by Dr. Scott Cormode
Someday this pandemic will cease. Someday we will emerge from our sheltering in place. Someday our youth groups will meet again. What then? What do we do? At the ECLA Extravaganza in February, Scott Cormode spoke about what comes next. He offered insights on how to innovative in the face of change. This article, taken from his book “The Innovative Church” (Baker Academic, 2020), shows how we will have to change our understanding of Christian leadership if we are going to respond with agility to the world that COVID-19 created.
The church as we know it is calibrated to a world that no longer exists. Erica knows this all too well. In 2018, she brought her youth ministry team from Florida to Fuller Theological Seminary for an “innovation summit.” Erica came to the summit bearing a burden: Her young people needed help, she said, in navigating their way toward hope and joy in a world of suffering. But the old ways of doing church did not want to acknowledge her students’ pain. The old ways of leading a youth group involved distracting young people and promising a world free from pain; they did not focus on seeking a God who meets us in our pain. As Erica listened to her middle schoolers (and their parents), she could see that young people today are far more anxious, busy and stressed than they were in the past, but the expectations of church life were no different. The old ways of being church are not calibrated to speak to the circumstances that Erica’s young people encounter each day.
The world has changed, but the church has not. Even before the pandemic, the internet transformed how people get information, and social media changed the meaning of community. The basic assumptions about time, money and community—and about membership, Bible study and ecclesiology—have all changed. But congregations act the way that they did before the world changed; and congregants often wish that the world would just go back to the way it once was. The pandemic has only made it clear how much the world has changed.
A changed world demands innovation, and a changed religious world requires innovative congregations. But there is a problem. Most of the literature on innovation assumes that the best innovations will tear down the structures of the past and replace them with something better in just the way that the iPhone camera destroyed Kodak and Amazon replaced the bookstore chain Borders. “Cut the ties to the past,” some say. “Burn the boats.” But we Christians cannot do this. We are inextricably—and happily—bound to the past. We will never stop reading Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. We will never stop loving our neighbors as ourselves, and we will never stop saying, “Jesus is Lord.” We cannot abandon the past.
Thus, the question of congregational innovation comes into focus. How do we Christians innovate when our credibility depends on continuity with the past and honoring tradition? To put it another way, “How do we maintain a rock-solid commitment to the unchanging Christian faith, while at the same time finding innovative ways to express that faith in an ever-changing culture?”
That takes us back to the image of recalibrating. But how do we recalibrate? We recalibrate according to a standard. If I want to reset my watch, I look up the time from a standard I trust (usually my cell phone). If I sing, I follow the beat of the musicians. If I plant crops, I wait for the proper season to harvest them. But Christian recalibrating is particularly tricky because we need to account for both the ever-changing culture and the never-changing gospel. We can do that using the dual standard of people and practices—that is, according to the longings and losses of the ever-changing people entrusted to our care and according to the practices that constitute the never-changing gospel. To do that, we must recalibrate our understanding of Christian leadership.
One short verse of the Bible summarizes Christian leadership. At the fractured founding of the church in Corinth, “[Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6 KJV). In Christian leadership, God’s action is the decisive work. Paul and Apollos tended the Corinthian crops, but God made them grow. The Christian leaders did indeed have work to do, but it only mattered because of what God chose to do. The distinction is important because the work of Christian leadership is planting and watering.
We Christians spend our days and nights like farmers; we are tending the people whom God has entrusted to our care. But we cannot make the people grow. We do not operate an assembly line; there is no guaranteed outcome. We nurture our people by creating an environment conducive to growth, then we hand our people over to God. Only God can give the increase. If we are to innovate our way into the world that just now exists, we will need to think like farmers.
My grandfather was what the Bible calls a steward. He farmed 140 acres of citrus trees for a landowner who lived far away. The Hollow Hill Farm was entrusted to his care. He devoted himself to his trees, and he wanted them to bear fruit. But every season, he knew that it was God who gave the increase. So, if God did the decisive work, what did my grandfather do? He managed the environment that nurtured the orchard. Like Paul and Apollos, he spent his days planting and watering. While he could not guarantee a harvest, he could control the water, the soil and the temperature that encouraged growth.
