Every so often in history leaders, people, ideas and circumstances come together and dramatic changes take place. Ways of living, perspectives on reality and even our understanding of ourselves are profoundly impacted. We call these convergences of people and ideas, "movements." Every movement displays an interconnected nature as certain ideas coalesce into shared passion and joint action for change. Many times movements are marked by innovation, new ways of thinking and acting as human beings. At times innovations are seen as bursting forth out of nowhere, or as sudden awakenings, yet many historical events build successively into movements. The cumulative action of many leaders and ideas evolve forward or build like a wave crashing upon a seashore with powerful momentum. It is often said that today’s leaders stand on the shoulders of giants; we know this to be true. What is prevalent today was influenced by what came before as the interconnected nature of people and ideas moves us in one direction or another.
Recently I've been thinking much about some the technological movements of the last 100 years and I've read four books to that end. My undergraduate education was in the science and technology space and I’ve enjoy histories in that area of human work and inquiry. The first work was entitled The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner which focused on the history of Bell Laboratories and its various communication inventions that led into the modern information revolution. The transistor arguably the most important of the technologies that emerged there in the twentieth century. Next up was When Computing Got Personal: A History of the Desktop Computer by Matthew Nicholson, a work on the history of the desktop computer from it's very earliest forms until some of the recent sizes and shapes we see today. After this came Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet by Katie Hafner. A fascinating read on the invention of this most important of computer networks through the combined efforts of industry, government and academia. I finally, finished up with Moore's Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley's Quiet Revolutionary by Thackray, Brock and Jones. Moore is an unassuming titan of what became our modern Silicon Valley and one of the chief inventors of silicon semi-conductor technology. He was one of the founders of what became the tech juggernaut known as Intel. Incidentally, an Intel chip is currently humming along inside my laptop as I type these words.
In my reading I observed that time and time again there was an interconnection between ideas that lead to innovation. Technology built upon the gains of the past and the previous generation’s hard work, problem solving and creative thinking. The innovation that took place in our technological revolutions was not in any way magic. It took place under certain cultural and structural circumstances that made the movement possible. I will outline a few of these in the final section of this essay below. As I looked at technological innovation I also saw much to be gleaned for the innovation needed in gospel mission in every generation.
What I want to do in this essay is to first look at the necessary restrictions and freedoms for innovation to flourish. I will do this under the header Context for Innovation. From there I want to draw some parallels between technological innovation and missional innovation for church planting movements before closing with a reminder of the type of innovation needed in the church in our time.
Context for Innovation
It may be surprising but some of the modern technology and correlated free-flowing creations were actually driven by some imposed parameters and restrictions. Physicists and engineers are constantly encountering problems that cause them to think outside of the box precisely because they are working within one. What do I mean? Our scientific work does not bend or break the laws of physics. Our work will either conform to or be defeated by them. Reality shapes and constricts our efforts. Innovative thinking comes to bear in trying new ideas as we necessarily stay within the bounds of the created space-time reality. Learning how things actually work and how they work best is essential for our creation and innovation in technology. So the technologist is not some magician pulling a white iPhone out of her hat, but she is learning how things work within the system she has been given. This does not mean she is a traditionalist who only accepts the answers of the past. Yet she must see many past failures and go forward with things that work as she moves towards new solutions to problems in the future. It is not some terrible requirement to have to conform to the laws of Physics; there is no other way to cross technological hurdles. When a technology does not work because we did not understand the nature of reality, we have simply hit a restriction that sends us quite literally back to the drawing board. The restrictions are no enemy. They help us head off in fresh new directions that may prove more fruitful in the end.
This brings us to a second necessary parameter for innovation to flourish. The technologist must have the freedom to try new things to solve problems. Otherwise we will be stuck in the past's failures or remain content with the status quo. The technologist simply cannot accept a current technical hurdle as the final defeat but must seek new ways to overcome it. This constant tension between the laws of physics and problem-solving creativity creates the spark of movement that can become a stunning wave of innovation. Both the restrictions and the freedom are necessary interlocutors that create momentum. Failures and success both drive forward the wave.
