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Diversity and the Seeds of Innovation
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(originally published May 2017) I've just returned from New Church Leadership "New Pathways" training in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. If that language means nothing to you, suffice it to say that I spent the week with church planters and those setting out to do new ministry in new ways (including this project and these fine teammates). As part of this training, we spent time learning the principles of "design thinking" from the talented team at We Are Curio.
Church planting and revitalization is innovative work; that is, one must innovate in order to be successful. The challenge for the church is that "innovation" is not a word we have traditionally held in high esteem. Martin Luther was excommunicated. John Wesley was frequently chased from town. Jesus was summarily executed. Innovation is not always welcomed in our two thousand year old institution.
What is more, in recent denominational conversation and fretting about the state of the United Methodist Church, there is a prevailing sentiment that our great diversity--currently stretching us to the edge of elasticity--is preventing us from innovating. If we could just rid ourselves of those narrow-minded conservatives or those apostate liberals, we would be free to be faithful to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, which just so happens to look an awful lot like whatever I happen to believe. Our churches could grow, our ministries could flourish, and our churches could find new ways to reach out to new people, if only ________ stopped holding us back.
In other words, I keep hearing, our present tension prevents innovation.
Contrast this conventional wisdom with a remark from Jason Demeo, CEO of We Are Curio, on the first day of New Pathways training. While Demeo has served as a pastor in another denomination, he joked that he may secretly be a Methodist because of the ways he values diversity. "I love the United Methodist Church," he said, "because of its great theological diversity. Within that diversity are the seeds of innovation."
A core principle of design thinking is that there is great wisdom in diversity, provided that diversity is allowed to speak, experiment, fail, and try again. As we discussed, one of the core principles of the (wildly successful) design team at Apple is to "ignore all the reasons something shouldn't be possible." This kind of bold, innovating thinking requires dissent, diverging opinions, openness to new ways of doing. You do not come up with the iPhone--and a consistently improving series of successive iterations--in a room full of people who either think the same way or are afraid to do things in a new ways. Remember Apple's famous slogan: "Think Different."
The key to nurturing those seeds of innovation--already present in the United Methodist Church--is not to crack down on diversity, nor to bifurcate the denomination, nor to say, as Henry II said of Thomas Becket, "will no one rid me of [these] troublesome priest[s]?"
The key to nurturing the seeds of innovation in the United Methodist Church is to find ways to unlock that diversity, allow it to speak, experiment, fail, and try again. To be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we ought not be cracking down on theological diversity. We ought to be celebrating it, as we celebrate the savior whose very body is expressed most completely in diversity.
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