A farmer will go to great lengths to maintain that environment. For example, there were winter nights when my grandfather stayed up all night trying to deal with the cold. In the Southern California valley where he labored, the temperature occasionally dipped below freezing and threatened to kill the trees entrusted to his care. On those nights, he set up between each pair of trees what were called “smudge pots”—tall, fat pipes filled with burning motor oil. As they belched a smelly haze, they kept the trees from freezing. Smudging was exhausting and dirty work. All night long, he made sure each inky mess continued to burn. In the morning, my grandfather was covered with an oily residue, but his trees had survived. (If you lead in Jesus’s name, you too will have days when you find yourself covered in some sort of grime.) My grandfather was a steward with an orchard entrusted to his care. His planting and watering could not guarantee growth, but he could focus on creating an environment conducive for growth.
We Christian leaders cannot act as if our work is decisive, as if we could create a program or process that would guarantee our people will grow. When Erica came to Pasadena for the innovation summit, she had a wonderful sense that her people belonged to God and that only God could meet her people in their pain. But there are other Christian leaders who, often through a misguided sense of responsibility, search for the proper program, one that will be enough to ensure that their people will develop a life-altering faith in Jesus. It is too easy to forget that our faith is a gift of God. It is not the result of any program we create. All our work is planting and watering. Without planting and watering, the trees will not grow. We do what God asks us to do and then we turn our people over to God, just as my grandfather handed his trees over to God.
My grandparents remained devoted to trees even after they moved off the farm. When they retired, they purchased the only home they ever owned—a tiny house with a dozen enormous citrus trees off to the side. It was not so much a home as a small orchard with a house attached. Even decades after they retired, my 103-year-old grandmother would regularly hobble out into the orchard with her walker to irrigate her trees. It was both a burden and a pleasure for her; it was who she was. Grampa smudged, Gramma watered, and God gave the increase. Even in retirement, they had an orchard for which to care.
Every Christian leader has people entrusted to their care. Perhaps you do not have a traditional orchard. Maybe you tend an urban community garden or care for ancient, splintered trees. You may have a grove with many trees or just a few isolated plants. But every Christian leader is a steward. Each of us plant and water those entrusted to our care.
Christian practices are a way of planting and watering. They create an environment for growth. They allow us to maintain a rock-solid commitment to the unchanging Christian gospel and to construct innovative ways of presenting that gospel to an ever-changing world. They represent the received wisdom of our forebears in just the way that smudge pots (and, now, wind machines) represent the received wisdom the farmers that came before us. But do not think for a moment that this planting and watering can ensure growth. Only God gives the increase. Indeed, as 2 Corinthians assures us, God works through our weakness. None of our inadequate planting and watering guarantees growth any more than the practice of prayer obligates God. We pray because God invites us (indeed, commands us) to pray. But, like all Christian practices, our prayers take us back into the hands of God. We plant and water through practices, but only God can give the increase.
In the same way, the Christian practice of lament allows us to express our honest emotion (even and especially if we are angry at God) and still, in the end, place hand our lives back to God. Erica used a Mad Libs format to teach her middle schoolers to talk to God the way the Psalms talk to God. She wrote a simple lament, using almost a Mad Libs style for each of the components:
• God, I don’t understand _______________.
• God, please fix _______________.
• God, I trust you with my future even if _______________.
• God, I will praise you even when _______________.
That structure became the way that she would help her young people make spiritual sense of their anxious, busy and stressed lives. She believed that if they could express themselves honestly to God it would be “liberating and provide an honest connection” that would rebut the Big Lie of conditional acceptance that poisoned their lives. For weeks, Erica invited her middle schoolers to fill in the Mad Libs structure so they could express their pain to God. And, after the young people had spent enough time using the Mad Libs, they felt comfortable writing their own laments.
Erica engaged in Christian innovation. The old model of being church told Erica that the way to minister to middle schoolers was to teach them to behave. This innovation, instead, allowed her to proclaim that “God can handle whatever they throw at God, and God won’t run away; and that’s our youth group.”
Scott Cormode is a professor of leadership at Fuller Seminary. His book “The Innovative Church: How Leaders and Their Congregations Can Adapt in an Ever-Changing World” (Baker Academic, 2020) is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1540962261.