The Importance of Innovation – Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog


Innovation is one of the least talked about issues within churches. We talk about the importance of evaluating current approaches in light of continued effectiveness and the strategy to adopt in adopting new methods, but these topics are different from innovation. What most churches talk about is whether to embrace something other churches are doing. They don’t discuss creating something new on their own. But evaluating current approaches against other “existing” models or methods is only half of what is needed. The other half is your own raw innovation.

Jim Collins, one of the best organizational leadership thinkers I know, suggests that there are at least six basic elements of what it means to be an innovative organization:

  1. Receptivity to ideas from everywhere
  2. “Be” the customer
  3. Experimentation and errors
  4. people are creative
  5. Autonomy and decentralization
  6. Awards

Here’s a primer on what he means by each:

First, “responsiveness to ideas from everywhere” is really about fostering a culture of learning. It’s reading books, listening to podcasts, attending seminars, and reading blogs.

“Being the customer” is about doing all you can to experience the world – and more specifically, people’s interaction with you – as they do. For churches, it’s about trying to get so close to the people you’re trying to reach that you’re experiencing what they’re experiencing.

“Experiment and error” involves the willingness to take risks, try new things, and not worry too much if the majority fails. Collins notes how Thomas Edison went through over 9,000 iterations before successfully inventing the light bulb. When one of his associates asked him, “Why do you persist in this madness? You have failed over 9,000 times. Edison replied, “I haven’t even failed once; 9,000 times I’ve learned what doesn’t work.

The idea behind “people being creative” is nothing more than helping people develop their creative abilities. It can be as simple as providing books on creativity, such as A blow to the side of the head by Richard Van Oech or Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, who was president of Pixar and Disney Animation. Anything that will inspire people to challenge conventional wisdom.

For example, from Catmull, we learn several key organizational principles that foster creativity and are particularly suited to the church, such as:

  • If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Don’t overlook ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can and does come from anywhere.
  • It is not enough simply to be open to the ideas of others. Engaging the collective intelligence of the people you work with is an active and ongoing process. As a manager, you need to coax ideas from your staff and constantly push them to contribute.
  • When it comes to shutting down alternate viewpoints, nothing is as effective as being convinced that you are right.
  • Failure is not a necessary evil. In fact, it’s not bad at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.
  • A company’s communication structure should not reflect its organizational structure. Everyone should be able to talk to anyone.
  • Beware of making too many rules. Rules can make life easier for managers, but they can be humiliating for the 95% who behave well. Don’t create rules to control the remaining 5%, deal with abuses of common sense individually. It’s more work but ultimately healthier.
  • Tackling exceptionally difficult problems forces us to think differently.

“Autonomy and decentralization” are key to innovation, and I have written in previous books about the importance of rethinking traditional church structures, especially in Rethinking the Church and What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminar. The decision-making and management structure of a church will determine whether innovation is stifled or unleashed. As I wrote in What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminar,

“I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating it is to lead a seminar or conference, lay out a simple decision or action that would radically improve the health or effectiveness of a church, and then do it. meet by a chorus of leaders saying, ‘We can’t do that.’ And nine times out of 10, it’s not because they don’t have the money, or the volunteers, or the facilities, or even the desire, it’s because they don’t have the freedom.”

The final element of innovation, “rewards,” may be more difficult for some to translate into a church environment, but the essence of the idea is actually highly transferable. It is enough to make it legal that the time is spent not only on the management of things, but also on their development. And yes, create incentives for that. And for many church staff around the world, the freedom to devote time to new endeavors would itself be the reward.

All this to say that the next time you feel the need for something new, before you turn to other churches, maybe look to yours,

…and become the innovation leader.

James Emery White


Jim Collins and Bill Lazier, BE 2.0: Transforming your business into a great sustainable business.

Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Get in the Way of True Inspiration.

James Emery White, Rethinking the Church.

James Emery White, What they didn’t teach you in Seminar.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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