Monday, December 29, 2008

Innovation and Reformation - Together At Last

Among people who see a need and want to lead change, there is a philosophical distinction between two approaches. The first, which I’ll call innovation, wants to create new stuff. The second, which I’ll call reformation, wants to do existing stuff differently. These two approaches certainly do not exhaust the options, but for the most part change agents are either innovators or reformers.

In her amazing book, “The Great Emergence,” Phyllis Tickle writes that “the tension toward changing things externally into new forms, as opposed to reworking them internally into what should be, has been a major characteristic of each of our previous hinge times and will continue to be part of our present one” (p. 58). Tickle notes for example that after Martin Luther was pushing outward with the new “Protestant” vision for the church, the Catholic Reformation followed with renewal from within. The result was a “genuine, sincere, and in many ways beneficent” reform.

There is no need to choose either innovation or reform. There is nothing inherently wrong with brand new things, just as there is nothing inherently good about them. Similarly, there is nothing inherently wrong with tradition, just as there is nothing inherently good about it. And both tasks are difficult. It is just as hard to create something from scratch as it is to breathe new life into something ancient. Both approaches are perfectly reasonable, effective ways to lead change.

But too often, innovators and reformers compete with one another instead of cooperating. Some of this competition gets nasty, even. Innovators do not think reformers truly desire change. Reformers see innovators as throwing out the baby with the bath water. It becomes difficult for an innovator and a reformer to even talk together about change sometimes.

“Can you not see how beautiful this tradition is, if we could only do it better?” says the reformer.

“Oh, you’re just saying ‘We’ve always done it this way’ and that kind of thinking never leads us anywhere!” says the innovator.

It degenerates from there quite quickly.

"You have no respect for tradition!" says reformer.

"You old fuddy-duddy!" says innovator.

I am more of a reformer than an innovator, in that I love the ancient forms of the Christian faith and want to breathe new life into them. I loathe stagnancy, and lament when the beautiful liturgy of the church becomes rote and mechanical. And so I want to change things by reforming that which we already have so that it lives again. So I will take an ancient hymn and compose a new tune for it, for example.

And at the same time I do not begrudge innovators who are creating brand new things in the meantime. There is room for both approaches. "I love the unknown, baby!" (as my friend John Schmalzbauer said at a recent Christmas party). Brand new experiences stretch us, make us think, compel us to respond. We grow and learn via new ideas, insights, and encounters.

One of the coolest things trending in churches right now is a reclamation of ancient expressions and practices of faith. An the thing is, people have "grown up on" contemporary church with all of its innovation and new emphases, so now the ancient things seem new and innovative! What an irony, huh? We do a sung liturgy for communion for example, an ancient practice, and people think it is the latest, greatest innovation!

The nutshell is, I believe that the church needs to change in order to stay faithful to God's mission, and I think that change needs to be both innovation and reform. "Because we've never done it that way before" is not a good motivation whether you are in favor of change or opposed!


Larry B said...

First off, I pretty much agree with your thoughts at the end. However, when you say

" There is nothing inherently wrong with brand new things, just as there is nothing inherently good about them. Similarly, there is nothing inherently wrong with tradition, just as there is nothing inherently good about it"

You would also need to assume the same about cooperation between the two. i.e. there is nothing inherently good about cooperating reform and innovation and there is nothing inherently wrong with cooperating reform and innovation.

Which leads me to a point that I think you made in an earlier post. The success of change can really only be evaluated after the change. Anything ahead of time is mostly educated guessing. What seems important to me for successful change is being willing to evaluate change and be willing to return to the prior practice or ready to try another change if it didn't work.

Andy B. said...

Good point, Larry B.

Sally said...

Great points! I, too am more of a reformer than a true innovator but I'll take both.
Ever read the book "Who Stole My Church"? Looks at the issue of "change" within church settings from different angles. Really excellent place to start a conversation.

John Schmalzbauer said...

Even though I love the unknown, I also love ancient (and not so ancient) liturgies, hymns, prayers, and books. Growing up in low church evangelicalism, I guess that was the unknown for me. It was better than unwrapping three piggy banks at that Christmas party you mentioned.