Module 2: What is Innovation?

This module will focus on what we mean by innovation and on how it will help us address the longings and losses you heard when you listened to the people entrusted to your care.

Listening Report

To help us tailor the summit to your team’s needs, please send a “listening report” to Jessie ( This email report should consist of two things:

  1. A note in the body of the email about how many interviews your team completed.
  2. Attach a summary of one of your interviews.

This listening report is due on the day you meet together for Module 3.

What is Innovation?

Prior to meeting, we invite you to read the following chapter from a forthcoming book called A Shared Story of Future Hope: Innovative Congregations and Agile Leaders.  If you are short on time, simply read pages 1-10 and pages 16 & 17.  That should take you between half-an-hour and an hour.

Here is the chapter (because it will be published until Summer 2020, please do not quote from it or share it with anyone): Chapter 2 – The Meaning of Innovation

We will discuss pieces of the chapter in a moment.  But before we do, let me give you a way to see the work that we are doing together.

Let me summarize the questions you saw in the video:

  1. Who are the people entrusted to your care?
  2. How do those people experience the longings and losses that make up the human condition?
  3. What Big Lie do your people believe that prevents them from hearing the gospel?
  4. How do you make spiritual sense of those longings and losses?
  5. How do you express that spiritual meaning as a shared story of future hope?

Or to put it into a single sentence:  The goal of Christian innovation is to create shared stories of future hope that make spiritual sense of the longings and losses of the people entrusted to our care.

Last week’s module on listening gave you the tools to answer the first three questions.  This week and next we will answer the final two.

And that is where the chapter you read becomes important.  Let us discuss together some key ideas from the chapter.  I will reprint pieces of the chapter so that you have it in front of you.

1. Refresh yourself with the story about Gina and Duc.

Let us picture a conversation between co-workers.  In this case, the co-workers happen to be computer programmers. But they could just as easily be the custodians who clean the programmers’ building, or retirees ruminating over coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, or even teens chatting between classes.

Let’s start with Gina, who is a Christian.  In the adjacent cubicle, there is a young man named Duc, who is in his first job after college.  His immigrant parents sacrificed much so that he could get his degree. And let us say that Duc confides to Gina that the long hours at work and the distance from friends and family make him feel lonely and unloved.  And let’s say that at an appropriate point in their conversations Gina compassionately talks to Duc about the death and resurrection of Jesus. She tells him that God, in his great love, sent his Son to live and die as one of us in order that Duc might be connected to God and to other people. And she tells him that instead of feeling unloved and lonely, he can experience the hope of love and community.  Up until this point, it sounds just like many evangelistic conversations that we Christians have been having for generations. But what happens if that gospel does not sound to Duc like hope?  Perhaps he tells Gina that death seems terribly harsh and then he asks her, “Can’t we talk about Jesus without all this stuff about his death?”

This is the moment when we see how Christian innovation has to be different from secular innovation.  If Gina were a secular entrepreneur, she would listen to her “customer,” find out that Duc finds Jesus’ death distasteful, and innovate a new gospel that no longer has to talk about the shame of sin or the ugliness of death.  But she cannot do that.  We are permanently, inextricably (and fortunately) bound to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Gina cannot innovate a new gospel for Duc.  But neither can she simply repeat to him the old ways of stating the good news; the world has changed and she cannot pretend our explanation of the gospel can remain static, like the rigid back of a Puritan pew.  Gina can, however, innovate a new way to connect that unchanging gospel to the present experience of this person that God has entrusted to her care.

Thus, Gina shows us how the needs of our current era require Christians to unite innovation and tradition — that is, to create a sparkling new future that honors the past. Or to put it another way, the heart of this book and this chapter asks one question: how do we maintain a rock-solid commitment to the never-changing Christian faith, while at the same time create innovative ways to express that faith to an ever-changing culture?   If we are going to recalibrate the church, we will have to engage in meaning-making innovation.



2. How do you respond to Duc’s question: Can’t we talk about Jesus without all this stuff about his death? (This should give you a sense of what is at stake for innovation.)



3. The solution is that we will have to innovate – which for faith means creating a new mental model. Refresh yourself with the following part of the chapter.

Later on, I am going to argue that the essence of Christian leadership is to transform people’s mental models so that God’s People use Christian categories to make sense of their lives. That is what I will mean by “making spiritual sense.”  But before I do that, I want to give a more concrete example of transforming mental models.  Let’s look at Jesus, specifically at Mark 8.

