Radical innovation and borrowing

Third in a series of posts on innovation in liberal congregations.

If we implement an old idea in our congregation, is that innovation? For example, megachurches have been projecting the words of hymns on a screen behind the pulpit for decades, whereas my congregation has always read the words to hymns from a hymnal. If my congregation starts to project the words of hymns onto a screen behind the pulpit, is that innovation? Really all we’re doing is adopting an old idea for our own use, but to us it will feel like a big innovation.

So let’s distinguish between several different levels of innovation:

(a) The lowest level of innovation is when we borrow a practice or idea that is widespread in other congregations that are similar to ours. For example, if your congregation doesn’t have a Web site and then you create a Web site, that’s an innovation for your congregation, but it’s a low level innovation. There is very little risk involved; and you can find a great many models and examples to guide you in the process.

(b) The next level of innovation is when we borrow a practice or idea that is widespread, but only in congregations that are substantially different from ours. For example, if you wanted to start a Unitarian Universalist congregation that would grow out of a youth ministry, the way Willow Creek Community Church (average attendance 24,000) began in 1975, you could find other non-denominational Bible-based evangelical churches that started in this way, but you probably wouldn’t find any Unitarian Universalist congregations that started in this way (some Unitarian Universalist congregations began as Sunday schools, but I know of none that began as youth ministries). There is a moderate amount of risk in such an endeavor since you can’t be sure how well the model will work in a liberal religious setting; and the models and examples you find might not be entirely useful.

(c) The next level of innovation is when we borrow a practice or idea from outside of organized religion. When the first congregation decided to try the Carver model of Policy Governance (TM), they were adopting a governance model that worked in other sectors of the nonprofit world, but not in a congregation. There is a moderate amount of risk in such an endeavor, since you can’t be sure how well the model will translate from the secular world to the world of organized religion; and the models and examples you find might not be entirely useful.

(d) Finally, there is radical innovation — that moment when you try something which hasn’t been tried in other congregations, and which isn’t a direct translation from outside organized religion. These are high-risk ventures, because you’re heading into unknown territory.

Most of the innovation is the first type of innovation: we do not tend to be early adopters. After that, most of our innovation comes from the second type of innovation — borrowing ideas or practices from other congregations — or the third type — borrowing ideas or practices from outside organized religion, e.g., in the 1970s we borrowed group process techniques from the human potential movement, and in the late 1990s we borrowed the small group ministry idea from evangelical Christian churches. In short, most of our innovation consists of borrowing ideas and practices from others.

I can think of only a few examples of radical innovation within Unitarian Universalism. The Winchester Profession, the 1803 Universalist affirmation of faith that specifically allowed for liberty of belief, might well count as a radical innovation. Theodore Parker’s Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston was a radical innovation that resulted in the first ever megachurch (church with over 2,000 average attendance). I believe the fellowship movement of the 1940s and 1950s, that formed congregations in a completely new way — just gather ten or more people, meet once a week with or without a minister or building, and you’re a congregation — was probably a radical innovation. The creation of the About Your Sexuality curriculum in the late 1960s was a radical innovation that grew out of at least two decades of prior experimentation with faith-based sexuality education in local congregation. Of course, there are probably many other radical innovations within Unitarian Universalism that we don’t know about — because they failed, and vanished without a trace.

Our radical innovations may be few in number, but they remain hugely influential today. Our current “seven principles” are a direct descendant of the Winchester Profession. Nearly a third of today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations are direct descendants of congregations founded as part of the fellowship movement. Comprehensive sexuality education remains a centerpiece of our ministry to young people. And the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston arguably provided the pioneering example that led to today’s megachurches — which now serve as incubators of radical innovation in organized religion, and from which we borrow some of our best ideas (including small group ministries, contemporary music in worship, and projecting lyrics of hymns behind the pulpit).

There is nothing wrong with borrowing; it is far less risky than radical innovation. Borrowing lets us calculate the level of risk we will face. Has another Unitarian Universalist congregation like ours tried this idea successfully? Then this idea will be a low-rick innovation. Are we borrowing from a congregation unlike ours, or from the non-religious realm? Then we are going to face more risk. I would suggest that congregations that want to innovate would be well advised not to worry about radical innovation, and instead to think about how to borrow ideas and practices that have worked elsewhere.

And if you don’t want to innovate at all, why bother being a guinea pig? Let others make the mistakes; once something is proven to work, maybe then you’ll want to try it out, if it actually solves a problem that you’re having.

3 thoughts on “Radical innovation and borrowing”

  1. Hi Dan, Interesting thinking about innovation in churches. One other dimension is the degree to which the innovation is evolutionary or supportive of the current systems, structures and processes, vs. disruptive innovation that upsets the status quo and/or changes the power relations and the institutions themselves. For example, the selling of indulgences by the Catholic church during the Renaissance period is a non-disruptive innovation for raising money for the church and absolving sins. In contrast, Martin Luther and his insistence that everyone should read the Bible and all people could have a direct relationship with God is a disruptive innovation that changes the relationships between the church, the clergy and lay members.

  2. Joe, thanks for the important distinction between evolutionary innovation and disruptive innovation. I’m working on the next installment in this series, and this distinction is helping me refine my thinking.

  3. Dan, If you’re interested in learning more about the disruptive innovations framework and how it operates in business contexts, check out Clayton Christensen’s work – “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” One argument that Christensen makes is that most companies miss out on new waves of innovation because they care too much about satisfying their existing customers. According to Christensen, truly disruptive innovations, when introduced, usually do not serve the needs of established markets or mainstream customers all that well in terms of price, performance or other features. He argues that disruptive innovations start off serving customers and needs of only a few, but the the successful innovations create new market segments and grow so quickly that they eclipse older technologies or ways of doing things.

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