The next time I hear a consultant argue that what the church really needs is more innovative pastors I may go ballistic. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against innovation or against innovative pastors. The church certainly needs transformation and we desperately need folks with new ideas. My problem is with the tendency to locate innovation with the clergy and the way that perpetuates a savior mythology, one that oppresses them as much as it does us wee lay folk.
Everett M. Rogers is famous for popularizing a theory explaining the technology adoption lifecycle within his book, Diffusion of Innovations. While the theory was originally developed studying farmers, it has been applied widely to other fields (no pun intended) to help us understand how innovation occurs. Rogers visually presented the adoption of new technology with a bell curve similar to the one accompanying this article.
According to Rogers, people fall into the following categories as they relate to new ideas:
- Innovators (roughly 2.5% of the population) were found be more educated, more prosperous and more risk-oriented.
- Early Adopters were younger and more educated. They tended to be community leaders but were less prosperous than innovators.
- The Early Majority were more conservative but remained open to new ideas and were active in the community and an influence to neighbors.
- The Late Majority were older, less educated, fairly conservative and less socially active that previous groups.
- Finally the Laggards were very conservative having the smallest farms and available capital. They were also the oldest and least educated. 1
Before considering an application for the church, I’d like to set forth one popular adaption to this theory offered by Geoffrey A. Moore in a book called Crossing the Chasm. Taking the basics of Roger’s model and applying them to the marketing of high-tech products, Moore introduced the notion of a chasm between the ‘visionaries’ (innovators and early adopters) and the ‘pragmatists’ (the early/late majorities and laggards). He argues that the most difficult step in the adoption of innovation is this one between the early adopters and the early majority. As as early adopter of technology whose been burned once or twice by the amazing product that never really caught on, his theory rings true.
As fascinating as these theories are, I’m only interested in them (or to be more accurate, my Wikipedia-level interpretation of them) because of how they might allow us to see the process of change in the church differently. Permit me to be deliberately provocative for the sake of our conversation here. Let me suggest that the pastor is exactly the wrong person to bring innovation into an existing church and that Moore’s chasm is the reason why.
When a skilled pastor brings a new idea to an existing community I imagine they would have little problem getting that group of early adopters to agree to how amazing their innovation is. Together, they might plot out a course for those new small groups, or for that trendy evening service, but how many of you can relate to the difficulty of getting the pragmatists on board? Might we consider that this is Moore’s chasm at work?
When the pastor is the chief innovator of the church they are less able to apply their authority and influence toward helping the community to bridge this chasm between the early adopters and and early majority because they’ve already expended it by advocating for the idea originally. It stretches a pastor’s credibility to keep saying how amazing their idea is in the face of some resistance. Gifted pastors, or new pastors, may be able to push such change through but eventually their social capital is spent unless they’ve found a way to bank some more.
If we are to move forward, what the church really needs are innovative lay people; willing to adopt, suggest, and try new things. When a lay person puts forth a new idea and builds their group of advocates (early adopters), their innovation, particularly if it challenges the church culture, will still hit Moore’s chasm. The difference however is that now the pastor is free to insert their authority and influence to help good ideas to bridge this gap. And when they do so, they also create goodwill and affirm the gifts of their laity to boot.
Our churches need, desperately, to become places of change. While the occasional new idea from the pastor can be good modeling, the pastor that innovates continuously sucks the air out of the church and leaves no room for innovation elsewhere. Our churches would be better served by clergy who excelled at creating, and nurturing, cultures of innovation.
Some might say that this sentiment is nice but they know, or serve, churches where creating a culture of innovation is impossible. Where we find this to be true we should be quick to lock the doors and shutter the windows. Before we do this however, we should consider that there is a difference between a church that continuously rejects its pastor’s new ideas and one that refuses to create their own when given the opportunity.
The Spirit of God is the church’s true innovator. Relocating the process of innovation where we know the Spirit resides – the community – is our most faithful path forward.
So, how might we create, nurture and sustain cultures of innovation with the lay people of the church? I have a few thoughts but I’d rather hear yours. Leave a comment below.
And then click here for part two.
* If you don’t know what ‘twerking’ is, trust me, your life is not incomplete.