Christian Social Innovation Starts with Who, Not Why or How


Churches do their best innovating when they focus less on “great ideas” or attempting to “fix the church” and more on the needs and longings of the people in their communities. Kenda Creasy Dean reminds us that love is the relentless driver of Christian social innovation.

I hate the word innovation. It is one of those terms used so promiscuously today that it seems to mean everything and nothing, which drains it of substance and makes it an easy plaything for every trend that lays claim to it. In the church, we are prone to thinking about innovation as using a really “cool” bucket to bail water out of a sinking ship. It looks like an amazing solution. But two buckets in, we realize that this kind of innovation is not only exhausting, it is futile.

One of the things hampering 21st century congregations, which have become obsessed with their many shortcomings, has been our insistence on asking, “How can we build a better church?” That is the wrong question. The real question is, “Are we the people Christ calls us to be — human beings in communion with God and one another?” We are not called to build better churches. We are called to be better at being human, better reflections of God’s love, formed in communities of people stumbling toward Jesus, squinting in the dazzling sunlight of new life. But when social innovation is viewed merely as a corrective to existing systems — whether that system is the economy or the church — we lose track of the social purpose of social innovation.

Don’t start with why. Start with who.

“Why” matters to ministry. It is devastatingly important to align, to the best of our ability, our purposes with God’s purposes, so that our bottom line does not become our plumb line. But Jesus’ ministry started with who, not why, with the person in front of him in all their sweaty, frayed humanity. Before he embodied ministry, Jesus embodied love, receiving each person as a whole, beloved child of God, radically reframing how human longings, losses, and limitations should be addressed. “Why” is a crucial question that all spiritual entrepreneurs must answer — but it is the wrong place for innovative ministry to begin. Ministry starts with Who — the God who loves us and those whom God sends us to love.

Christians must enact a distinctive approach to social innovation. In short, we are called to participate in God’s dream rather than invoke God’s blessing for our own. Christian social innovation sets out to participate in God’s redemption of the world in ways that embody the self-giving love of God’s signature innovation — the Incarnation — when God took human form in Jesus Christ. In any given moment, God’s “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) is both utterly beyond us and absolutely for us. Inevitably, God’s “new thing” disorients us. Without exception, God’s “new thing” is an act of divine love and a manifestation of divine power, revealing who we are as humans and who God is as the author of new life.

Innovating for love

The truth is that innovation is the wrong word for our impulse to find new forms of ministry and new ways of being the church. The word we are groping for is love: How can we love people well given this new context in which we find ourselves? Innovation is the by-product of love, for God and for us. We are never more imaginative than when we are in love, finding new ways to delight our beloved; we are never more creative than when trying to address our children’s suffering. Love is the relentless driver of Christian social innovation.

Aiming for innovation is the wrong way to score. Innovation follows mission, not vice versa; Christians do our best innovating indirectly, when we pay more attention to the needs and longings of the people in our neighborhoods than to our “great ideas,” so that we can become stakeholders and not merely service providers in our communities.

Churches as conveners of creativity

I believe that, despite our quick dismissal of churches as stubborn institutions resisting new things, most congregations really do want to innovate, now more than ever. We sense new possibilities for following Christ in this work. But innovation requires more than someone with an idea or “a person with a plan.” Innovation requires a culture, an ecology of support and some concrete, teachable tools.

That means that congregations must begin to understand themselves as incubators of ongoing innovation, making it a normal part of their daily work. When people look for the most creative voices in their community, for the souls most committed to making their neighborhood into a crucible for human flourishing, a congregation should be the first place that people look. I do not mean to suggest that churches or ministry communities enact innovative love alone. On the contrary, church leaders need to reclaim their historic roles as “conveners of creativity” for their communities, inviting stakeholders from multiple backgrounds, cultures, and professions to “take captive every thought” for Christ (2 Cor. 2:5) in order to eradicate suffering, sow delight and smuggle peace into their neighborhoods. Christian leaders are not always called to be innovators, but they must claim responsibility for inspiring, equipping, and blessing this work in others.

This article is adapted from Innovating for Love: Christian Social Innovation (Market Square Books, 2022) by Kenda Creasy Dean. Used by permission. The book is available through the publisher and Amazon.

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About Author

Kenda Creasy Dean is the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, working closely with Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry and the Farminary. She is an ordained United Methodist pastor in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conferences and the author of numerous books on youth, church and culture.

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.