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The challenges of “innovation”

Theologians and writers Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean have different takes on innovation. They join Wes Ellis to share their perspectives on the future of the church.

Facilitated by Wes Ellis with Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean

Over the last two years, Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean have published books on social innovation (The Church After Innovation and Innovating for Love: Joining God’s Expedition Through Christian Social Innovation, respectively). Dean has been positive about the possibilities of innovation for the church. Root, on the other hand, has questioned the innovation fever that has seemed to come over American Protestantism. This is a conversation between their two different takes on innovation. Wes Ellis, pastor of First Congregational Church of Romona, California, and former student of both Dean and Root, facilitated this conversation for the Outlook.

Wes: What do you see as the greatest challenge the church is facing in America?

Kenda: I think the greatest challenge is that we can’t see far enough on the horizon to see where Jesus is leading us. It makes what’s happening in the short term seem threatening and scary.

Andrew: For me, the issue is how to speak of God’s act, and how to live into that. I also don’t want to be naive. Most churches are one roof leak away from being in real trouble. But I do think that can be a bit of a red herring.

The crisis is not one of decline and lack of resources. The crisis is the loss of transcendence as an imaginative way of being in the world. “Transcendence” is a slippery word, because I don’t mean it as some metaphysical reality as much as an attentive way of living and practicing the faith with this deep sense that God is moving and acting in the world.

Wes: Many church leaders are recommending that the church engage in some kind of innovation. Will each of you offer a definition of innovation?

Kenda: As you know, I’m not crazy about the word “innovation” because it’s been co-opted to death.

I got hooked on thinking about innovation through Jurgen Moltmann’s discussion of God’s novum, the “new thing” God is doing. So I think innovation for Christians is distinct from what we are calling innovation, for example, in Silicon Valley.

I think we are called as a church to innovate on innovation. We are called to point to God as the innovator. For Christians, innovation means participating in God’s big idea rather than trying to co-opt God into blessing ours. I don’t think we’re called to have great ideas. I think we’re called to have great love.

Wes: So why do we continue using the term [innovation] then? And do you still think it’s descriptive of what God’s calling the church to be doing?

Kenda: I had trouble writing about innovation as love because it’s such a squishy term.  But I think love is what innovation boils down to for Christians. Every parent of a toddler knows this. You don’t stop trying new things until the tears stop — not because you are innovative, but because you love your child. I see echoes of that in Scripture, in the way God interacts with humanity.

Wes: Andy, why do we use this term, innovation?

Andrew: This is maybe where Kenda and I come from different starting points. And maybe even operate as practical theologians in different ways. I’m always trying to get into the concrete through a more cultural philosophy. I don’t see any way to disconnect our concepts of innovation from our conceptions of what modernity is and how it impacts us. I have a hard time understanding how we could free innovation from being part of neoliberalism. It fits within a certain logic that mobilizes what it means to be in modernity.

Wes: Kenda, you say in your book, Innovating For Love, that innovation is the wrong word for our impulse to find new ways of being the church. The word we’re groping for is “love.”

I work from a school that thinks modernity is a process of dynamic stabilization. This means there is an escalatory logic to modernity. Dynamic stabilization, or the chasing of growth, is what modernity believes stabilizes institutions and even individual lives. This is why I look a little sideways when people want to use innovation. It exists inside of this logic, and unless we are intentional about disconnecting it and taking it through a kind of dialectic (a kind of judgment that could theologically renew it), it will get swept up into this kind of imagination.

It appears that the response to the fear of decline is always going to be escalation, a sense of getting more, of stabilizing ourselves dynamically. Innovation plays a really important role in that. How do you free it from that? I’m not confident we can.

Kenda: I’m persuaded by a lot of the dangers Andy names about innovation. I do think we have different starting points. I’m less interested in the philosophical dive than in the day-to-day practice of Christian life — which I know Andy cares about, too. And in the world we live in, there’s nothing new about trying new things to be bigger, faster, stronger If this logic of escalation really moves us toward growth, and acceleration that makes the fast good, then innovation becomes the way to think about change, and you have to do more to stay in the same place. When we use this word, we tell [pastors] they’ve got to go faster, expand in some way, get creative and innovate, just to stay in the same place. Just to make sure that their church doesn’t come undone. And this logic has a formative effect on their souls, and on our visions of what is good.

