While none of us have a crystal ball to help us predict what the Church will look like after Covid-19, here is a helpful conversation hosted by The BTS Center, featuring Paul Nixon and our Kenda Creasy Dean. You can find a video and an audio recording of this conversation on the Reports from the Spiritual Frontier website – http://reportsfromthespiritualfrontier.com/kenda-creasy-dean-and-paul-nixon-the-future-of-faith-communities-after-covid-19/.
Profound thanks to our friend Victoria White, who pointed us to our friend Casper ter Tuile, who pointed us to our friends in other religious traditions. Casper notes how everywhere in the past few weeks people have had had to redesign rituals, “from Passover seders on Zoom to virtual Iftars later this month with the start of Ramadan. While changing traditions is usually difficult, this COVID-19 induced moment is blowing open new formsof storytelling and ritual-making that would otherwise never see the light of day.”
Casper notes that Eastertide is especially suited for such a moment: “Easter – more than most – needs that kind of new life. As Vincent Strudwick and Jane Shaw write in The Naked God, “Each generation has to clothe God anew.” But, warns Casper, this is not something that can be done with chocolate eggs and bunnies; “resurrection demands taking loss seriously.”
Casper reminds us that we are not the first to need to innovate in the face of loss: “Christian institutions have much to learn from innovative Jewish leaders,” he writes, pointing us to Daniel Libenson’s 10 Commandments of Rebuilding Judaism as a fine example of the spiritual imagination already at work.
We agree with Victoria’s assessment: he’s onto something!
Hope new life is beckoning…
I spent so long groping for the right words to describe “missional innovation” (I still don’t like the phrase) that it’s easy to feel like no one else in the church “speaks” this language. It goes by many handles: Christian social innovation, faith-based enterprise, redemptive entrepreneurship, spiritual entrepreneurship.
As the church’s unofficial R&D department, youth ministers have been missional innovators forever, intuiting spiritual entrepreneurship’s ability bring young people and Jesus onto common ground. Youth ministers, working with youth themselves, have been engineering new ways for young people to be the church, in the pews and in the world, for decades. Every Christian youth organization’s history is full of stories of social innovation: Christian Endeavor fostered women’s leadership before women had the right to vote. YoungLife was an interracial organization before the civil rights movement. Church camps and conferences pioneered new forms of worship and music that, a generation later, became standard-issue on Sunday mornings. Countless vocations have been launched by mission and arts ministries that allowed teenagers to imagine church differently from their parents.
Yet without a name, we miss the force of these innovative instincts and are very likely to miss their connection to faith. Young people gravitate toward the impulse to infiltrate the world with good, but they’re more apt to see Tom’s Shoes as fulfilling this promise than the church. Young adults recognize missional innovation as a way to test-drive, in small batches, lifestyles that challenge our “me-first” relational and economic practices. They may even notice that this bears more than a passing resemblance to the last-shall-be-first teachings of the gospel. But if you ask them who is most likely to change the world, they will tell you “Spotify,” not Jesus (see http://www.
So what shall we call it? What “handle” binds our work to Jesus, and not merely to good intentions?
Both words– “missional” and “innovation”–are long past their sell-by dates. But what alternatives do we have? We could try the Trappist route: “Preach the gospel; when necessary, use words.” But we also know that, with rare exceptions, faith without words can’t reproduce. At some point, we need to claim who we work for, lest we start taking credit ourselves, or (worse) go off the rails and imply that our failings are God’s failings. We need to articulate how missional innovation is the natural consequence of following Jesus. At the very least, we need to be transparent about where the money goes. The communities we invest in want to know why we’re there. Saying that we want to take part in what God is doing in a place makes no sense (it could even be dangerous) unless we are clear about which God we mean. If we can’t tether this thing we call missional innovation to Christian discipleship, then we risk—to quote Dr. Amanda Drury–sending out ambassadors who don’t know what country they’re from.