The same can be said for the work of the church in every generation. First, there must be a firm anchor and reality to which we conform our efforts. This must be the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to us by God in history and Scripture. Just as creation itself is no hindrance to technology and science, sound doctrine and theology is no hindrance to missional innovation. We must have rails within which we are faithful, otherwise we won't build anything that actually "works." Without the bounds of revealed truth and the historical verities of our faith we can run the mission aground on the rocks of heresy and false teachings. The truth must be the raw materials with which we move forward in mission. Secondly, we must also grasp the freedom necessary to encounter people in every generation with the gospel. We must contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ to a changing world without denying or changing the laws of our theological “physics”. Yet we must have freedom while engaging with our inherited past, to question whether or not certain practices flow from human traditions (Mark 7:13-23) or from the revealed truth of God. This means there is a “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3), and there are new horizons and new expressions of that faith needed in every generation.
The parallels between technological and missional innovation are not difficult to find. I will close with a look at the process of innovation and its necessary ingredients gleaned from various histories of technology.
Thoughts on Innovation
Innovation comes from passion
Innovation comes from a strong desire to learn and then solve problems. Those who seek new, faithful ways to reach people with the gospel are driven by a similar desire. A desire to engage the problem of a world in need of Jesus and to use all possible, godly means to bring the good news. They are willing to connect with people far from God in various cultural and societal settings because of their love for God and people. It is their passion and love that compels them as they are convinced that Christ died for sinners and communicating this truth is essential. Apologetics and missional thinking help us to overcome the hurdles that prevent thoughtful engagement with people in culture. Missional innovation must be driven by passion: love for God and love for people.
Innovation flows from proper freedom
One of the observations I made in reading about technological innovation is that smart people were given the time, space and funding necessary to do their work. Freedom in research must be funded with exploration and even failure as an aspect of the way forward. In missionary work, space needs to be created in, by and through local churches for similar efforts. Church planting provides the freedom for both faithfulness to gospel truth while engaging in some exploration and experimentation in methodology. Even those who hold to some form of the regulative principle may still maintain space for variation in style within a given culture for gospel life and ministry. Even if you have the conviction that we can only preach, sing psalms, pray and observe the sacraments in a church gathering, how a church goes about such things, language, style, aesthetics, etc. can still be a subject of exploration. Furthermore, there is a wide open field of ministry through church members, smaller communities, missional groups and parachurch work that can flow with innovation even for highly regulative churches.
Innovation comes from people who dared to try and have some talent
The status quo can trap us. As people, we don't always like change even when change is what we desperately need. There are churches that will demand their own death and extinction rather than change out carpet or switch up musical styles in worship. Church planters are willing to accept the dare of the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus outside of the camp to the lost, beginning new works that might connect the gospel to those far from God and his church. Innovation comes when there are people who take "risks" for the sake of the gospel putting their hearts, souls, mind, strength all in with their God given gifts and talents.
Finally, innovation comes from systems demanding attention and constant improvement
One of the striking driving forces for technological innovation in the 20th century was the growing complexity of telephone networks. The problems that emerged in expanding and maintaining such a complex network drove innovation because there were so many problems to solve. Necessity, quite literally, was the mother of many inventions. The place where many inventions were made was within the actual telephone system itself. The same might be said of the technology that was invented within the 20th century context of the cold war. There were secret groups of smart, dedicated, well-funded and focused people (see Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed by Ben Rich) meeting serious military problems with life and death implications. Will some Soviet or US military advantage lead to our mutual destruction? Let’s get to work on solving this or that technological hurdle so that no one gets nuked into oblivion. This has striking parallels to our work in church planting. New ideas for the mission must emerge from the necessity of the mission itself. In the middle of the messiness of ministry we must solve problems which arrive from the streams of providence and the shifting of cultures. A world broken with sin and death while facing coming judgment should bring an urgency of action and missional innovation from God’s people.
Let me conclude with one final thought about "innovation" in and through the church. It is not innovative to simply copy and ape a worldly culture and society. I once heard Nancy Lee DeMoss say that the world is not aching for a "religious version of itself." What did she mean? I think we must see that the lost world around us does not necessarily need a sermon series called "Soulflix" with a perfectly mimicked Netflix logo all the while preaching messages from this or that movie. As fun as this might be, it is neither innovative nor really creative. What we do need are churches that can passionately preach the great gospel truths of the book of Ephesians to people that watch four hours of Netflix a night. That task will require both creativity and innovation in thought. It will require the bounds of the truth and the freedom to innovate in our styles, modes and communication. It will require us to be faithful and daring. It will require prayer and the dynamic leadership of the Holy Spirit in our day. After all, our goal is not simply to innovate in missionary methods for the sake of doing new stuff to make a church seem “cool”. Our goal is to bring people to Jesus through the preaching of the gospel and that means we must care about the methods we use to connect and communicate in THIS or THAT time and place.