What’s theology got to do with innovation? We might imagine the former as a purely ‘religious’ term, and the latter as the ‘secular’ language of the modern marketplace. Christians talking about ‘innovation’ as theological might sound faddish, or even dangerous – isn’t theology about conserving sacred truth and tradition, not shaking the Church up with new ideas?
Truthfully? We’re working this stuff out as we go.
We know ‘innovation’ is the cherished buzzword of tech companies and business entrepreneurs, but its essential meaning is pretty simple: new ways of doing things. It’s a call to creativity, an openness to the unknown and untested, a willingness to question the status quo in pursuit of what’s better. We can hear the theological resonance, so we’ve been thinking about how we understand innovation within our Christian faith.
So far, there are two big frames that we’re seeing this word through. The first is innovation as improvisation – the big picture of God’s work in the world. The second is innovation through reflection – how our day to day life prompts us to new ways of doing and thinking.
New Testament scholar and theologian NT Wright describes the Church’s mission as essentially innovative: a task of ongoing improvisation within the drama of God’s own mission. This makes sense he says, when we see the Bible as if it were a five-act play, with the final act only partially written: it is happening now through us.
The first act establishes the goodness of creation, and a rich calling for humanity to bear God’s image to the world, wisely stewarding creation and so giving glory to its creator. Act Two is the fall from this Eden: humankind turns to selfish rebellion and self-destruction, pursuing its own empires. Act Three narrates the call of Abraham and the drama of Israel: its call to bless the world and its apparent failure to do so. Act Four is the event that is Jesus the Messiah entering the world, heralding a just, new kingdom and God’s salvific reconciliation of Heaven and Earth. Act Five is the call of the Church: Jesus’ followers indwelt by the Holy Spirit, reconciled to God so they might help bring all things together, ahead of the ultimate reconciliation brought about by God at the end of time.
Humanity’s place in that final, unwritten act provides the impetus to improvise. Far from meaning simply ‘making it up as we go along’, Wright describes this as an act of listening, like a jazz musician sensitive to the shape and character of the piece of which they are part. Creativity is required, but so is attention, reflection, and cooperation. The innovator therefore seeks an artistic balance between commitment to the bigger story and being awake to the emerging needs of his or her time and place. This kind of holy responsibility is ‘risky business’, says Wright, but it cannot be ignored.
A second aspect of a ‘theology of innovation’ means thinking theologically about the way we innovate. Many of us may be keen to faithfully adapt to emerging trends, but lacking the space for real reflection, we don’t process our experience from a theological perspective, we just move manically from one task to another.
Youth ministry can then become an exclusively human enterprise, characterised by anxiety and the sense that if the youth worker fails, then the youth are doomed. Scholars Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean argue in their book The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry that youth work has often become dominated by a ‘rhetoric of despair’, a focus on declining attendance and visible successes that leads to operating out of fear. They say instead that youth workers must reclaim reflection, and their role as practical theologians serving the Church.
Thinking theologically about our youth ministry helps us to orient ourselves to God’s perspective. We need to evaluate our ministries through a theological lens, focusing on how God sees our activities, what our priorities really are, and ultimately remembering that God is actively involved in them. This kind of reflection can liberates youth workers by helping us lead from a place of love, not a place of lack. It reframes the picture, reminding us that the fate of the universe is not on our shoulders but has been secured by a loving God. If you’re interested in learning more about theological reflection take a look at Sally Nash’s book or these short videos.
When it comes to innovation, we are finding that this these perspectives are vital. Innovation within the church is not about desperately reacting to the latest trends but is about being sensitively attuned to deeper currents. Through trial and error, prayer and reflection – it is a kind of creative fidelity to God’s work in an ever-shifting landscape.