The Innovative Church
Christ’s message doesn’t change, but the Church’s methods should
Two years ago this fall many of us were making strategic plans for our churches’ ministries in 2020. Scheduling, budgeting, and staffing figured prominently in those plans as we focused on the goal of reaching more people for Jesus.
COVID came instead and ripped our plans to shreds. Lockdowns and quarantines prevented us from meeting in person. Out with the planned schedule! With limited or no in-person meetings, some congregations saw giving decline. Out with the planned budget! Without a stable budget, we took a hit financially and some staff members lost their jobs. Out with staffing plans!
Overnight, we scrambled to come up with Plan B for effective ministry under difficult conditions. In-person meetings moved online. We passed the plate on smartphone apps. Volunteers found alternative ways to serve.
In short, we innovated.
Churches that were able to pivot quickly to Plan B thrived. Most churches moved more slowly and survived. Some never managed to make the necessary changes and closed their doors.
Innovating is necessary because our circumstances are always in flux. The past 21 months have offered a learning lab to pastors and other church leaders. What lessons in innovation do we need to carry into the future?
A Biblical Paradigm
The pandemic wasn’t the first time believers got creative about ministry. Church history is filled with examples of forward gospel movement made possible by innovation.
Your Bible itself is an example of two innovations: the translation of Scripture from its original languages into the vernacular and the use of printing presses to make affordable copies.
More importantly, the Bible is a record of the creative ways God’s people have carried out His redemptive mission in the world.
Take the Book of Acts, for example. Jesus told His followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Each stage of geographic expansion required changes in the way the Church ministered to people.
Paul captured the gist of those changes when he wrote, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
For Paul and the early Christians, the message of the gospel never changed: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The methods they used to communicate that message can and did change, however.
When the mission matters — and ours certainly does — we don’t quit. We can’t quit! Too much is at stake. Like the friends of the paralyzed man in Mark 2:1–12, we find a way forward. We innovate.
These men brought their friend to Jesus because they knew He could work miracles. But when they got to the house where Jesus was teaching, it was too crowded to get in. So, they carried the man on his mat onto the roof, created an opening, and lowered him down. Seeing the man, Jesus first forgave him, then healed him.
The primary meaning of this story is theological and spiritual. Theologically, Jesus has authority to forgive and power to heal (verse 10). Spiritually, we should put our faith in Him, just as the paralyzed man and his friends did (verse 5).
As we consider the effort the paralyzed man’s friends made to bring him to Jesus, however, we can also glean several lessons about innovation that apply to our ministry context.
First, the most important thing in all churchly innovation is access to Jesus. He alone has authority to forgive and heal. If our church’s ministries do not lead people into an encounter with Jesus, we are not helping them. Any ministry that impedes people’s access to Jesus must be changed.
Second, innovation often takes place at a point of need. Typically, what motivates people to come to Jesus is a felt need of some sort. In this man’s case, that felt need was healing. His friends’ innovations centered on getting him to Jesus to meet this need.
The man had a deeper need for forgiveness, however. We don’t know whether the paralyzed man felt that need. Regardless, Jesus met both kinds of need.
Innovating in church should always lead to meeting needs. The goal of your discipleship pathway should always be to meet people’s deepest needs through the gospel. If there is a hurdle, remove it.
Third, innovation works best in partnership. The chance of one man getting his paralyzed friend to Jesus was small. But with each additional person grabbing a corner of the mat, the possibility of healing came closer.
Church members are people we minister with, not just to. They should be active participants in ministry, not passive recipients of it. Our job as ministers is “to equip [God’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). We really do need one another!
A fourth lesson is that solving old problems sometimes creates new problems. When the crowd around the house blocked the friends’ access to Jesus, they took a novel approach. A mat-sized hole solved the problem of the paralyzed man’s access to Jesus, even as it created a roofing problem for the homeowner.
Your church is facing a problem, and you need a solution. We’d all like the cleanest and simplest way forward. But sometimes the best answer requires more work and uncovering multiple obstacles.
Take livestreaming, for instance. While churches found free platforms for streaming their services online, many had to purchase new equipment, train volunteers, and assign someone the task of moderating discussion.
Fifth, innovation breeds opposition. When you shake up the status quo, there will be those who oppose you.
We see this in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, the teachers of the law thought He was blaspheming when Jesus claimed authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:6–7). Later in the same chapter, these religious leaders went on to complain about Jesus’ habit of “eating with the sinners and tax collectors” (verse 16).
Was Jesus’ theology innovative? That God can forgive sins was not a new truth. On the other hand, that God is incarnate in Jesus, giving Him authority to forgive sins, was certainly news to the Pharisees.
Jesus’ choice of dinner companions more obviously qualifies as an innovation in ministry. He was violating a Pharisaic tradition concerning the kind of people one could have table fellowship with. Notice Jesus’ motivation was to give direct access to the people (“sinners”) who needed Him most (verse 17).
When we face opposition to innovation, we should weigh the benefits against the costs. If we reach new people with the life-changing power of the gospel because of innovative ministry, it was definitely worth the cost of opposition.
Finally, we need to be wary of settling too soon. Rewind to the beginning of the story, and it is apparent that it could have taken a very different turn if not for the persistence and faith of the man and his friends.
There were multiple points when the paralytic could have said, “This is too much. Just take me back home.” Or the friends could have said, “Well, we tried. Sorry, but it’s not going to happen for you.”
The goal of your discipleship pathway should always be to meet people’s deepest needs through the gospel.
