Why Innovation is the Wrong Word

June 8, 2022 | | Deepen Faith, GNJ News, The Relay

Last month, GNJ’s Director of Congregational Ministries Eric Drew caught up with Kenda Creasy Dean, Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary and co-founder of Ministry Incubators, to discuss her new book for congregations, Innovating for Love: Joining God’s Expedition through Christian Social Innovation (Market Square, 2022).

Eric Drew: Kenda, why this book and why now?

Kenda Dean: The book is part of The Greatest Expedition series, edited by Kay Kotan, to help congregations lean into a new season in their ministry. Kay believes that congregational vitality requires us to embrace social innovation as a spiritual practice. So, she asked me to do this book.

The pandemic turned out to be a great clarifier. If I had written this book in 2019, when I signed the contract, it would have been a completely different book! We’ve known for years that churches need to innovate—lean into creativity, try new things, reimagine ministry for new contexts… but the penny really didn’t drop until the 2020 shutdowns. The pandemic put two things up front: 1) for people who follow Jesus, innovation is about participating in God’s “big idea,” not getting God to participate in ours; and 2) in the church, innovating for love is first and foremost a practice of humility. These markers are game changers, they make Christian social innovation very different from innovation in Silicon Valley.

Eric Drew: Speaking of Christian social innovation—what is that, anyway?  

Kenda Dean: It’s interesting – Christian social innovation used to just be “what Christians did” but we had no name for it other than “love.” Churches knew that loving the way Jesus loved meant turning many cultural norms upside down. In Acts 17, Paul and Silas are thrown in jail for being those Christians “turning the world upside down” again. Luther was a social innovator par excellence, but for many he was just a troublemaker. For centuries, people just pointed to this work and said, “Look, there’s the church!”

Today, we like to label things. So Christian social innovation is just a clunky term for human efforts to embody Christ’s love in ways we haven’t tried before—to “add value” to people’s lives, you might say, by making the church or broader community more like the world God intended. If you’ve heard terms like social entrepreneur, missional innovator, or “changemaker” – I put all of those under the umbrella of social innovation. The difference is, for Christians, God is the innovator, not us. Our innovations help people glimpse God’s plans, not ours.

Eric Drew:  So, churches have always done this?

Kenda Dean: Yes! For centuries! The problem is that today we tend to separate sacred and secular work, which is a very modern division of labor. In the early church, improving public life was as important as caring for congregations. The first Christians created new systems for caring for the sick and poor (it exasperated Emperor Julian that Christians cared for pagan people better than pagans did). In the Middle Ages, monastic communities were hotbeds of social and commercial innovation. They pioneered agricultural practices that prevented famine, used participatory governance that became the models for civic democracies, pioneered new forms of music, art, and education, and of course gave us a slew of “life hacks” (mechanical clocks, cast iron, muenster cheese, champagne, etc.)

Eric Drew: You share that “starting with why” is wrong. Where should our congregations start?

Kenda Dean: It’s not wrong as much as it’s just the wrong first question. The church starts with “who” being the person of Jesus Christ and the person who is our neighbor. It means our best ministries aren’t shaped out of some grand sense of purpose, rather, they emerge from the needs of the people God has placed in our lives, whose stories prick us until we must do something with them. Every Christian social innovator starts here.

It’s interesting that the field of “human centered design” has reminded us, more than our faith has, that the starting point for good design is empathy, listening to the needs of those we hope to bless. But it is a deeply faithful impulse. Father Greg Boyle’s pioneering work with Los Angeles gangs 30 years ago led to founding “Home Boy Industries” because he was pained that these young people could not find jobs. So, he started “Home Boy Industries” to employ them. Boyle is now regarded as one of the founders of the modern Christian social entrepreneur movement. But the idea came, not from a desire to pioneer social entrepreneurship (the term didn’t exist then), but from the needs of people he loved who could not find work.

Another Greg, (one of my former students, now a professor at Candler and the founder of Fearless Dialogues) talks about “the three feet practice,” which I love. He remembers asking his aunt when he was six years old, “How can I change the world?” She said, “Baby, I don’t know how you can change the world, but you can change the three feet in front of you.” The three-feet practice starts with the person God places on your path right in front of you. Before we go looking for grand purposes and mission fields and ways to change the world, innovating for love starts by tackling the three feet in front of us (or maybe with social distancing we can extend it to 6 feet)!

Eric Drew: You have regularly been a creative force in the church and community, but you share that you hate the word innovation. What’s that about?

Kenda Dean: Well, for one thing, we’ve turned it into an idol. Innovation is “cool” right now; every organization wants “innovative” leaders. But when a word gets used for everything, it starts losing its meaning. My point is that it’s the substance of innovation that matters. You could argue that Bonnie and Clyde were innovators, but they sure weren’t innovating for love.

Eric Drew: You share that despite many sobering studies about the state of the church, “the church is neither dying nor presumed dead.” What gives you hope amid the “shipwreck?”

Kenda Dean: I love that question! In fact, the shipwreck passage in Acts 27 has been keeping me afloat throughout the pandemic. I think it’s a metaphor of hope for the church right now, in three ways. First, the ship breaks apart, and yet every single person on board survives… how?  Flotsam, the broken pieces of the ship bobbing around in the water. If a passenger couldn’t swim, he hung onto some flotsam and floated to shore. So, the same ship that broke apart is the instrument of their salvation, which tells me that just because the church seems to be in pieces doesn’t mean that God isn’t using it to save us.

