Discipleship and Missional Innovation: What’s It Called?

9 · 04 · 18

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.businessinsider.com/brands-millennials-love-think-do-good-2017-6).

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?

What do you call it?


Kenda Creasy Dean

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