Josh Laxton on Helping Churches Think Through Innovation and Technology in Today’s Context

Image: Photo by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash

Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The words “church” and “innovation” have been lumped together for quite some time. In fact, Ed Stetzer co-authored a book called 11 Innovations in the Local Church over ten years ago. So it’s not new. However, with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, many have reminded church leaders how they need to be innovating.

I’m sure that when pastors and church leaders hear the word “church” and “innovation”, they probably resort to one of the following four positions:

  • Apprehensive—because they don’t know how to innovate
  • Indignant—because they don’t think the church needs to be innovative
  • Ecstatic—because they’ve been waiting on an opportunity to innovate
  • Stubborn—because they don’t believe they need to innovate

When church experts or leading church practitioners encourage churches to innovate, I’m assuming they are telling them to do something new compared to what they’ve been doing. For instance, when churches had to pivot from in-person gatherings to streaming online services, many saw that as innovation. I figure you could call that innovation since Joseph Schumpeter, a seminal thinker on innovation and economics in the early 20thcentury, characterized innovation as:

  • Introduction to a new good
  • Introduction to a new method of production
  • The opening of a new market
  • Access to new sources of raw materials or components
  • The introduction of new forms of organization

Schumpeter’s characteristics give us a broad description to at least understand innovation and define it as “the development of something new.”

However, let me be clear: just because a church “innovates” doesn’t make them innovators. Below is a chart that displays the “Life Cycle” of innovation.

In looking at these stages, many churches would be considered “Late Majority” or “Laggards.” For instances, streaming church services online or conducting some kind of ministry on a digital platform may have been “new” to some churches, but it wasn’t new. Such innovation (and technology) has been in existence for quite some time.

Nevertheless, I believe the church should be actively involved in innovation as it relates to ministry and mission, given we are strong advocates of contextualization. Ed Stetzer has defined contextualization: “Therefore, as culture changes, our means and methods to engage that culture—in that particular time and place—with the Gospel would change as well. But contextualization could also be broadened to include how churches engage the saints for their edification and discipleship.”

Having laid that brief groundwork, I want to help pastors, church leaders, and church members think biblically about the role of innovation, and then conclude with some sound theological questions church leaders should be asking during this heightened time when churches are being told to innovate.

Where Innovation Fits Within the Biblical Narrative

Having planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, I understand how hard this will be for churches. Churches are notorious for not wanting to change and constantly evolve to be a more effective and missional church.

I also believe that the church isn’t detached (even in a corporate manner) from participating in the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28). According to God’s command in Genesis, not only were human beings to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth,” they were to “subdue” the earth they occupied.

In other words, in astonishing fashion, God commands humanity to take the raw materials (of God’s good creation) and enhance them.

The development of the raw materials includes both innovation and technology. Innovations are the new ideas, goods, markets, methodologies, structures, etc., that lead to the development of new technologies (tools) that make the innovations possible.

Both innovations and technologies—yielding from the raw materials—would bring about the enhancement of God’s “good” creation and thus the total flourishing (shalom) of the world. As a result, mankind would end up cultivating a culture rooted in [imaging] God’s glory for the good of creation. In short, this is part of what it means to be human.

But the biblical narrative quickly notes the fall of Adam and Eve. To be clear, the fall (or sin) of mankind didn’t destroy (or disband) the creation mandate given to humans but distorted it. In other words, rather than cultivating for the glory of God and the good of others, mankind would pridefully cultivate—innovating and creating technologies—for their own glory and renown (see Gen. 11).

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Source: Christianity Today