Discipleship formation is the Achilles’ heel of missional innovation. It’s easy for us to think our actions are enough, that people will see Jesus in what we do. They will—but only if they know what to look for, cues we glean from the stories and teachings of Christian tradition that allow us to name our experience with God. Words matter. Metaphors shape us—even metaphors about God and God’s mission. Faith needs more than body language to explain, even to ourselves, the humble attempt to live a cruciform life in the marketplace. Yet here we are, called to help people who could care less imagine what following Jesus looks like—living a cross-shaped life, a life of self-giving love.
That would make Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—the original cross-shaped life–the mother of all innovations.
So what shall we call this thing that smells like church but lacks every trapping we’ve come to associate with religion? What do we call this upside-down way of life that bears witness to the last-shall-be-first gospel of Jesus, that challenges transactionalism and economics of scarcity with a gospel of abundance? What shall we call the incarnational impulse to infiltrate human culture with grace and joy and purpose? What do we call this strategy for hope?
Christian social innovation, redemptive entrepreneurship, missional innovation, spiritual entrepreneurship – pick your handle – is no longer niche. It’s a full-blown, interfaith movement—and if you’re a Christian social innovator who is curious about learning with social innovators from other faith backgrounds, here’s your chance.
I recently met Alan Harlam, Director of Spiritual Entrepreneurship at Clal, an organization committed to drawing on Jewish wisdom to serve the public good. If I thought social innovation was a Christian thing (and it is), Alan blew open my imagination by pointing out that all religious traditions participate in it in various ways. Alan used to serve as Director of Social Innovation at Brown University. As a professor, he leveraged years of business experience to help students develop and launch social impact ventures. Then he had an epiphany: he realized that his teaching on social entrepreneurship was a strikingly faithful expression of his deep-rooted Jewish values. “I really rediscovered my faith through social entrepreneurship,” he told me. Soon he joined several other Jewish leaders in building Clal’s “Glean Incubator” for spiritual entrepreneurs.
That’s where you come in. The Glean Incubator offers online education for spiritual entrepreneurs of any faith background, and encourages them to draw on the strengths of their faith traditions as they create new spiritual ventures. Baptists and Buddhists, Methodists and Muslims, Jews and Unitarians – they’re all there. Glean offers two opportunities, and they are accepting applications now:
SHIFT is a 6 week, multi-faith community of “change agents,” led by six guest faculty, to equip participants “with the mindset shift necessary to approach our changing world with a lens of abundance,” and the tools to begin building something new. Go here to learn more: shift
START is an intensive, 20-week MBA-level program in Spiritual Entrepreneurship from Columbia Business School that teaches human-centered design, empathy-building, prototyping, fundraising, and everything in between. Start’s faculty includes Columbia Business School professors, thought leaders in faith innovation, and field experts to deliver tools, insights, and coaching for your venture. Go here to learn more: gleannetwork.org/start
We are doing a summer blog series aimed at those who are either starting a missional enterprise or thinking about starting one. During this series, we will look at theological and practical concerns of missional entrepreneurs.
This week’s post in our series aimed at budding missional entrepreneurs comes from our own Kenda Creasy Dean with practical advice for communication in a digital age!
In case you thought that email or text would do the trick, think again: new research reported in the Harvard Business Review (Vanessa K. Bohns, “A Face-to-Face Request Is 34 Times More Successful Than an Email,” Harvard Business Review (April 11, 2017), https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-face-to-face-request-is-34-times-more-successful-than-an-email)finds that people overestimate the persuasive power of text-based communication, and underestimate the persuasive power of talking in person. One study found that a face-to-face request was 34 times more effective than an emailed one. When participants were instructed to ask 10 strangers to complete a survey, half made the request over email, and half did it in person. Both groups felt equally confident about the effectiveness of their requests.
One study found that a face-to-face request was 34 times more effective than an emailed one.
But wowzer, in terms of who actually responded? No contest. Why was face-to-face communication 34 times more successful? Researchers hypothesize that, in person, we send and decode subtle non-verbal cues that communicate trustworthiness. The moral of the story seems to be: no matter how digitally connected we may be, nothing matters more to us than be asked to do something face-to-face.
Every day, young people are asked to commit their lives to something of value. Which raises the question: if churches are not making the persuasive, face-to-face asks of young people. . . who is?
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