Nurturing innovation and valuing tradition

Can the ability of congregations to initiate life-giving change be improved? Consider the value of “traditioned innovation.”

By Terry Maples

I recall sitting in a business meeting several years ago while the congregation I served wrestled with a significant change. After much dialogue, the recommendation from the staff and church council passed. Here’s what happened next: An active young adult stood and said, “I’m OK with this, but could we please just not make any more changes for a while?”

I must confess my part in this woman’s frustration. I love change and sometimes get bored with the same old, same old. I saw my role in congregational life as a change agent. Automatic routines, I reasoned, are meant to be challenged. Gaps in congregational life must be addressed. Change or die, right?

To avoid feeling paralyzed by institutional-think, at times I unwittingly encouraged change for the sake of change. Looking back, I wonder if that approach could be accurately described as transformational leadership. Sometimes, too much change can result in chaos.

At a recent Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Ministries Council meeting, L. Gregory Jones, senior strategist for leadership education and professor of theology at Duke Divinity School, explored traditioned innovation and asserted, “Tradition is fundamentally different from traditionalism.” He captured my attention with the following quote:

"Tradition is the living faith of the dead;
traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."

How can we honor tradition while also creating a context for innovation? How do congregations embrace innovation and experimentation in order to remain spiritually vibrant while also honoring the tried and true?

C. Kavin Rowe’s definition of traditioned innovation is instructive: “Traditioned innovation is a way of thinking and living that points toward the future in light of the past, a habit of being that requires both a deep fidelity to the tradition that has borne us to the present and a radical openness to the innovations that will carry us forward.”

Another example from my years as a congregational educator is illustrative. Early in my ministry as associate pastor for education and discipleship, I saw need for innovation in Christian education. The value of weekly fellowship and study was undeniable, but I sensed a need to move from a programmed approach to a holistic understanding of discipleship. The plan was to shift from simply “teaching lessons” on Sunday mornings (and hoping it would result in transformation) to creating multiple pathways for helping folks become like Jesus in attitude and action.

Here are some ways we attempted to innovate and institute change:

1) We changed language. The old school model of teaching Bible lessons on Sunday mornings was losing effectiveness because teaching for faith in the person of Jesus Christ isn’t the same as teaching math. We stopped talking about Sunday school and referred to the Sunday morning study experience as Bible Study Ministry.

2) A contextual title consistent with our intent for adult classes emerged: LIFE Communities. LIFE is an acronym: Loving Relationships, Intentional Caring, Faith Formation and Empowerment of Gifts.

3) We formed high commitment small groups for adults and youth. Participants in these groups held each other lovingly accountable for their journey with Christ. Expectations were significantly higher than in a Sunday school class. After a time, groups “closed,” allowing intimacy to form. Each person committed to study before group time and to share out of his/her experience.

I felt good about each of these changes. They were innovative, contextual and congruent with the congregation’s spiritual journey. Thanks to the work of Holy Spirit, the intentional shifts bore incredible fruit.

After hearing Jones’ comments about traditioned innovation, though, I wonder how lifting up and describing the rich heritage of Christian education in the Baptist tradition alongside new ideas and approaches might have increased congregants’ ability to more fully embrace the changes. I wonder how the simple act of recalling specific changes we made in the past might have helped folks more readily turn loose of old patterns in order to embrace new and emerging faith-forming patterns.

Jones asserts both experimentation and innovation are essential for every organization — especially the church. He points to “highly successful” pastors who declare if more than four out of 10 new things tried in their churches are successful, the church cannot perceive itself as innovative. Most churches won’t risk that much for fear of wreaking havoc leading to outright revolt. We have a long way to go in convincing/educating our churches that change built upon the foundation of strong tradition is desirable and God-honoring.

Risk-taking and out-of-the-box thinking are needed within every congregation. Congregations must develop the capacity to try and fail, and we must avoid punishing staff ministers when experiments don’t “succeed.” Every “failure” is simply discovery of a way that does not work in the present context. Remember the words of Thomas Edison: “I’ve tried everything. I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work!”

May God raise up courageous and discerning congregational leaders willing to preserve and embrace rich tradition while also consistently inviting openness to new ministry pathways.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.