The Common Good

For Innovation to Have a Prayer, It Needs to Start with Brokenness

“Innovation” is a warm and fuzzy word — until you dig inside it.

Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich/RNS

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It’s like “community,” a warm and fuzzy term when taken to mean friendships, sharing, common interests, common values, perhaps working together.

But from a gospel perspective, “community” means much more. As Jesus modeled community, it means mercy — turning away from our instinct to judge and to punish. It means compassion — giving to the least, even when our instinct is to disdain.

Gospel community means dying to self, living for the other. It means holding all things in common, including wealth. It means living apart from the world, not in splendid isolation, not in a closed circle or tribe, but radically open and inclusive.

When faith groups get an inkling of what Christian community truly means, they pull away. For this community is so radical, so self-sacrificial, so counterintuitive, so unworldly they cannot bear to do it. Instead, they create a worldly community to which they assign a Christian name.

That brings me to “innovation.”

I had occasion to serve on a 25-person team giving advice to San Francisco Theological Seminary on its new Center for Innovation last week. The vision is still forming, but what I saw was inspiring.

As we spent the day in deep conversation, however, I realized that the word “innovation” will be a problem. Not because it’s a flawed term — though it has been overused of late — but because “innovation,” like “community,” takes us into deep and disturbing territory.

“Innovation” immediately says something needs to be made new (nova). Something old has died, is dying, or has lost its way. In the fullness of Christian faith, that something needs to be buried, or to be reborn, made new, given new sight, new words, new hope, new people.

The gospel is all about such newness, and our God is proclaimed as a “God of new beginnings,” as the song says.

Such newness, however, is anathema to most Christian congregations. People fight change, they refuse to admit error, they assign repentance to the other guy.

People want to go from high to high, from promise to promise, without experiencing the lows, without examining broken promises, without uttering words like “I’m sorry” or “Yes, we failed.”

Innovation only makes sense when we recognize the broken, see the failure and our part in it. Innovation implies we have done what we can, and it wasn’t enough. Now we need to trust new people, new creation, indeed God. To be part of the ongoing faith community, we need to become new ourselves.

If innovation has a prayer, it would be the Serenity Prayer, which asks serenity to accept what cannot change, courage to change what can be changed, and “wisdom to know the difference.” Its starting point is brokenness.

This is a tough sell. How do you reach out to dying denominations, dying congregations, frustrated and broken clergy, anxious lay leaders, and tell them the promise of innovation, namely, that God is making all things new, but first they must accept their need for newness?

I don’t think San Francisco Theological Seminary should drop the word “innovation.” But they should convey the fullness of what it means, and they should seek out the lost and broken to be their constituents.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrichVia RNS.

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