I’ve heard more than a few people say that this will be a season of great innovation for the church. I get it. Numbers are down. Pastors are discouraged. We need to dosomething. Let’s innovate! Right? Well…
I’m not against innovation. I’m writing this post on a MacBook, not a slate. We all benefit from certain innovations. But while I’m not against innovation, per se, I am, at a deep level, leery of the call to innovation for the church, especially now. Why? Because I think our obsession with it has been killing us softly for a long time now. I don’t mean numbers here (see previous post), I mean something deeper. The numbers, in fact, may climb, but our souls – both our individual souls and the souls of our congregations – may simultaneously experience a depression of sorts (we’ll return to this in part 2). So, I want to make a couple of general observations about the nature of innovation (the second will come in the next post).
First, innovation never ends. I want to suggest that there is a difference between innovation and creation. If I set out to create something, once the thing is created, it is finished. I affirm that there is something beautiful and good about creating. Some of my friends write (create) books. Others write (create) songs. Some create beautiful meals, while still others are architects and create beautiful buildings. To create is to be human. I appreciate Andy Crouch’s words from his book, Culture Making:
“What is most needed in our time are Christians who are deeply serious about cultivating and creating but who wear that seriousness lightly—who are not desperately trying to change the world but who also wake up every morning eager to create.”Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 12
Creating is beautiful. But here’s the thing with creation – when you’re done, you’re done. Once the song is recorded and mastered, you’re done. Creation and rest go together. God created, God rested. That’s the pattern. To innovate, though, is to be obsessed with newness. That thing you created? It was good, but now it’s ‘so last year.’ It’s time for something newer, shinier. So, back to the drawing board everyone – out with the old, in with the new. I’m sure by now some people think I’m playing a semantics game. I don’t think so. I’ve experienced this constant drive for new in my church work. It may be subtle in explanation, but it’s not subtle in experience. It doesn’t feel like what Crouch calls a serious lightness. You’ll know you’ve experienced this innovative drive if you sense that you’ve been asked (or asked yourself!) to create, but you know deep down that the point is not really about creating something beautiful, but something better or newer. And this, my friends, is exhausting. To the artist, it’s demoralizing. I remember early on in church ministry hearing someone say, “more is never less, it’s always more.” The point was that when you’re striving for more (more people in the pews, more volunteers, more giving, more and better technology, more programs), it never stops. The more always demands more. When innovation is the goal, every target you hit will reveal yet another target behind it.
The problem is deeper, though, because many (most?) of us don’t simply have an innovative work culture, we have an innovative spirituality. In my circles, most people I know never, or rarely, pray written prayers. I think we’re (slowly) growing in this area, but years ago we were trained to be suspicious of written prayers. They were, supposedly, inauthentic. Instead, then, we had to come up with new prayers every time we prayed. Our prayers were always spontaneous prayers. I spent a couple of decades as a worship leader and in certain Pentecostal/Charismatic circles there is a pressure – often a self-created pressure – to sing spontaneous songs. This was the really spiritual stuff. Spontaneous songs are songs made up on the fly. Now, I’ve experienced the beauty of both personal innovative prayers and spontaneous songs coming from the heart. I’m dismissing neither. But my goodness, I can’t live there. I really can’t. I’m tired just thinking about it. I don’t always the words to pray and I certainly don’t always have the songs to sing on the fly. Tish Harrison Warren tells us the truth about prayer in her most recent book, Prayer in the Night:
“For most of church history, Christians understood prayer not primarily as a means of self-expression or an individual conversation with the divine, but as an inherited way of approaching God, a way to wade into the ongoing stream of the church’s communion with him.”Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (Downers Grove: IL, 2021), 7-8
I have the privilege of working as a chaplain at the University of Calgary. This school year I decided to try something new. Actually, it was only new to us, I was, in fact, trying something old. I decided to lead our students, most from Evangelical backgrounds, through the Book of Common Prayer each Monday. I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been beautiful. One time, when we were first introducing this, one of us (my colleague Kelly, I think) asked the students if any of them ever felt exhausted having to find their own words to pray all the time. I’ll never forget the way one of our students nodded her head. It was like she was relieved that someone even asked the question, but it also seemed like she was remembering the exhausting effort to come up with something new before God all the time. But Harrison Warren, again, speaks great wisdom into this situation:
“I learned that prayer is a tutor, not a performance. It’s the stretcher on which we collapse and are carried to the Healer.”ibid. 109-110
I’ve come to learn, much too late in life, that spirituality, and the ecclesiology (the way we do church, and think about doing church) which houses it, is not, at its best, constant innovation. It’s faithful habit. This realization has been water to my soul.
*This post can also be found on my Substack Page