By Jim Merhaut
Vibrant Faith Coach
The practices we follow as Christian people have a profound shaping influence on our life—the ways we gather, pray, worship, care, and serve have the power to form our identity. But over time, as we all know, our habitual practices can devolve into stale routines. That’s why Vibrant Faith’s Thriving Congregations project is focused on helping churches innovate the standard “ways and means” of faith formation.
But along the way we’ve discovered that making innovation the goal may be sabotaging real change. That’s why we’re shifting our focus to “reinvention.” When we work to reinvent rather than innovate we remove a major impediment to growth—the stifling fear that comes with creating something completely new. In his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations, author Everett Rogers argues that only 2.5 percent of the people in any given population are true innovators. That means almost all of us will never truly create something that no one else has thought of before.
But reinvention is possible for everyone. When we reinvent we take something of value and make it better. For example, you might experience the nudge of reinvention when you’re standing in a long, slow-moving line at the airport or amusement park or rental-car counter. “This line would move faster,” you say to yourself, “if only…” When you were little you experienced the joy of reinvention when you made the transition from a crawling baby to a walking toddler. The capacity for change through reinvention is wired into us—we are all built for it, because all living things grow. That’s how God has hard-wired us. Unfortunately, as we get older, our relationship with change takes a beating, and we more and more settle for the safety of our ruts.
In her recent book, The Chief Reinvention Officer Handbook: How to Thrive in Chaos, Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva offers a five-part definition of reinvention… It’s:
- A practice of embracing change by re-imaging and re-making something so that it manifests new and improved attributes, qualities, and results.
- A systematic approach to thriving in chaos that includes ongoing anticipation, design, and implementation of change via continuous sense-making, anticipatory and emergent learning, and synthesis of cross-boundary, cross-disciplinary, and cross-functional knowledge.
- A way to foster sustainability of a system by dynamically harmonizing continuity and change.
- An immune system designed to ensure systematic health for individuals and organizations.
- A structured and deliberate effort to engage in healthy cycles of planned renewal, building on the past to ensure current and future viability.
Yes, there’s a lot packed into this extended definition—that’s why it’s important to slow down and consider what sticks out in this very rich and dense description. Once we’ve chewed on Zhexembayeva’s careful definitions, we’re ready to consider how a reinvention process could drive real change in the way we approach Christian practices in our congregations…
Preparing to Reinvent Christian Practices
Before we can reinvent we must recognize the distinction between core values and activities or products. A core value is the most important “why” that drives a person’s commitment to anything or anyone. I commit to this thing, organization, person, or group because of ________. Whatever you put in the blank is a core value for you.
A core value is something that can remain important to an organization or individual for years, decades, centuries, and even millennia. Activities and practices, on the other hand, are the transient ways that we express our core values. Organizing and storing knowledge is a core human value. Filing cabinets, libraries, and computers are all transient tools that help us express the value of organizing and storing knowledge. We commit to using these tools because they help us exercise our core value of organizing and storing knowledge.
Understanding and embracing a core value that is expressed in a Christian practice is not easy. Let’s use the Christian practice of providing food for those who suffer in poverty as an example. What core value underlies this practice? Here are possibilities…
- Helping others
- Loving others
- Seeing the face of Christ
- Eliminating poverty
- Building friendships
- Encountering the vulnerability of God
- Doing justice
- Practicing reconciliation
So, what is the core value that fuels the practice? It’s not immediately clear, and needs to be discerned before the community begins to reinvent the practice. Otherwise, the reinvention itself will be disjointed and won’t make shared-sense to everyone involved in the change process.
Let’s say your congregation’s current practice is organizing regular non-perishable food drives. The food that’s collected is then dropped off at a food pantry where families in need can get free or low-cost groceries. This practice means there is no personal contact between the donors and the recipients. If helping others is the core value, reinventing the practice will likely need only a small tweak; but if encountering the vulnerability of God is the core value, then the practice will need a major overhaul that includes relationship-building between the food donors and the food recipients. Getting clarity about what the value is will have a significant impact on any reinvention efforts.
The Values of Those Who Practice
It’s not enough to simply focus on the values underlying the reinvention process—we must also consider the values of those who engage in the Christian practice. If the values of those who practice are aligned with the inherent congregational values of the practice itself, then there will be a high level of commitment to the practice. If those who are invited to practice cannot figure out how to connect their own personal values to the inherent congregational values of the practice, commitment will be low. People will commit only to practices that are connected to what they deeply value.
If I do not value, or aspire to value, encountering the presence of God in those who suffer poverty, then a practice built around that value will mean little to me. This dynamic and complex relationship between personal values and congregational values drives the success and failure of how churches get people to commit to what they offer. It’s not enough to offer something that the congregational leaders value. What is offered will fall flat if there is not sufficient time spent listening to the values of the people, assisting the people with values clarification, and then designing practices that express congregational values in alignment with the values of the people who are invited to the practice.
Think about two of your church’s regular practices. Do they still express the core values that matter to your? And in what ways do they align with the core values of the people in your congregation?
Leadership teams can be confident that their efforts to reinvent Christian practices will be meaningful and productive if they can do the challenging work of discerning core values both in the practice itself as well as in the people who are invited to engage in the practice. Finding a harmonious sweet-spot between participant values and congregational values is a key to driving commitment and reinventing meaningful and life-changing Christian practices.
Jim Merhaut is a Vibrant Faith ICF-Certified Coach and owner of Coaching To Connect. He holds a Reinvention Practitioner Certification and a Master of Science degree in Religious Education from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He’s an author/co-author of nine books, an avid gardener, and a professional musician with singer-songwriter JD Eicher.