Does the established nature of some churches hinder innovation? Is an established structure antithetical to quick, nimble changes? For most established churches, yes, but it does not mean established churches cannot innovate.
A church plant is an innovation. Innovation is the process of successfully establishing something new. To introduce something new—and to get it to work longer than a month—is innovation. Perhaps some luck into the right change at the right time. Perhaps some churches land on the right demographic with the right leadership. Not all innovations are intentional or well-planned. But an effective church plant should be noted as innovation.
As organizations become more established, they tend to be less prone to change. By its nature, an established organization has a system in place that pushes against change. To establish is to create firm stability. Churches need stability. For example, a discipleship process that is not rooted into the culture of the church (or established) is not likely to last long. And it’s only a matter of time before the innovative church plant begins to feel the pull of becoming established. Everything is new only once, after all.
While stability is necessary, every church should also innovate. Established churches, in particular, can take comfort in the establishment. Traditions and history can easily become a guise for complacency. Innovation can take a back seat to the entrenched processes that help create the stability. While most church planters will admit to having many of the same people problems as established churches, church plants do innovate more easily. They have no history pulling them in a certain direction. Everyone is new. The church is new. Each decision is new. In the early days of a church plant, everything feels like an innovation even if it’s not.
So what hurdles to innovation exist in the established church? Here are four examples.
Lack of intentionality. Generally, established churches have more resources than new churches. When resources are limited, churches must be more intentional about innovation. Failure—especially one that is expensive—can quickly derail a church with limited resources. When resources are plentiful, the temptation is to be less intentional. Established churches can generally absorb more failures. But a practice of spaghetti-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks is not true innovation. It’s haphazard chaos. Give it a month and see how many people get annoyed.
Lack of originality. Build on your foundation, but don’t slap a new logo on an existing program and call it innovation. Innovation is introducing something new, not introducing something with the façade of newness.
The wrong metrics. What gets measured gets done, and what you measure is typically an indicator of what you value. A mature church will measure different things than a new church. Most church plants are not attempting to track down meeting minutes from a dozen committees for next week’s business meeting. And established churches don’t have to worry about the retention ratio of people from a launch service. However, an overemphasis on the metrics sustaining the establishment will inevitably deemphasize innovation and dissuade team members from attempting innovation.
The ease of appeasement. In an established church some leaders prefer the ease of appeasing members rather than innovating to reach new people. Obviously, a long-term member may not desire to be appeased, but rather challenged. However, most churches have a segment of people who would rather rest in the stability of the establishment. It’s not necessarily a sin issue, and leaders should care about all members whatever their spiritual maturity. Appeasing existing members, however, is much easier than challenging a church to innovate and reach new people.
Even in a healthy established church, one ready to reach outward, innovation is a challenge. The typical established church has several groups of people who joined during different seasons of the church for different reasons. Even when people agree to reach outward, getting them to agree on timing, direction, budgeting, and pace is a challenge. It’s easier to appease. But appeasement is never innovation.
Though established churches are not new, they can still introduce new things. They can innovate. Hurdles exist. These hurdles, however, are surmountable.
Sam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research rainerresearch.com, a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also is the senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks, and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at @samrainer or at his blog, samrainer.wordpress.com.