Part 1: Leadership to Foster Innovative Church Cultures

As Christ-followers, we dream of being part of a Gospel movement that not only transforms people’s lives but the world around us. And yet, the world over, ministries are shrinking, and church attendance is declining. From the inside looking out, it appears that there are more time-consuming, inferior activities than ever creating overloaded schedules and leaving us increasingly frustrated with the demands of contemporary culture.

The reality is that around the globe, people are leaving churches and Christianity as they know it citing irrelevance, a disconnect between head and heart, and unrelatable church cultures as their primary reasons. In this four part series, we’ll be looking into how church leaders can help their Gospel communities better respond to this global trend.

Society and the cultures around us are continuously shifting with the advancements in globalization and technology. The present cultural changes have left masses of people feeling a complete disconnect between local churches, and Christianity, and their lives. It’s not that people are necessarily busier than ever before. Calendars continue to reflect priorities just as they always have.

In order to help people regain a sense of connection between themselves and Jesus, one of two things must change: the people or our churches. In Jesus’ ministry, He met people as they were where they were. Today’s churches must do the same.

In order for local churches to continue spreading the Gospel, they must follow in Jesus’ footsteps and eliminate barriers to the Gospel through innovative means. As the culture managers of churches, church leaders must foster church environments in which creativity and innovation are the norm, or risk continuing to close their doors permanently.

With over 20 years of church leadership experience, I know what it’s like to feel like I’m competing with contemporary culture. However, having spent time living, studying, and serving in 25 countries on 6 continents, I've also discovered how to engage contemporary culture and implement new ways of doing things in order to meet people as they are where they are with the timeless relevance of the Gospel.

The Gospel message of Jesus Christ is as relevant today as ever, yet worldwide people are leaving local churches in throngs. Minneapolis Star Tribune Journalist Jean Hopfensperger reported in 2018 that the number of adults in the U.S. alone who identify as ‘none,’ when it comes to religion, totals “more than the membership of all mainline Protestants combined,” at 56 million people.

According to a 2018 Pew Research report, religious observance of those under 40 is shrinking globally.  In the last 10 years, “adults ages 18 to 39 are less likely than those ages 40 and older to say religion is very important to them” in 46 different countries.  According to Pew’s research, this widening gap is seen mostly in countries with predominantly Christian populations, wherein 22 countries the percentage gap of younger adults (18-39) who identify with a religious group was 10-28% less than the older generation (40 and older).

People are not leaving God though; they are leaving Christianity as they know it. Hopfensperger noted that those leaving churches and the Christian faith cited:

1.     A detachment between core Christian teachings and their daily life

2.     Irrelevant rituals

3.     A disconnect between their head and heart

4.     The inability to ask their deep questions, and

5.     Encountering “a foreign culture.”

However, of the 56 million ‘nones,’ only 3% of them consider themselves atheists.

Meeting people as they are where they are demands that our churches become innovative. So, what do I mean by “innovative?”

I like author and innovation historian Scott Berkun’s definition of innovation, which suggests that something genuinely innovative provides “significant positive change.” As in, it provides a significant positive change for the customer or the person on the receiving end. So in our case, the people leaving our churches or never having stepped foot in one to begin with.

Becoming an innovative church is not about going along with the latest new fad. It’s about providing a “significant positive change” in people’s lives through our Gospel communities. Even if an idea has been around for years and it just now provides a significant positive change for them, it’s innovative for them. The Gospel in and of itself is innovative for new believers.

Being an innovative church then involves recognizing that today’s cultural realities necessitate that the way things are done must change while maintaining the centrality of the Gospel.

Since people are leaving churches and the Christian faith citing:

  • a detachment between core Christian teachings and their daily life,

  • irrelevant rituals,

  • a disconnect between their head and heart,

  • the inability to ask their deep questions, and

  • encountering “a foreign culture”

these are all significant indicators of how and where Gospel communities can provide “significant positive changes” through their ministries.

Jesus’ life and ministry provide a prototype of innovation for church leaders. Though from heaven, Jesus so integrated Himself into the local culture in which He did His ministry that people critiqued Him for just being a regular guy from their neighborhood (Matthew 13:53-57).

In order to effectively serve (and lead) the people, God revealed the value of becoming just like those whom God sought to seek and save[1]. Jesus’ ministry was marked by His relatable stories using everyday examples, His use of the common language when speaking to the masses, and the places in which He spent His time and met with people.

Even a brief analysis comparing Jesus’ approach in ministry with His contemporary religious leaders, reveals Jesus’ ministry as innovative and counter-cultural. While His contemporaries made it nearly impossible for people to relate with God, Jesus eliminated all the barriers to the Gospel, and the same needs to be said of our churches today.

So what role do church leaders play in helping foster innovative church cultures? We’ll look into that more in the next part of this 4-part series on leadership to foster innovative church cultures.

[1] Matthew 9:10, Matthew 11:19, Matthew 13, Matthew 18, Matthew 20:1-3, Matthew 21, Matthew 22:1, Matthew 26:20, Mark 4, Luke 7:36, Luke 8, Luke 11:37, Luke 14:15, Luke 18, John 2:1-11, John 12:2, etc.