97. Innovation as a Spiritual Discipline for Boards

In articles # 94 and # 95 I have proposed that the concept of “spiritual discipline” applies to church boards and is broader than prayer, fasting, Bible study, and confession. It also includes intentional collaboration and consistent assessment. These are spiritual responsibilities and activities that church boards need to embrace if they are to steward the trust for good governance that congregations place in them and advance the mission. In this article I would add a third to this list — the spiritual discipline of innovation.

In the book of Acts the Holy Spirit continually drives the early Christian church to embrace innovation. The most significant of these is the full inclusion of Gentile converts within the Messianic movement. However, we know from stories such as Philip’s experience in Samaria (Acts 8) and Peter’s rooftop vision (Acts 10) that these innovations created significant challenges for God’s people. Yet, these early Christian leaders discerned that obedience to the new things God was doing was part of their discipleship. They could not follow Jesus and remain tied to traditions that no longer had any merit. They had to learn to see things through God’s eyes, feel things through God’s heart and value things based on God’s perception. The spiritual discipline of innovation requires Christian leaders to be open to the new opportunities that God may be gestating in the church or the community. Getting in step with God and keeping in step requires spiritual discipline. This is the spiritual discipline of seeing the world through God’s eyes.

We discover the first “board-like” group in the church, i.e. the apostles, wrestling with necessary innovation in Acts 6. Current practices for caring for the needs of widows in the church were not sufficient. A new paradigm was needed and the Holy Spirit enabled them to discern the necessary innovation and lead the church in unity to embrace it.

The spiritual discipline of innovation requires board members to believe that God is working and there is no place off-limits to his sovereign, innovative capacities and desires. This means that church board members need to be open to God-inspired innovation arising from any direction.People today speak of an event or experience as a “God-thing,” i.e. something only God could engineer and accomplish. So too church board members will have hearts attuned to discern when and where God is acting and align themselves with this.

But church board members must be wise enough to discern whether such innovation is from God or a satanic delusion. Not  every change is good or has a divine impulse. In Acts we read how Paul desired to take his mission into Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit prevented him. Presumably Paul’s desire did not arise from the right source. Sometimes theological innovation is destructive and heretical, not beneficial. John, the apostle, warned Christians to test the spirits to make sure they were being led in a godly manner.

Discerning whether a possible innovation is timely, missional, and God-sourced often leads to passionate conflict among Christian leaders. How does a chairperson help a board when it is in throes of discerning whether a proposed change in ministry or church practice should be embraced? A number of years ago church leaders were wrestling with the innovation of ‘seeker-sensitive’ church services. Debates within leadership circles were intense. I would suggest that a chairperson might assist a board in such discernment by:

1. helping them locate biblical stories that might parallel the contemporary situation and seek guidance from God’s previous work with his people;

2. take time to develop consensus. When momentous issues are under discussion, do not feel pressured to move quickly. Take time for prayer, careful reflection, gathering of good information, listening to diverse perspectives;

3. communicate often, as fully as possible, and then listen well.

Although consensus may be impossible to achieve, if people know they have been heard and their concerns prayerfully and respectfully considered, that does mean something in the end.

Another perspective on innovation that a board chair might use to help a board come to terms with change is the concept of “missional space.” Earl Creps in his book Off-Road Disciplines describes the boundaries of missional space as “heart dimension,” “venue dimension,” and “Spirit dimension” (145). Although he applies this concept primarily to evangelism, I think it has application to a board’s evaluation of any innovation. If people’s hearts are hard and defensive towards God’s plans, then the missional space will be very small and distorted. If we limit innovation to certain spaces, thinking God is not interested in or capable of acting in a certain context, then missional space again will be contrived and contorted. “Love needs an address!” (148)  We know that nothing godly happens in the church without the Spirit’s involvement. When we quench the Spirit, we shrink missional space to microcosmic proportions. Spirit-motivated innovation requires faith, boldness, and reliance upon God.

Part of this spiritual discipline will require a strong commitment on the part of church board members to educate themselves about their church, their community, and their opportunities and challenges. The chairperson exercises some influence in this. Conversations with the lead pastor, conversations with discerning believers in the congregation, coffee discussions one-on-one with board members, prayerful openness to the Spirit’s direction — all of these become windows through which to sense places where the vision and ministry of the congregation might engage innovative ideas. The annual board retreat can be a significant time for a church board to consider in prayer what new directions, new steps of faith, God may be asking the congregation to embrace. Board members need to embrace them personally and passionately first, if they expect the congregation to follow.

Through the prophet Isaiah Yahweh tells Israel “See, the former things have taken place [e.g. judgment and exile] and new things I declare [e.g. return and restoration]; before they spring into being, I announce them to you” (42:9). What “new things” will God be declaring through his Holy Spirit to your church board? What voice will He use to share this insight? What crisis might be necessary in order for church leaders to be ready to listen? Who will be willing to carry the burden of leadership in order to champion godly innovation? Somewhere in this mix the board chair must exercise careful leadership.

The pace and degree of innovation that a church board can manage will depend to a considerable degree upon the giftedness, faith commitment, discernment, and leadership ability of the board chair. Every chairperson will bring a different set of competence and spiritual understanding to this significant task. It will emerge from an understanding of the church’s mission, values and vision, as well as a holy dissatisfaction with the status quo. It will  proceed with deep dependence upon the belief that God desires his church to flourish, even in the difficult places. Your personal passion for the mission of this particular congregation will energize you. But even with all of this it will be your partnership with the lead pastor and your mutual commitment before God to advance the mission which will be the most critical factor.

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