Building an innovative church

2 questions agile leaders ask

Scott Cormode Image Scott Cormode | Sep 10, 2020

The church as we know it is calibrated for a world that no longer exists.

When I graduated from seminary in 1990, no one had mentioned the Internet to me; it had not been invented yet. But we can agree that the Internet has changed everything. A year ago, no one had ever heard of COVID-19, but we can all agree that the pandemic has changed everything.

The church as we know it was calibrated for a predictable world that changes slowly. But that world no longer exists. We need to constantly recalibrate—and that requires both agile leaders and an innovative church.

Mainstream literature on innovation tells us that the best way to innovate is to abandon the past. But Christians can never abandon the past. We will never stop reading the Old Testament prophets, we will never stop loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we will never stop saying, “Jesus is Lord.” So the question of innovation becomes, “How do we maintain a rock-solid commitment to the unchanging Christian gospel while, at the same time, fostering an innovative spirit for presenting that gospel to an ever-changing culture?” We need innovative ways to bring the never-changing gospel to our ever-changing culture.

Such innovation requires leaders who are willing and ready to practice agility, or the ability to make spiritual sense on the fly of our people’s ever-changing longings and losses. An ever-changing culture demands agile leaders and innovative congregations.

Becoming agile in leadership

How can we become agile leaders and innovative churches? Over the past five years, the Fuller Youth Institute and I have worked with hundreds of congregational leaders seeking to make the vital changes needed so that their churches can grow young. The Innovative Church, a new book releasing this month, takes a deep dive into the research and insights gained through this work.

Because every congregation is different, the research yielded questions to be answered rather than rules to be obeyed. An innovative congregation in Boston is different from one in Brisbane—and the needs of the people in South LA are different those in South America. Therefore, cookie-cutter answers will not work in every context. We may not be able to provide generic answers, but we can provide universal questions every ministry leader should be asking.

Two questions agile leaders are asking

In The Innovative Church, I present five questions every leader should ask in order to guide innovation in their ministry. Today I want to introduce the two key questions that can help a leader develop the agility they need to lead an innovative congregation.

Question 1: Who are the people entrusted to your care?

Christian leaders do not have followers; only Jesus has followers. Christian leaders have people that God has entrusted to their care.

Sometimes we choose those people—like when a youth pastor ministers to the young people and parents in a congregation. And sometimes God blows these people into our lives like tumbleweeds. For example, I had a chance encounter with someone who started asking me questions about God. I quickly realized that I needed to follow up with him, and over the course of months he became a Christian and joined a church. I did not go looking for him, but God planted him in my life.

We need to be clear about who God expects us to serve. Is it just the people who choose to show up at your church or youth group? (What does “show up” even mean in this world of social distancing?) What about people who start viewing our ministry efforts on the Internet? God brought them to us and now they are ours. We bear a responsibility to listen to them and to show how God’s love applies to their life. But that comes at a cost.

I spoke recently with a pastor who wanted to know how to recreate his ministry in light of the pandemic. I asked him how his people were experiencing the pandemic. “Same as everyone, I guess,” he said. I told him he’d need to devote hours each week to talking on the phone or Zoom to his people. “No, I’m not that kind of minister,” he said. “I preach and teach. I don’t have time for that stuff.” My friend has two choices: he can either treat his people as a stereotype and assume that they are the “same as everyone, I guess,” or he can take the time to listen to what his people feel each day as the pandemic re-makes all of our lives. God entrusts people to your care, and leadership begins with listening to them.

Question 2: How do these people experience the longings and losses that come in life?

This is the most important step—the question that makes leaders agile. We all know that it is hard to be human. We all experience pain and we all long for joy. But what does that look like for your people right now?

The Fuller Youth Institute has found that every young person is constantly dealing with questions of identity, belonging, and purpose. But how do the people entrusted to your care experience those questions right now? For example, the pandemic has locked people in their houses. What does belonging mean when I cannot hang out with my friends? What does identity mean to an athlete who cannot play sports or a drummer who cannot march in the band? What does purpose mean when we don’t know what tomorrow will bring? An agile leader has to spend significant time each week listening to the longings and losses of the people entrusted to her care.

“But I don’t have time to do that kind of listening,” you might say. Do you have time enough to avoid seeing your people by stereotypes? Without listening, stereotyping and assumptions will be your default.

How might these questions help you forge a new ministry in the world that COVID is now creating?

The purpose of listening is the effect it has on me—the listener. We must listen in order to be transformed. And in order to be transformed, I must listen with empathy. I must allow what my people are feeling to change me. I cannot just acknowledge their pain, I have to feel it. And I cannot just acknowledge their hopes, I need to long for them as well. An agile leader must be transformed by empathy.

Tweet: God entrusts people to our care, and leadership begins with listening to them. Asking two key questions can help a ministry leader develop the agility they need.

What are the three questions leaders can ask to help their congregations lay the groundwork for innovation? Read more from Scott and The Innovative Church in our next post.

A guide to innovation in your ministry

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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Scott Cormode Image
Scott Cormode

Scott Cormode (PhD, Yale University), an ordained Presbyterian minister, is the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and the Fuller Youth Institute. Cormode founded the Academy of Religious Leadership and the Journal of Religious Leadership.

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