It may seem strange to say, but at its heart the church is in the innovation business. God’s story is about bringing forth new life, even and especially out of places of uncertainty and death. Over and over again in the bible, god creates new life and community where there seems to be only nothingness, decay or despair.
In today’s cultural contexts, where many established congregations and church structures find themselves undercut by rapid and disruptive change, what is needed is faithful innovation. Faithful innovation is the carrying forward of the rich treasures of Christian tradition in fresh forms so that they speak to people in the vernaculars of the contemporary world. The Reformation was such a moment of faithful innovation that opened up, clarified and translated tradition. We face another today.
This fall, Luther launches a new M.A. concentration in Leadership and Innovation for Ministry. This degree carries forward some of the deep commitments of our previous M.A. in Congregational Mission and Leadership, with courses in areas like evangelism, leadership, congregational transformation, theology of mission and starting new ministries. It also adds a new course, “Innovation with Congregations and Nonprofits,” that brings cutting-edge thinking from innovation theory to bear upon the church and other Christian organizations.
One such approach is design thinking, which emerged in Silicon Valley as a process for listening empathetically to neighbors in order to address challenges or problems they’re facing through prototyping and testing solutions. Design thinking, which already has begun to be taught in other courses at Luther, develops the church’s capacity to draw close to neighbors, define challenges they’re facing and prototype solutions that make sense to people where they are.
Another key framework is adaptive leadership, which recognizes that the challenges facing churches today have no easy fixes but rather require grassroots learning on the part of everyone. Leaders must cultivate the spaces and practices by which the people are able to discover a new future that carries forward the best of the past.
Luther’s approach to innovation doesn’t just draw on secular organizational theory. It also places at the forefront the reality that the Holy Spirit is the primary innovator in the church. This means discernment is a core practice for Christian communities seeking faithful adaptation. The work of leadership and innovation for ministry is deeply theological work, pushing the church deeper into its own core stories in Scripture and the tradition and cultivating the practices by which we recognize the new life God is bringing forth in our midst.
Luther’s M.A. programs in Congregational Mission and Leadership and now Leadership and Innovation for Ministry have drawn students from around the world who want to be prepared to lead their communities deeper into the faith and deeper into connection with their neighbors. This involves a lot of close listening and an agile approach to leadership, where the answers aren’t knowable beforehand but must emerge through a process of trial and error. As many old structures for church life come under stress and seem to be disintegrating amidst cultural change, faithful innovation allows the church to claim and carry forward God’s promises in new and life-giving ways.