The innovative move –and I think the faithful one – is to turn that upside down. God became human. That meant God got smaller and slower and more vulnerable. So when we become more fully human, we are pushing against the kind of hurry-hurry, go-go, grow-grow “innovation” that is typically valued in our culture.

I can never tell, Andy, when I read your stuff, whether I totally agree with you, or if I’m on a completely different planet from you on this. I do think a lot of your critique is dead on. I just don’t think that what Silicon Valley is calling innovation is the same thing as the novum of God.

Andrew: I think at a base level there is a sense that human beings respond to certain demands, and then innovate. But I think there are certain moral ways we see that operation. There is a Marxist critique that is worth looking at. And it really is this sense that money plus commodities equals money primed. You invest money in commodities for more money, and that’s the point. The escalation of more money
is the point of life, even the spirit that moves history. We could state this like an equation: M+C=M’. Marx’s point is that there was a different equation before modern capitalism: Commodities plus money equals commodities (C+M= more C). The whole point was that you adapted to provide for what was needed, not to create extra resources.

But one of the realities of innovation is that it is a capitalist reality, and therefore it always drives towards the extra. Capitalism demands that we not only make enough to live on, but we make a little bit extra, and we can reinvest the extra for more and keep the system going.

But to put this all more theologically: The human being is a responsive creature, and therefore the church is always responsive to God’s word. That responsiveness will call toward new actions, new visions and new horizons. My contention is that every time innovation is used, it’s not used as a waiting responsiveness. It’s used as a way of optimization. I don’t think innovation is bad, but innovation, when possessed by the spirit of capitalism, by the logic of escalation, becomes a problem.

I think the question is how you get innovation to be overtaken by the Spirit of God, by the Holy Spirit — and not the spirit of capitalism. That’s the challenge and it won’t just happen without deep thought and reflection. I don’t want us thinking these spirits can always speak to each other. Just saying, “it’s not Silicon Valley” isn’t enough. I want to know how you cast out the spirit of Silicon Valley, and its demands for escalation inside dynamic stabilization.

Kenda: Isn’t that the upside-down move? Isn’t that what the call is, to turn it on its head? To run the other direction, to do the thing that is not being pursued by all? This is a pastoral concern more than an academic one. As simplistic as it sounds, if we would practice sabbath, practice humility, practice being human with one another, that is “a new thing” that feels closer to God’s novum than we usually get. It doesn’t undo the broader cultural threads that we have to live within. That’s true.

Andrew: Do you think sabbath can be named as an innovation?

Kenda: In our culture, it is absolutely an innovation. God originates this perspective on how to be in the world. And it is “a new thing” for us because we don’t practice it.

I’ll speak personally because I’m terrible at practicing sabbath. If I start practicing sabbath, it utterly upends my productivity-driven life in ways that I know are far holier than the way I live on an average Tuesday.

Wes: Kenda, it sounds like for you, the word innovation is doing different work than Andy’s word innovation. It sounds like a subversive action is itself innovative. I don’t think Andy would necessarily see it that way. Sabbath as a challenge to the culture of innovation itself, is an innovation.

Andrew: That’s the question. Can innovation be disconnected from conceptions of work inside economic structures? Sabbath is actually a practice that forms you as a kind of being that has your value outside work. But innovation becomes a way of working in a late-capitalist system. Work, after the Reformation, is a way of showing your election — if Max Weber is right. But by the 20th century, work becomes completely secularized.

Kenda: Wait a second. Is it a form of work if it is a kind of release? I do think that one of the reversals of the practice of Christian life is to not be so grabby. Hold things lightly, let go, allow for, make room. God allows there to be light, makes room for it. For us to live in such a spacious way is not just replicating the work focus of innovation. It is a qualitatively different thing, which is what makes it innovative. Participating in God’s new thing means we have to release some stuff.

Andrew: So why not hold on to traditional doctrinal language, and think of it as sanctification, or being in the Spirit?

