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Innovation as Christian Virtue
The church needs creativity now as much as ever
It’s no secret that church attendance is on the decline in the United States. In 2020, only 47% of US adults were members of a church/synagogue/mosque, down from 70% only twenty years ago.
The reasons for this are complex and multifaceted. People who never really believed in God are finally comfortable saying so. Others left more slowly, finding over time that the spark of faith was gone or that there were too many barriers to attendance or that church simply wasn’t a priority for them anymore. Still others were driven out by traumatic experiences, harmful teachings, or major denominations’ tacit support for abusive behavior.
Christians sometimes talk about this as if it were simply a problem with the people who leave or a sign of broader society pulling people away from Jesus. I’m not sure this is right — it’s too reminiscent of the old professors I hear complaining that “today’s students just don’t want to learn.” If your students have decided that attending your class isn’t a good use of their time perhaps you need to change the way you teach your class1.
And if people are leaving the church in droves, perhaps we need to have a much more honest conversation about why the way we do church isn’t meeting everyone’s spiritual needs.
The challenge here, of course, is that it’s easier to point out problems than to propose solutions to them. It’s easy to worry that the evangelical “church services revolving primarily around a sermon” model might lead to unhealthy pastoral power dynamics or might discourage people who a 40-minute lecture doesn’t help to commune with Christ. But you can’t just remove (or shorten) a sermon from a typical service and expect to succeed— you have to really think through what your service will revolve around and be creative about what that might look like in practice2.
Similarly, it takes no effort to object to spending millions on new church buildings in the face of extreme poverty — but to do church another way requires you to answer a million practical questions from “so where will people meet?” and “how will people outside our social circles find out about our church?” to “if we split up across several living rooms, how will we decide who goes to which living room each week?”
If our goal as Christians is to maintain the churchy traditions we were handed, then we can happily brush these questions under the rug. But if our goal is to help each other build relationships with a holy and living God, and if a substantial fraction of people don’t feel like the church helps them pursue that, it seems like we should be investing a lot more time and energy into innovating new ways to do church.
By “innovation” I mean the creative trial-and-error process we use when perfecting ideas in other areas of life: trying new things, and iterating until we figure out what works and what doesn’t. I am constantly inspired by what God can do through people who step out in faith to try something new3, such as:
One friend of mine grew tired with the discrepancy between American Church budgets and the biblical idea that nearly all of our excess resources should be going to the poor. He helped found a movement called “Worldwide House Church” that helps people start mini-churches meeting in their living rooms or online, freeing up church operating expenses to instead go directly to serve global poor.
Ernesto Cardenal was a Nicaraguan priest who worked primarily among poor farmworkers. Finding that his own sermons could not give his parishioners the sense of agency they were owed, he gave up preaching in church, and instead used the time to hold a participatory bible study where everyone who attended could share their opinions and thoughts and worries about the passage as equals. It seems to have worked, and some of the (electrifying) transcripts of the resulting bible studies can be found in his book The Gospel in Solentiname.
Some friends of mine (a married couple) from my old church worried that single people in the church might be slipping through the cracks, and decided to reach out to a few to host them for weekly potluck-style “family dinners”. It’s now been several years and the dinners remain one of the highlights of my week. I’ve really appreciated the sense of family they’ve given me when I’m far away from my real family.
Partway through the pandemic, a pastor friend of mine noticed that local restaurants were struggling and that the local food bank had to pause some of its operations, so her church organized and helped fund a voucher program so the food bank’s patrons could obtain food from local restaurants. They also organized a workshop to help people apply for COVID rent assistance from the government — the church could not afford to pay everyone’s rent, but they could help people overcome the barriers (e.g. language, not being aware of the program) that kept them from receiving money that was already there.
I ran a weekly ministry serving the local homeless population my senior year of undergrad, with very little innovation (I more or less copied the approach I’d seen other ministries take.) When I graduated, two of the most fiercely loving people I’ve ever met took over organizing it, and innovated like crazy: among other things, they found ways to secure donations of winter clothing (much needed, and too expensive for us to buy new!), and applied for an MIT grant to fund the entire operation (so they could afford way more and better supplies than we could out of our own pockets!). The people they served benefited not just from their generosity, but from the creative thinking they applied to run the ministry better.
Church isn’t always a welcoming place for people without housing, particularly people with raw trauma or untreated mental illness who might not fit with your idea of “church etiquette”. One church that’s arisen to fill this gap is Boston’s Outdoor Church, made up primarily of unhoused people and their friends, which meets outside and provides a safe place for people to meet God together as they are before sharing in coffee, donuts, sandwiches, and other amenities.
What do these stories have in common? Everyone involved is just some person who saw something that wasn’t working and decided to make it better. As much as I admire the people on this list (and I do, a lot!), I don’t think their work required any sort of impossible level of holiness — more than anything, it required a willingness to listen to what people needed and then to put in the work to actually try things. Some of these ideas didn’t work at first. Some had to be iterated a few times to become useful. But the people who carried them out served God with all their faculties — including their creativity and innovation and dedication to get things right — and the world is a kinder, holier, and more loving place as a result.
In future posts I want to delve into the details: what’s stopping people from innovating, and some ways to make sure your church innovation helps rather than harms people.
But for now I think it’s worth celebrating what is, and dreaming of what could be.
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Or you have bad luck and have been assigned to teach a 7 am lecture!
In this case, you could look at more liturgical traditions whose services revolve around the celebration of communion rather than the sermon. Or you could look at traditions where the “teaching “ part of church is more like a conversation among peers than a lesson from a leader, like the Quakers or various liberation theology or house church movements. There are lots of historical examples to shape your imagination, but you need to figure out what would be good for the specific group of people in your life!
All of these involving personal friends are anonymous partly because this blog sometimes receives vitriol and I don’t want to drag anyone into that, and partly because I am not confident that I have remembered all the details correctly and that seems more okay in a generalized anecdote than if I say “Colin Aitken did X.” If you recognize yourself in an example and would prefer that I use your name, or that I remove the story, please reach out and I will!