I have two initial diagnostics I use when gauging a congregation’s capacity to innovate missionally. First, is their trust in the system. Second, is their tolerance for risk. These two things, of course, are often linked, though you can have one without the other.
I do find congregations with high trust throughout the system because the system is stable, even risk-averse. After all, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And in a world that is rapidly changing in sometimes disturbing ways, its nice for the church to be a stable constant, even a voice against change.
But I am convinced that this is the opposite of being faithful. This is more like burying talents in the ground where they can remain exactly the same, rather than spending ourselves in ways that might bring new life.
So, a big task in congregations is convincing them that change and risk are built into the fabric of faithfulness. Along these lines, I’d point you to my friend, Dwight Zscheile’s, new book, The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age. Dwight argues convincingly that innovation has always been a part of the church’s story, rooted in the Incarnation, that God took human form in a particular time and location, in a particular culture. So, you can read the incarnation as the establishment of a particular culture for all time (which not even the Amish can pull off), or that God becomes present in every time and place in ways that are culturally appropriate. The early Christians clearly chose the latter posture, evidenced, for example, by the fact that they recorded the words of Jesus in a language other than the one he spoke. As James Brownson and others point out, the success of early Christianity was due in great part to its aggressive strategy regarding the cultural, its willingness to adapt and express the news of Jesus in ways that made local sense.
To these observations, I would add the following: God is always bigger than our ideas about God. The church can never be satisfied that it has solved God. The church is not the same as God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is always coming, and the church is always praying in anticipation “your kingdom come, your will be done.” There’s always more, which means there is always the possibility, even necessity, of change. To refuse to change is to participate in idolatry.
I also love the insight made by William Placher in his book on the history of Christian theology. He describes the intent of the early church fathers as preserving the faith. Everything they did was an effort to keep things the same. The ironic result was that in their efforts to keep everything the same, they changed everything. One thing that Placher is pointing out is that the same form can have very different meanings given different contexts. To express the meaning of the gospel consistently across time and space will necessarily involve rick and change.
Finally, I would point out that the story the church lives is the story of the death and resurrection. The church does not live to preserve its life, but to give its life away in the hope of resurrection. Paul talks about his ministry this way. He is always carrying in his body “the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in his body…Death is at work in us,” he says, “so that life may be at work in you… Indeed, everything is for your sake so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase in thanksgiving to the glory of God.” Paul’s strategy for mission is a death and resurrection strategy. Carrying in your body the death of Jesus involves risk. Giving your life away is always a risky proposition. But it is always faithful to the story of Jesus. And we do it confident that God will raise us up.
So, risk can be a great act of faithfulness. Refusal to risk anything is faithlessness.
Risk, however, for its own sake is not a virtue. Change for change’s sake is not the way of wisdom. Zscheile, using the image of the householder in Mt. 13 who brings treasure both old and new, talks about “traditioned innovation.” Here, a living tradition helps the church make judgements about risk-taking. The church is always learning the way of “treasure old and treasure new,” always seeking to bring the best parts of the past forward in ways that give it continuing relevance and power.
Most congregations, however, need little encouragement toward continuity. They do need encouragement to take risks. And for my money, the risks taken should always be measured against our sense of God’s mission for others. Instead of taking risks in light of our personal preferences, we should risk for the sake of God’s mission for the sake of others.