Kenda: Well, it’s a good question. I felt like there was another way to look at [innovation] that was being ignored. It was, even among church people, being defined by exactly the kind of work that you’re criticizing. I wanted somebody to put their stake in the sand and say, “Hey, maybe there’s another way to look at this.”

Wes: Part of what connects both of your positions is that you have a clear division of labor in mind. For Kenda, God is the innovator, and we are participating in God’s innovation. God brings the novum ultimum, and we play with that. And Andy, innovation is so uncomfortable for you because you want us to be able to name God’s action as the primary action that makes and forms the church. And so, there is a shared perspective there, the division of labor. God acts and we respond.

Do you see a way to continue doing innovation while centralizing that responsiveness of the church? Or does innovation necessarily put the cart before the horse and put the human being in the driver’s seat?

Andrew: I start in a more negative place (ala the via negativa) with a much lower anthropology, inspired by Martin Luther, than Kenda does. But at the end I come out in a positive place. I have a strong existential bent here, thanks to Kierkegaard, that there is a qualitative distinction between time and eternity. I would not ever want to project into God’s own being some kind of innovative process, so using distinctive theological language to try to describe God’s act is important for me.

Once you use innovation, you pull people into an environment where they think of escalating logic, and they have the hardest time getting it out of their imaginations. And it’s not that I don’t want churches to actually be responsive and to do something innovative. They’ll be more in a position to do that if we reiterate that it’s through personhood that we participate in the being of God. I am hopeful that if we can continue to reiterate the burden and the joy of walking with people and proclaiming the Word of God to them and preparing them to celebrate and to die together that life will infuse the church. When these core pastoral practices become central, people will necessarily innovate, but they will always be doing it with a sense of what it means to faithfully uphold the humanity of people — to speak of God. I worry that at this moment, the pastoral is undercut by every other human form of action, whether it’s law, celebrity or even innovative creativity as a form of action. The pastoral still matters!

I want to recover a First and Second Corinthians way into the foolishness of pastoral action. I want to claim that ministry is a human form of action that is the most powerful we have, because it’s the only form that participates in death for the sake of life. I don’t ever want anyone to think they’re called to bear the burdens of others as an innovative process of gains. I want them to be called by the Spirit to bear the burdens as a way of encountering God, of sharing in people’s lives for the sake of sharing in people’s lives. Innovation happens within that — in what it means to be faithful to the people before you, and what it means to care for your community. But innovation has a tradition or gestalt that shapes our imagination, giving us goods that take us away from this, I fear …

Kenda: There’s nothing there that I want to disagree with. The point is to participate in this foolishness of Christ. That is the innovative way to be in the world.

Andrew: If Hartmut Rosa is right and we live inside dynamic stabilization, it demands that we constantly change in every part of our lives, just to stabilize our lives — to stay in the same place. We have to keep changing to just keep up. And then innovation becomes a way of naming that change or achieving that change. I don’t know how to break innovation loose from this logic of dynamic stabilization and its fetishizing of growth.

If you think the pastoral practice is fundamentally benign, pointless, stale, and imbued with a flat religiosity, then maybe innovation sounds more creative, more dynamic. I don’t want to lose those other words because they are more formative. They exist more directly in an I/Thou dynamic than an I/It.

In the ways we talk about innovation, how do pastors not see their congregations inside an I/It?

Kenda: What are the words you want to hang on to?

Andrew: I want to hang on to the “ministry.” I want to hang on to the pastoral. I would want to hang on to the continued attention to a God who acts, to Christ and him crucified. Salvation history hinges on failure in the human sense. Innovation does, too. But in salvation, there is a rebirth that is radically distinctive. That’s the qualitative distinction between time and eternity.

I worry design processes become an ingenious way to mine human actuality instead of the inbreaking of God’s new possibility that comes through death. And we have historical practices that teach us how to be attentive to God’s inbreaking. But somehow, inside dynamic stabilization, those practices are viewed as benign, old, pointless. They’re only pointless because the act of God no longer holds our imagination, unfortunately.

Kenda: To embody the foolishness of Christ, by definition, is going against the current. And so, Wes, I think you’re right. I do like the idea of subversive action as part of a faithful understanding of innovation.