The center of Mark’s gospel turns on Jesus’ recalibrating the disciples’ mental models and then showing how that recalibrated understanding changed the way that they acted in the world.  The Gospel of Mark is constructed so that the first half builds steadily until a turning point.  And, after that turning point, the rest of the story aims at the cross.  That turning point is the encounter at the end of Mark 8.

Starting at verse 27, Jesus talks to the disciples about the mental models that the crowds used when they tried to make sense of Jesus.  “Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’” In other words, Jesus asked, “What mental models do people use to make sense of me?” People were not sure what to make of Jesus. So they reached back into history to look for precedents. They looked for a mental model that would fit their understanding of Jesus. And it turned out that the God’s People had a word for someone who spoke for God, made them uncomfortable, and that they would ultimately ignore and kill.  And that word was ‘prophet.’  So that is how the crowds interpreted Jesus; they called him a prophet.

Then Jesus became more personal and asked what mental models the disciples themselves used when they interpreted Jesus. “He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’”  The disciples had decided that Jesus was more than a prophet.  They decided that “Messiah” was the best mental model to use in interpreting Jesus’ ministry.  They had the right mental model for interpreting Jesus.  Or so they thought.  That’s because that the next step of growth for the disciples required Jesus to transform the meaning of this mental model.

Jesus knew that the disciples had the wrong mental model; what they understood by a Messiah was not what he intended to be.  They expected him to be a king who would sweep away the Romans and set up a kingdom that would conquer its neighbors.  But Jesus did not intend to be the king that the disciples hoped for him to be. So he explained to them what he meant by a Messiah.  “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.”

Jesus offered a new mental model for interpreting this fundamental identity called Messiah.  He described the Messiah as one who suffers. And the disciples did not react well to Jesus’ attempt to teach them.  Peter found this new mental model so offensive that he tried to correct Jesus. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” Jesus pushed Peter and the disciples to accept this new mental model. He wanted them to see the Messiah as one who suffers in order to redeem rather than one who conquers in order to reign.

But Jesus was not done transforming their mental models.  And to see what is at stake, we need to listen to another character in the story: the mother of James and John.  In Matthew 20, the disciples’ mother comes to Jesus and asks that her sons might sit at Jesus left and right hands, when “you come into your glory.” This statement reveals a bit further how integral this idea of reigning king was to the disciples’ mental model of a Messiah.  They pictured a king like David.  And they thought that king would have a palace. And in that palace, they thought there would be a throne room, with a large throne where the ruling Messiah would reign.  And next to that throne, there would be little thrones on either side of the Messiah’s big one. Their mother was asking if James and John could occupy those little thrones.

The organizational scholar Ronald Heifetz says that “people don’t resist change; they resist loss.”  And the disciples (in the mouth of Peter) were resisting Jesus’s attempt to change their mental model of a Messiah because they had something to lose. And now we know what they were afraid to lose. He was not just changing their mental model of what it meant to be a Messiah; he was changing the mental model of what it meant to be the disciple of a Messiah.  And that change was going to cost them something.  It was going to cost them their little thrones. A reigning ruler could offer them little thrones, but a suffering redeemer could offer them sorrows. And then Jesus drove the point home.

He made it very clear to them what this new mental model of ‘disciple’ was going to cost them.  “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’”

Jesus not only asked the disciples to change the most important mental model that they used to interpret Jesus (i.e. the Messiah).  But he also asked them to change the mental model that they used to interpret themselves (i.e. the Messiah’s disciples). And he expected all of the actions going forward to be different as they lived out this new mental model.  The Gospel of Mark pivots on this passage. After this passage, everything in Mark’s gospel points to the cross.  Once Jesus announces this new mental model, the entire story becomes about living out the new meanings of Messiah and disciple.  The disciples do not fully understand the implications of these new mental models until the Spirit comes at Pentecost.  But the faithfulness of their actions after Mark 8 depends on their coming to grips with these new mental models. Jesus, then, is our example of what it means to lead by transforming people’s mental models.

Transforming mental models is so powerful because the new mental models change the way people act in the world.   When the disciples thought that the Messiah was sent to reign, it was appropriate, for example, for the mother of a pair of disciples to ask that her sons might sit on little thrones.  And it was appropriate to expect that the last thing a Messiah would do is to experience the public shame of a humiliating death on a Roman cross.  But, if a Messiah has come to suffer in order to redeem, then it makes sense that a disciple of that Messiah would also live a life of service on behalf of others.  In other words, changing the mental models the disciples used to make sense of Jesus and the mental models they used to make sense of themselves transformed the actions that the disciples attempted to achieve in society.  If a Christian leader transforms people’s mental models, then the people’s actions will change as well.



