several years ago, students helped me to see that innovation happens in the church in response to a cultural need, the innovation matures and become institutionalized, and then society changes and innovation is needed once again. In reality, the church must always be in the process of renewal.
This is not to say that innovation is quickly accepted. Once a practice becomes established in the life of the church, change is hard if not impossible. One reason is that change is uncomfortable. Another is that each practice has someone willing to fight for its continuity even if it no longer works.
Innovation is not easy, but reality eventually dawns and I believe more churches are becoming open to trying different methodologies as part of the mission Dei. How can we encourage innovation in the life of the church?
First, we must know what is essential and what is not. What are the basics of faith and practice and what is negotiable? These are hard conversations, but just because we have always made certain statements and done things one way does not mean that these are central to our theology. The scriptures do not tell us when to worship but we are encouraged to do so. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning may be an accepted time for worship but it is not biblical!
Second, we must exegete our culture and understand the opportunities there for ministry. Our example is Paul the Apostle, who never abandoned his faith in Christ, but was willing to use his knowledge of the Greek and Roman cultures to clearly articulate the Gospel while building on the Jewish practices of mutual support to establish new faith communities. His innovations provided a way to penetrate first century culture with the Christian faith.
Third, we must recognize the gifts and skills of those within our fellowship that broaden and strengthen our ministry. God sends our way those needed to build up the body of Christ. Whether clergy or laity, we must unleash their abilities in order to engage our context.
Fourth, we must listen to the outsiders and neophytes. If we truly want to make an impact in our community, we will listen to the voices of those outside our fellowship and tap into their expertise. New believers or those who are new to our fellowship also offer valuable insight. Why did they choose to join us? What do they see with “fresh eyes” that we have overlooked?
The mission of God was instituted by a creative God, one who continually surprises us with love and provision. As God’s people, we must be follow that example.