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What does innovation really mean? That's the topic of my latest letter to University Baptist Church of Austin, Texas.


Photo by Daniel Pryfogle

Dear Church:

There is a lot of talk in our city and country about innovation. We hear the enthusiastic claims for the next big thing that’s a game-changer: the product, service or idea that will disrupt the status quo, altering perceptions, shifting behaviors, leading us to a place we could not imagine. I’m not hyped by the hyperbole, partly because I’m kind of old-school — I like paper, for example, and Chuck Taylor’s — but mostly because I think the overstated claims miss the actual meaning of innovation. 

The American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr said, “The great Christian revolutions came not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when someone takes radically something that was always there.” Niebuhr’s words help me think of innovation as taking seriously that which is already present. Innovation begins with a high regard for people, gifts and other resources already here. 

An appreciative stance — the posture we are taking toward our life together during this time of discernment— will lead to genuine innovation. It will not be a departure from what is most true and most life-giving about this congregation but an amplification, a magnification: the fullness of our calling as a church for the world. 

As we adopt an appreciative stance, our vision does change. We come to see possibilities where before we saw only problems. We notice that our neighbors who struggle mightily with daily survival are not bereft of gifts. We see the resilience of victims. We recognize the strengths in those our culture regards as weak, fragile, “losers.” We marvel at the power of a small group that gathers on a city corner. 

Baptized by this vision, we come to understand that leadership is not about producing change — getting people to move, making people behave differently, making people do things they’d rather not do. Instead, leadership is to call forth the gifts of people. Leadership is the high regard for the oak in the acorn, or the adult in the child and the elder in the adult, or the community in the group. It is the provocation for potential by way of the evocation of what’s already present. 

Now we are ready to truly innovate. We can imagine the future because there is something familiar about it, and something hopeful, because it is the flourishing of who we are — who we have been and who we are called to be.

This is my enthusiastic claim. I believe it though I forget it. Seeing again what’s already present — seeing again what’s present in you, church — brings me back to the conviction that is the foundation of hope for the future. I can stand here. I can move here. I am reminded that this is the change I want to be part of in Austin, in this country, to the uttermost ends of the earth.