September 15, 2020 • Church Leadership Initiative, De Pree Journal
This article is a Review of The Innovative Church by Scott Cormode.
When most church members use the word “innovation” they are usually referring to programs, events, or particular ministries. The church is innovative, they say, when they trade an organ for a drum set, project the words of praise songs on giant screens, convene youth group via Instagram, or offer a streaming worship service on Facebook Live. And indeed, creativity, flexibility and experiments like these have become all the more prevalent during the current pandemic. For churches to continue to minister to their members and their community, there will need to be more, not less “innovation.”
But in a new book, Fuller Seminary leadership professor Scott Cormode (and my colleague at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership) wants to help the church innovate on innovation itself. For Cormode, a rapidly changing world does not simply require new approaches to old ways of doing church (music, worship, youth group, etc.) but a “recalibration” of all ministry based on the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Almost everything about the current experience of church was established in a bygone era: the way we worship, the passages of Scripture we cherish, and the people we expect to see. The basic contours of church have not changed, even as the world has been transformed. The church as we know it is calibrated for a world that no longer exists,” Cormode begins his book. The work of recalibration is an act that combines both sobriety and playfulness, both a commitment to core values and creativity to discover ways to communicate those core values in ever-changing ways.
“How do we maintain a rock-solid commitment to the unchanging Christian faith while at the same time finding innovative ways to express that faith in an ever-changing culture?” Cormode asks. And the rest of the book demonstrates a process that begins in a recommitment to people (over programs!) and to listening (over speaking!) and to recovering “traditional” Christian practices like discernment, hospitality, and lament. Indeed, readers of The Innovative Church who are looking for quick fixes for adapting to the disruptions of the moment may be surprised (disappointed?) to find Cormode’s emphasis on Christian practices as a key to innovation:
“Christian practices are particularly useful for innovation because they are both new and old at the same time. They are old because each practice has been an essential part of Christianity since its inception. They are new because the expression of each practice changes drastically over time. But, along the way, we have forgotten (or neglected) some practices. Recovering those practices can accelerate innovation.”
Readers who are familiar with Cormode’s teaching from the work he has done with Fuller Youth Institute’s Growing Young Cohorts (or who have been one of his hundreds of students down through the years) will find in this book a compendium of his most famous maxims, like
“Leadership begins in listening” and “You don’t have followers, you have people entrusted to your care.” It’s helpful to have these foundational principles expounded in The Innovative Church.
But perhaps the most immediately valuable and truly innovative dimension in this book is Cormode’s conviction that, through deep reflection on some critical questions, faithful innovation can be cultivated by church leaders.
- Who are the people entrusted to your care?
- How do those people experience the longings and losses that make up the human condition?
- What Big Lies do your people believe that prevent them from hearing the gospel?
- How do you make spiritual sense of those longings and losses?
- How do you express that spiritual meaning as a shared story of hope? (p.8)
Notice that, for Cormode, the energy of innovation is based on empathy (care, longings, losses), truth (confronting lies, offering hope) and community (“shared story”) that leads to nothing less than a recalibrated telling of the gospel itself to meet the actual needs of real people in the world as it is today: “The goal for this book is to change how we communicate the gospel to the people entrusted to our care.” (P. 31)
This meaning-making “innovation” is itself different than what most people mean when they use the word. That difference may be startling to some who are looking for answers about how to “do church.” But for many church leaders who worry that an emphasis on innovation smacks of something out of Silicon Valley rather than “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), Cormode’s “recalibration” is nothing less than a call for renewal. And what could be more important right now than that?
The Innovative Church
The church as we know it is calibrated for a world that no longer exists.
It needs to recalibrate in order to address the questions that animate today’s congregants. Leading congregational researcher Scott Cormode explores the role of Christian practices in recalibrating the church for the twenty-first century, offering church leaders innovative ways to express the never-changing gospel to their ever-changing congregations.
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Tod Bolsinger joined Fuller Seminary in 2014 as vice president for vocation and formation and he now serves as Senior Fellow at the De Pree Center and Associate Professor of Leadership Formation. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1993, Dr. Bolsinger served as senior pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church from 1997 to 2014. Prior to that he was associate pastor of discipleship and spiritual formation at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.