4. Jesus changed the disciples’ mental models about “Messiah” and “disciple.”

What were the key ways that Jesus changed their mental models?

How did that change in mental model require them to change their behavior in society?



5. Let me give you two more examples of how changing mental models transforms behavior.

Changing the story changes behavior and it does so because it changes the mental model that dictates action.  That is why all this discussion of mental models, and of meaning making, and of stories, is so important to our recalibrating the church.  The way to change a person’s behavior (or a congregation’s behavior) is to change their mental model by changing the story they tell themselves. Let me give two powerful examples of how changing the story a person tells herself changes her mental model and creates new behavior.  We have already seen how MLK changed people’s mental model and enabled a healthier way to interact with the world.  Let us see two more examples.

A story can change a mental model and that can transform behavior.  Look at the work of the design firm IDEO.  IDEO regularly receives difficult assignments, some of them literally a matter of life and death.   One assignment involved children and MRI machines.  It seems that children are terrified by the narrow spaces and loud banging that an MRI entails.  Children almost always had to be fully sedated in order to have an MRI.  IDEO was commissioned, then, to create a new kind of MRI machine for children, one that did not require children to be sedated.

The expectation was that they would design a new device, a new machine (i.e. engage in what we will call, “product innovation”).  But they discovered that they did not need to make a new machine; they needed to make new meaning using a new mental model.

They started by listening with empathy to the children they hoped to serve.  And from a child’s perspective the MRI is scary — cold and metal, cramped and loud. But they also observed children in other settings.  For example, kids regularly enjoy loud movies and often clamor to go on scary rides at Disneyland.  And that is when they realized that the children did not need a new machine.  They needed a new story – a new way to make sense of the cold metal and cramped spaces.

So IDEO created two scenarios. They tricked out two MRI machines so that one looked like a pirate ship and the other looked like a princess’s castle.  And they trained the hospital staff to recast the experience as an adventure.  Then they told the children that they were going to have an adventure.  They could choose to be pirates or princesses.  They would get costumes to wear and lines to say.  But as part of the game, they would have to be brave.  A girl might enter the MRI room wearing a flowing princess gown rather than a sterile hospital gown. Or a boy might come in focused on the lines he was to speak and the part he was to play.

And the new story worked.  In the end, 85% of the children were able to complete the MRI without being fully sedated.  That is innovation.  The children did not need a new device or a new process.  They did not need large social change.  They needed new meaning. They needed a new story that shifted their mental model.   The key was that IDEO understood that children will be brave if you give them the right way to make meaning of their experiences.  The cold, loud place was not a hospital; it was a pirate ship.  This is meaning-making innovation.

Or consider another example that shows how changing the mental model will change the story that people use to interpret their own actions.  In the aftermath of the protracted drug war in Colombia, FARC guerillas were living in the jungle because they had nowhere else to go.  Many Colombians saw these men as a lost generation because no one could figure out a way to get them to return to society.

The Colombian government turned to Jose Miguel Sokoloff, an advertising executive.  Sokoloff decided to use Christmas as an opportunity to invite rebels to see themselves differently.  The most poignant plan came in 2013.  Sokoloff met with the mothers of many FARC rebels.  Each one gave Sokoloff pictures of the rebels as children – pictures the rebels would know had to come from their mothers.  They distributed the pictures on flyers throughout the jungle at Christmastime.  The message, according to Sokoloff, was: “Before you were a guerilla, you were my child.  So come home because I will always be waiting for you at Christmastime.”  And it worked.

It gave the rebels a new story that changed their mental model of themselves.  Instead of seeing themselves as criminals in a society that wanted to arrest them, they saw themselves as sons whose mothers were waiting for them with open arms.  (Does that remind you of the Prodigal Son story?)  Changing the mental model changed the action. And it all turns on the meaning of the word “wanted.”  If I am a wanted criminal, I must stay in the jungle.  If I am a wanted child, I must return to my mother. The Colombian government did not need a new social program, they needed a new mental model for their people – captured in a story that transformed wanted criminals into wanted children.  They needed meaning-making innovation.



6. Discuss the IDEO example. How did changing the story change the child’s response? And, did anything about the MRI itself change?



7. Return to the example of Gina and Duc from (1) above. How might we change the way we tell the story so that Duc experiences the death and resurrection of Jesus as good news?

Thanks for taking the time to think through meaning-making innovation with us this week.  Next week we will look specifically at Christian practices and discuss how we might use them to make spiritual sense of the longings and losses of the people entrusted to your care.