Whenever we bump up against problems, there’s a temptation to ignore the possibilities because they seem so far out of reach. Too often we settle for what we have because the familiar, though not preferable, is all we know. We become resigned to the fact that this is just how things are.
We often hear, “It is what it is.” This perspective, while masquerading as contentment, is more often just self-defeat.
God sees where we are but wants to move us to where we need to be. He is able to do what we can’t. It’s one of the many reasons to seek Him continually in prayer. We offer to God what we can’t fix on our own and He works, both in us and through us, for His glory and our benefit.
In the end, then, innovation is God’s creative power working through us.
There are two different types of innovation. The first is reactive innovation. As the name implies, this kind of innovation occurs when we react to a problem or crisis we are in the midst of experiencing. Reactive innovation is changing because we have to. This is where most of us have lived over the past 21 months.
The pandemic provided more than its fair share of bad news to churches. However, good news was also abundant if we looked in the right direction. For example, Nik Baumgart of The Grove Church (Assemblies of God) in Marysville, Washington, was one of the first to institute a drive-in church concept. This creative idea soon spread across the country.
Some churches — such as Evangel Church (AG) in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, — suddenly became community hubs for distributing food to the newly unemployed.
We all learned something. Churches with no online presence before the pandemic became adept at livestreaming Sunday services and meeting virtually throughout the week. We shifted from large in-person gatherings to small-group watch parties in church members’ homes.
The crucial question with reactive innovation is what to do going forward. Should we remove the innovations as conditions return to “normal,” or should we retain them? To determine the next steps, we need to do four things:
1. Remember. You and your leadership team need to capture all the lessons you’ve learned in these extraordinary times. What changes did you make in response to the pandemic? Who made the decision? How were the changes carried out?
2. Assess. Reactive innovation can feel a bit like throwing things against a wall to see what sticks. After listing all the innovations you made during the pandemic, consider what worked. Church members probably found the Sunday morning livestream helpful, for example, but did they really need the daily video devotion?
3. Retain. After identifying what worked, retain those things as an ongoing part of your ministry. We believe livestreaming is here to stay, as are giving apps and virtual small groups. Churches that didn’t have social media before the pandemic need to keep those new accounts active. Make these reactive innovations the “new normal” in your ministry.
4. Adapt. We do not know what crises we will face in the future. However, we do know that we will face crises. And when those occur, we will need to react innovatively in ministry. Have a process in place for worst-case scenarios, so that if something bad happens, your team will know how to respond.
If reactive innovation is changing because you have to, proactive innovation is changing before you have to.
In Steering Through Chaos, Scott Wilson argues that the best time to make changes in the normal life cycle of a church is when you have upward momentum, not when you’re experiencing a crisis or decline.
The problem is when a church is experiencing upward momentum, most church members don’t see any reason to change. From their point of view, the church is growing and things are going well. So, why change? As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“If it ain’t broke” is not a good ministry philosophy, however. Why? Consider another saying from the world of business: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” A system may work but still not deliver the results you want.
If you want different results, you have to change the system.
The most noteworthy trend in American religion over the last four decades is the rise of the “nones.” According to the General Social Survey, between 1972 and 2018, the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation rose from 5.1% to 23.7%.
Much of this change represents movement away from mainline Protestantism and Catholicism, which shrank precipitously over the past five decades. Even evangelical Christianity is declining, however. In 1972, evangelicals constituted 17% of the U.S. populace, rising to a high-water mark of 29.9% in 1993. But since then, they’ve decreased to just 21.6%.
If every system is perfectly designed to get the results it receives, these numbers indicate American church systems need to change.
Again, the most important thing in all churchly innovation is access to Jesus. Church systems — worship, evangelism, discipleship, and compassion — exist to help people encounter Jesus at their point of need. Church leaders must keep asking two important questions.
First, who is currently missing from church? If you are in a small community, you might know their names. In a larger community, you might notice their demographic categories. Either way, make a thorough assessment of who in your community has not heard the gospel.
Second, what are effective access points for those outside the church? For many years, church-growth experts advocated an attractional model of ministry in which church members invite their neighbors to “come and see” what is happening at church on Sunday morning.
The problem with this model is that increasing numbers of people do not want to come to church on Sunday, but they may be willing to participate in the life of a church if given alternatives. These alternatives can include small groups, service opportunities, recovery ministries, and the like.
Your church should offer multiple forms of participation to capture as much interest from the community as possible.
After your church successfully implements proactive innovation, it will become clear to members that the change was beneficial. However, every methodology, system or program we’re using to reach the lost will eventually reach a point of waning effectiveness. When that happens, it’s time to change again.
Successful church leadership requires learning to proactively innovate to reach the lost and make disciples … on a regular basis.
The necessity of innovation — whether reactive or proactive — calls for leadership. John Maxwell says leaders see more than others see, and they see before others see. Getting out in front of others and calling for change is not easy, but that is the burden of ministry.
As Pentecostals, we don’t believe it’s a burden we carry alone, however. Instead, the Holy Spirit carries us. He sees both more and before even we do. If there’s anyone who is interested in expanding access to Christ, it’s the Spirit. That’s why we need to lean into Him as our power for witness (Acts 1:8).
The past two years have been difficult, but the problems we’re facing now are not our final chapter, just the most recent one. There is hurt and heartache, disappointment and discouragement, brokenness and barrenness. But there is also forgiveness and healing, hope and encouragement, fruitfulness and effectiveness.
May God give us through the Holy Spirit the power and creativity we need to make the changes we must so that many will come to Jesus in the coming year!
This article appears in the Fall 2021 edition of Influence magazine.