Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Mission, Structure, and Innovation

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

In a previous post, I compared the historical arc of (primarily white) American Methodism over the past century with the story of the tower of Babel. American Methodists sought to build impressive towers, both literally in terms of church buildings and metaphorically in terms of organizational systems. Our languages, however, have become confused from one another so that we have been unable to keep building our organizational towers.

Yet even if we were able to continue to build our organizational towers, there would still be dangers. Organizations tend toward standardization and bureaucratization, which leads to rigidity. But rigidity leads to fragility, both in physical buildings and in organizational systems. Physical buildings that do not have give can be toppled by strong winds or earthquakes. Organizations that do not have give exclude innovation and thus can be toppled by the daily (strong winds) or cataclysmic (earthquakes) changes of our world.

Innovation is necessary for the long-term success of organizations. Without innovation, organizations become maladapted to a changing world. But organizational systematization is both a human need and a powerful temptation that can lead groups to exclude innovation.

In Christianity, mission is often the innovation of the church. This is especially true of evangelism, which starts new church congregations and brings in new Christians. This type of innovation provides Christianity a basic necessary organizational resource for its continuation – adherents. Yet other forms of mission can also be a form of innovation. Mission of compassion and social justice mission both witness to God’s reign by meeting the pressing, current pains of the world and thus keeping the church connected to a changing world.

If we care about mission, then we should ask: How can we foster innovation as United Methodists?

There are many skills, beliefs, knowledge sets, and behaviors required for successful evangelism/mission/innovation. One answer to the question of how we foster innovation could thus look at how to impart these skills, beliefs, knowledge sets, and behaviors to United Methodists.

But I think it is important to recognize that innovation is already happening all the time in the church, whether that’s through Fresh Expressions, mission in new countries started by African annual conferences, dinner churches, creation care ministries, migrant ministries in Germany, etc. I think people are naturally creative and innovative, and some level of innovation happens no matter what.

Thus, another approach to the question of how to foster innovation in United Methodism is to ask how we can recognize and structurally support the innovations that are already happening. How can we empower and legitimize those who are already innovating?

Of course, there’s a larger question of whether The United Methodist Church actually wants innovation. The book Immunity to Change suggests that people don’t change dysfunctional systems because those systems are actually working for them, they are providing the people involved with something important, even if there are negative consequences associated with it. We may not actually want innovation and change in the UMC if we see it as jeopardizing deeply held beliefs, values, habits. Even if a lack of innovation slowly kills us, we may be willing to accept that death if it means we don’t have to live without our cherished traditions and existing structures.

We’re going to assume, though, that the UMC, or at least those interested in mission in the UMC, are open to change, are willing to risk some of what they currently get from the church for the sake of something new. Thus, my next two blog posts will look at the question of how organizational forms can succeed in fostering innovation.

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