By Suzii Paynter
My duties take me into many conversations with leaders of other faiths. Below is a comment that I recently received:
“I have read your Bible. I was surprised to find it much more interesting than a book of laws and wisdom teachings like I was expecting. It was full of personal stories; people beginning something new, also stories of renewed-ness. It helped me understand for the first time the important place of resurrection in your faith.”
Have you thought of the Bible as stories of newness? Restarts? Innovation? The Harvard Business Review describes “innovation” as “the difficult discipline of newness.”
This is a good definition of what I hear in many conversations about ministry — whether in the local church or in larger bodies and denomi-networks like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Greg Dees, scholar of social entrepreneurship at Duke University, studies trends of innovation and social entrepreneurship, efforts that have a broad social impact. Dees pays particular attention to social entrepreneurs who he describes as “change agents” in the social sector by:
• Adopting a mission to create social value (not just private value)
• Relentlessly pursuing opportunities to serve that mission
• Embracing the practice of continuous innovation, adaptation and learning
• Taking bold actions and having heightened accountability to constituencies and for outcomes.
I would contend that these descriptions could be used for many of you in your congregational ministries, yet Dees says, “The church seems disinterested in either the topic or in practicing social entrepreneurship/social innovation as it is now described. The burgeoning literature about social entrepreneurship barely mentions the church. … Unless faith communities once again become integral to social entrepreneurship, the movement will run out of steam,” Dees says.
This practice of Christian social innovation is actually a practice to be re-claimed, according to Duke’s Kavin Rowe. A key reason for the spread of Christianity in the early centuries was what he calls “Christianity’s Surprise” — its socially innovative witness in caring for widows, orphans and the poor.
YES. We need a 21st century that is lighted with new “Chrisianity’s surprise(s).”There is a need for Christian social innovation to transform our communities and innovate with the same impact. We need to tune our communities of faith to this work.
Christian Social Innovation, as outlined by L. Greg Jones in his recent book Christian Social Innovation, emphasizes that the church begins innovation by “participating in… something actually started before us and not dependent on us but wholly dependent on God’s vision of peace, justice and harmony.” A vision that, frankly, is not all that comfortable for us — God’s vision is truly something bigger than ourselves, something riskier than ourselves and something born of God’s imagination, not ours.
We begin with God’s vision of:
- Isaiah 11:5-10 – “Lion and lamb” from the extraordinary imagination of God
- Revelation 21:1-5 – “A new heaven and a new earth” where God wipes away every tear, death will be no more. There will be no mourning, no crying, no pain – former things have passed away.
- Prophetic imagination of Amos 5:21,24 – “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me … But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
- Ephesians 3:18-21 – We have the power to grasp love’s width, depth length and height with all believers so that we will be filled with the fullness of God.
God continues to produce miracles reminding us that whatever vision and passion we bring to our hopes for transformation, God’s work already precedes us and will most certainly transcend our own ingenuity.
Where do you see a “Christianity surprise” changing things upside down? It is my guess that there you will also find Jones’ characteristics of Christian Social Innovation – a sense of blessing, true hope, a spirit of forgiveness, authentic and warm friendship, inspired imagination and evidence of fruitful improvisation.
My prayer is that CBF and churches across our Fellowship will follow God’s vision and offer more Christianity Surprises that intentionally transform existing systems. I thank God for the opportunity to be in partnership with you to travel into places of innovation and the difficult discipline of newness.
Suzii Paynter serves as Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.