The second thing is that Paul and the rest of his bone-soaked, bedraggled folks shipmates wind up on an “unknown shore.” When the storm is over, they have no idea where they are. The natives are friendly and curious; they tell Paul he’s on Malta, which Paul knows nothing about, and vice versa. And yet this is where he and his shipmates must rebuild the ship. But it can’t look the same. It will include some repaired ship wreckage, but also some new materials from the generous people on Malta… who don’t know or care about Paul’s religion, but they seem to care a lot about Paul. I think churches feel like we’ve been drop-kicked onto an unknown shore too. We have no idea how to be a church for this new cultural reality, and yet here we are. We must rebuild, using resources and people that are new to us.

The third thing in that story that bowls me over is this: today, Paul is the patron saint of Malta. There are festivals and feast days devoted to his shipwreck, for through Paul, God “saved” Malta. Maybe. But as I read the passage in Acts, something else jumps out at me: God also used Malta to save Paul. What if God is using our moment in the church right now—when old ways are breaking down, when a pandemic has thrown us into this strange place in our culture—what if God is using all this to save us?

Eric Drew: Maggy Barankitse shared that “love made her an inventor.” What are some examples that local church leaders have been driven to invent by love?

Kenda Dean: There are so many! I include loads of examples in the book, and every day I run across more that I wish I had included. There’s the church that started a nonprofit to make kitchen tables for people re-establishing a home after being houseless. The congregation had studied houselessness and evictions, and they learned that, after being on the streets, people spend their meager funds on beds and chairs; many live without a kitchen table, just because other needs seem more important. Yet if Christ is known in the breaking of the bread, this congregation reasoned, a place to share meals together is fundamental. So, they became carpenters, so people could have tables to rebuild connections as Christ knits their lives back together.

There’s the young youth minister told by her boss to start a ministry for girls—and to try to solve racism. Could she do something about that? Today, Megan and her team lead Try Pie, a pie bakery (the girls’ idea) in central Iowa where girls from diverse social, economic, and cultural backgrounds come together to bake pie, along with learning life skills, financial stewardship, and placing all this in the context of Christian faith and vocation. Originating in a church kitchen, Try Pie pays each girl a weekly stipend, and now has a brick-and-mortar store and a food truck… and a lot more girls discovering their God-given vocations, and common humanity through pie.

Jenifer learned that when a friend was called to take a foster child in the middle of the night (more common than you’d think), the child came with nothing but the clothes on his back.  Jenifer heard her friend’s frustration: in her small Indiana town, she had no way to obtain diapers, a change of clothes, or even formula. A week later, In A Pinch was born: Jenifer mobilized a band of women to open a thrift store (that generates income and donations of baby items) to provide kits of necessity items for foster placements, organized into age-appropriate backpacks or diaper bags, which are delivered to new foster families with each child placed.

The rise of illegal drugs in her town made Stephanie, a children’s minister, realize that local playgrounds were no longer safe for children. She noticed it because children and parents, who both formed important connections on playgrounds, were becoming increasingly isolated. So, Stephanie and her church founded WonderSpace, a pop-up indoor playground that can transform any indoor space (a warehouse, a gymnasium, an abandoned grocery store) into an enchanting, supervised play space, filled with colorful foam shapes, climbing nets, cardboard maker spaces, and lots of hang-out furniture where parents can connect as their children play.

Christian social innovation is almost inevitable if you’re open to it. Dan Yoder, a Goshen, Indiana youth minister with a heart for undocumented families, and the teenagers who needed jobs to support them, so he started Casting Hope, worm farm that hires immigrant teenagers to run a worm-casting business for local gardeners… Mike Martin, a youth pastor who re-trained to become a blacksmith after the Sandy Hook shootings, founded RawTools in Colorado Springs—a blacksmith/educational program that turns guns used in violent crimes into garden implements, to fosters awareness of gun violence…Delesslyn Kennebrew turned a sprawling Kansas City home into a retreat center for exhausted pastors…Noran Sanford helped a group of formerly incarcerated teenagers turn a decommissioned prison in North Carolina into a working farm, run by youth themselves. None of these people planned to innovate; all of them loved someone too much not to try a new kind of ministry that might bring them life.

I also love the Catholic youth ministers in Chicago who formed a beard balm company (yes, beard balm) to fund youth ministry in the diocese. (Not kidding…you can check it out here: https://catholicbalm.co/)

Eric Drew: That’s incredible. What do you think is next on the horizon in terms of innovation for churches?

Kenda Dean: Well, I don’t think most of us are called to make beard balm! One thing I hope is next is that we will stop trying so hard to be innovative. We need to focus on loving well, not on innovating, which is how we get more innovative. So, we have to get to know God and our neighbors deeply. You can’t love someone you don’t know. And when we do know someone, we don’t think, “Now, how can I innovate for them?” We think, “I wonder what will stop their suffering?” That’s why parents are experimental geniuses. Parents will try a million wild ways to alleviate their child’s pain, fail, and try again. They don’t stop until the tears do. It’s not a bad metaphor for the Church.

But in terms of innovation itself?  We’ve got to innovate with systems as well as individual ministries. Right now, these ministries are all fragile, and like most start-ups, very dependent on their founders. But what might happen if churches innovated for love in a field of, say, education? Health care? Housing? Gun violence? Anti-racism?

I think the most pressing conversation in Christian social innovation right now is about how churches use their property. We have tons of it, and only a fraction is being used well—and many of us are bleeding resources that we don’t have to maintain it. But we need to see our property and assets as a blessing, not a burden, even as we redistribute it. In the United Methodist Church, asset redeployment is the biggest opportunity we’ve had for ministry since class meetings…if we have the courage and vision to do it well.