As soon as we make innovation our goal, we’ve lost the thread. We would probably be better served if we could come up with a different vocabulary. I’m not sure that our need for change is captured by returning to the archaic terms.

Andrew: I agree with you. In the ecosystem that I think of this word, I don’t think innovation could be pulled out from a whole construct of concepts, goods and moral visions that are within it. One of the consequences of this logic of escalation inside of dynamic stabilization, where innovation becomes an important/necessary part, is competition. You compete for resources, for reach, for whatever escalation demands. I worry that fronting the language of innovation turns pastors into neoliberals competing in a shrinking market. The competition is never more heated when the market is shrinking, and I think pastors feel that.

Kenda: That is a huge risk, right? But the way out of a riptide is not to claw your way out of it. It’s to go with it. It’s to allow yourself to do the foolish thing and let the current take you into another part of the sea. It probably is humanly impossible to release ourselves from these structures. But I think Christ can get us out of the hair ball, if we allow ourselves to be swept into Christ’s current.

Wes: Where should pastors go from here? What would you want them to do?

And I am curious about the idea of excellence and the exceptional. How do you think we can continue to do new things without smuggling in this need for excellence and the anxiety that goes with it?

Kenda: This is the $64 million question. I take a lot of encouragement from a pastor I know in California whose term for this work is changemaking. She thinks we are called to be compassion-driven changemakers in the way Jesus was a compassion-driven changemaker.

She has no illusions that the pastor has to be an innovator. The pastor uses the theological resources of the church to inspire people to see themselves as called to take part in God’s changemaking using the gifts they already have — and then bless it when it happens.

What I like about this is it removes the burden on the pastor to be the chief innovator of a community — which is a pressure a lot of us feel.

Andrew: My response would be to affirm a lot of that, except I still remain skeptical that discourses of innovation as they come to us can actually be theological. My concern is that they will undercut the kind of theological imagination we want. But then, when I even use the word theological, I think I mean something in a tradition that obviously goes back to Luther, but also goes back to the 14th-century mystic, Jean Gerson. Gerson wrote The Consolation of Theology. Gerson believes that theology can console, that theology could give us visions for how God comes near to us and ministers life out of death to us. Theology gives us visions of how God acts.

What Gerson wanted was for all the University of Paris to be a place that was “innovative” for only the sake of sending pastors out to care for people — to console them, and to walk with them in life and in death, and to be able to give them visions of how God was taking what was dead in them and bringing life out of it. What mattered was the desire and dexterity to point to this God who acts and moves. The pastor is the one who consoles, the one who lives, and points people toward God. The pastor helps people on the way of pilgrimage. And a pilgrimage, for Gerson, is always ad Deum, the pilgrim is always “to God.”

But there is another piece to this ad Deum that is more existential, that I doubt the discourses of innovation can get to. In Gerson’s day, ad Deum also meant to say “goodbye.” To go on pilgrimage, you move toward God. But you also have to say goodbye. The goodbye that at the same time claims that what will renew and save will only be a kind of change that is a letting go into death.

To me, innovation and all of its capitalist discourses is a way of trying from the human level to infuse life back into the church and people’s lives instead of embracing the reality of death, and asking people to walk ad Deum to say goodbye as a way of falling into God.

The pastor is to remind people that they must walk the path, and it must be walked toward God, and it must be walked in the sorrow of saying goodbye. All human lives have to say goodbye. And in that sorrow, if they will be brave enough and have the pastoral support, they will find a great mystery inside that necessary path of saying goodbye. And that mystery they’ll find is this God who takes what is dead and brings life out of it. Maybe that’s innovative, but only because it doesn’t care for innovation. It cares for pilgrims, and it cares for setting pilgrims on the path, and grieving with them, and consoling them as they say goodbye, and giving them visions to see God moving in their great goodbyes.

Kenda: No argument there.

Wes Ellis, Ph.D., is the pastor of First Congregational Church of Ramona, California. He is a practical theologian and veteran youth worker with experience in a variety of protestant Christian denominations including the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ. Wes is the author of Youth Beyond the Developmental Lens: Being Over Becoming.