I have been thinking about innovation since I read a call for innovation and a blog post questioning the possibility. While I am deeply sympathetic with the concerns and issues raised by both, I think innovation is not the right “I” word for the United Methodist Church. We need incubation, not innovation.
The problem with innovation is its focus. We innovate when we can identify a problem and the innovation is the solution. The United Methodist church has problems galore. United Methodists have all sorts of innovative ways of trying to deal with the problems. Maybe if we do this, or do that differently, we’ll find the innovative solution that will some how fix our perceived problems. If only we could find the silver bullet solution of an idea.
I contend our fundamental existential problem is being, not doing. Churches, agencies, conferences, everyone, and everything thing in-between are doing things. Most people in the church are not sitting on their thumbs hoping for some sort of divine intervention. Our focus needs to turn towards being, not what are we doing. One way to frame it would be “who are we versus what are we doing.” Innovation looks toward what we are doing. We need to change who we are before we change what we do.
Innovation is not going to change who we are. It might change what we do to some effect, but it does not solve the fundamental problem with many of our churches. Our congregations are not living into the full potential of who God calls us to be. We have abandoned our theologies of Christian perfection and sanctification.
By not living into who God calls us to be, we are not different than anyone around us. We are not being light in the midst of darkness. Many of our churches are more of a reflection of the larger culture than Christ. We can innovate all we want, but if we do not change our hearts and our ways, I think our innovation is in vain.
What we need more than anything else, is incubation. For our churches to be petri dishes incubating an infectious way of following Christ. Instead of being infected by world, we should be infecting the world with Christ. Not so much by what we do, but by who we are in Christ.
Churches, pastors, and lay people do not need permission or changes to the Book of Discipline to do this. What we need is a different way of thinking about our lives, our faith, and our ministry. If we change our way of being, we will change what we do, but changing what we do, will not inherently change who we are.
I love Bishop Schnase’s book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, but I do not like how he frames the book. Instead of calling them practices, I would call them fruits. A vital congregation produces the fruits of passionate worship and so on. All of the different practices flow from who we are. You do not set out to passionately worship and make it happen. Passionate worship is a fruit of our relationship with God and who God is calling us to be.
Our churches are petri dishes where given the right conditions we can produce an infectious way of following Christ that has the potential jump from the dish and infect our larger culture. What stops us is not the general conference, the denomination, the judicial council, ineffective clergy, or whatever else we want to blame. Blame might not even be the right word. The impediment is our focus. We are so worried about the future, so concerned with doing the right thing, we forget that the future and our actions should not be our primary concern.
I believe our primary concern is our dynamic relationship with God and who God is calling us to be. As we peruse Christian Perfection and live out our salvation to the utmost, we might grow into an infectious way of following Christ. Or we might not. Faithfulness does not alway produce immediate fruitfulness. Sometimes the infection goes crazy, sometimes it does not. We follow Christ, invite others to join us, and leave the rest to God.