How to… innovate the future

BY THE REV DR MICHAEL MOYNAGH

Innovation is what happens when God’s future comes head to head with the present. The promised kingdom transforms the world through innovation – a process that changes the rules of the game for doing something. Indeed, the kingdom itself has innovation at its heart. God is taking what exists in the universe and changing the rules by which the components relate to each other. The kingdom is innovation on a cosmic scale.

Some innovations change the rules of the game radically. The first Messy Church radically changed the rules for all-age worship. Others change the rules incrementally: leaders of a Messy Church might change the sequence of craft activities, worship and food. Whether radical or incremental, innovation is the Spirit’s vehicle for pulling the present toward God’s future.

Dissatisfaction

In Church in Life I have described six overlapping processes of innovation. One is dissatisfaction. Innovation does not happen unless there is dissatisfaction with the status quo. No one would do anything new unless they were discontented with the present. Perhaps the present isn’t working. Or perhaps they can see better ways of doing something. The person feels dissatisfied because the present could be improved.

That was Caroline’s experience. She was a school teacher in northwest London. The local population had changed, with a growing number of people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Caroline felt frustrated because her local church had so little contact with this changing population. Her discontent fuelled a determination to do something about it.

If you like, innovation starts with “holy discontent” or “prophetic discontent”. It begins with a dissatisfaction that says, “The situation could be better.” The old must be revealed as inadequate before the new is born. This is a challenge to leaders who believe that the main task of management is to keep everyone happy. If you want improvement, you need some people not to be happy.

Exploration

Another process is exploration. An innovator, or an innovating team, explores how something new might work within their context. Caroline, for example, began to explore how her church might make connections with its new neighbours. How might her church change the rules of the game to build relationships with recent migrants nearby?

Caroline explored in three ways. Firstly, she started with what she had – who she was, what she knew and who she knew. She was a primary school teacher. She knew that many of the mothers of her students could not speak English well. She also knew how to teach. She wondered if she could use her teaching skills to help these mothers learn better English. She knew people in her church who might be willing to help her.

Secondly, she began to ask herself “What if?” “What if I did this or that?” This is an important part of the exploring process. In Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work, Nigel Cross describes how engineers, architects and other designers approach design problems by thinking about possible solutions. They keep asking “What if…?” until a solution emerges.

Caroline was designing a solution to the challenge of women not being able to speak English. She began to think about possible solutions. One was to run a language course. But she realised that she would have to write course materials and set assignments, which would take more time than she had. She would also probably need qualified helpers and these were not readily available. So she dismissed the idea. Eventually, she asked herself, “What if we run a weekly language cafe – invite the women to an English afternoon tea, sit round tables and invite them to discuss a topic in English?”

I don’t know if she said “Wow!” at this point. But often when you repeatedly ask “What if?” and the apparent answer finally pops into your head, you exclaim “Wow!”. And then, as happened with Caroline, you try the idea to see if it will work. Cross points out that experienced designers do not foreclose the “What if?” process too quickly. They keep options open to avoid missing a good idea. Neither do they give up too soon. Often you have to persevere, imagining one solution and then another, until you hit on a brainwave. This was true of Caroline. If she had not persevered, she might never have come up with the language cafe.

Thirdly, she listened carefully to the mainly Sri Lankan mothers she hoped to serve. She knew some of them through her teaching. So quite a bit of this listening was implicit. She held conversations in her head. She imagined herself inviting these mothers to afternoon tea in the church hall. And as she did so, she realised that many would find it quite daunting. The church was not part of their housing estate. She decided to use the community hall instead. The facilities were not as convenient for her, but it was familiar territory for the women involved. Besides listening implicitly, Caroline consulted some of the women as her plans took shape.

She started with what she had, which meant that she didn’t waste time on ideas that were beyond her resources, nor did she try to innovate in a field with which she was unfamiliar – she built on her existing expertise. She kept thinking of possible solutions, which widened her thinking to embrace an unexpected possibility. And she listened carefully to check her idea would work and then shaped it around the women concerned.

Re-formation

Through prophetic discontent and prayerful exploration, God’s future began to re-form the present. The result was not the obliteration of tradition. Caroline’s church was infused with new life. Innovation fertilises tradition, while tradition is the soil in which innovation grows.

The Rev Dr Michael Moynagh is based at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, is a member of the CMS community and works for Fresh Expressions in the UK. He is author of Church in Life: Innovation, Mission and Ecclesiology, London: SCM, 2017.

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