What if congregational change didn’t focus on setting goals or planning new programs? Ann Michel of the Lewis Center Staff interviews Dwight Zscheile, coauthor of Leading Faithful Innovation. He shares a simple three-step process for experimenting with new practices that allow you to discover what God is already doing in the lives of your neighbors and to find ways to join in God’s action.
Ann Michel: You’ve recently coauthored a book entitled Leading Faithful Innovation. Can you share how you define the key terms “faithful” and “innovation” in the context of your work?
Dwight Zscheile: Borrowing from the work of Peter Denning and Robert Dunham, we define innovation as the adoption of a new practice in a community. Often for Christians it’s the rediscovery of an ancient practice that has been lost along the way. And faithful is really important in that we’re not simply thinking about innovation as starting something brand new, but the faithful adaptation of the Christian faith, Christian life, and church life. Over the years, the church has always done this when it has been incarnationally present in times of changing culture. Today, we certainly see ourselves facing massive cultural changes. I’m trained as a missiologist, a scholar of mission. In the world of mission, one of the ways we think about innovation is contextualization or incarnation or adaptation of the church in changing circumstances. Faithful innovation is that. In our case, it’s really about learning to follow God when the outcomes or the destination aren’t clear ahead of time.
Ann Michel: You believe meaningful changes requires that we shift our focus from asking church questions to asking God questions. Could you explain that distinction?
Dwight Zscheile: In the U.S. and in Western societies, we live in a culture that tends to seek the good without God. Due to secularization, we tend to fall back on “What can we do to fix the church?” So, we borrowed that wonderful language from Al Roxburgh of shifting away from asking church questions like: “How do we get more people to join our church?” or “How can we do church better?” Those aren’t bad questions. But if we ask them without really paying attention to God’s leading, they end up being dead ends. So, asking God questions shifts the conversation. It puts discernment back at the heart of the work. It’s how we follow God and the agency of God to the destinations to which God is leading us. Again, it’s not so clear ahead of time. So often innovation is understood as leaders developing a strategic plan and trying to manage everyone into that plan. That’s not at all what we’re talking about in this book.
Ann Michel: You describe a simple three-step model of change: listen, act, share. Can you briefly walk us through this model beginning with step one: listening?
Dwight Zscheile: Listening is so important in this process. It begins with listening to God and listening to God together in community through scripture. We outline a series of simple practices that are designed to build our capacity to pay attention to God. For congregations taking this journey, it means beginning with an initial practice called Dwelling in the Word, which is a simple way of listening to scripture and community rooted in ancient traditions of the church. It then leads to listening to each other’s spiritual stories within the congregation, which is something that doesn’t actually happen in many churches. As we begin to listen more deeply, we find that just sharing a simple prompt, like “Share a story of a time when you felt spiritually alive, energized, or engaged,” opens up our capacity to actually name God’s activity in our lives. In simple things like neighborhood walks, we’re paying spiritual attention. All of that listening capacity then helps us be able to listen to God and listen to our neighbors — those who are spiritually curious but institutionally disconnected from religious institutions. Listening is really basic. If we do not know how to listen, any experiments we might want to do or any change we might want to make won’t get us very far.
Ann Michel: Step two is act but not in the way churches typically think about taking action by instituting a plan or launching a new program. Instead, you talk about “action learning experiments.” What does this involve?
Dwight Zscheile: In the book, we talk about behaving our way into new ways of thinking and believing. You do that through simple action experiments, action learning experiments that are just new behaviors that have to do with investing presence and relationship in neighborhood spaces to join with what God’s doing in those spaces. They can be very simple things. We recommend that these experiments be very small and inexpensive, either no budget or very low budget.
One church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, put out a table with some strips of cloth and invited their neighbors to write prayers on the strips and then they put them up on a construction fence, and they found that neighbors were really eager to share their prayers. They could pray with someone from the church if they wanted, but they could also just quietly write their own prayer and hang it up. As the church did this over time, they ended up collecting literally hundreds of the prayers of their neighbors. They were able not only to pray over them but also to learn what their neighbors were yearning for and struggling with and then do more experiments out of that. Again, the experiment was simply “Let’s set up a table during a town festival, bring some strips of cloth and some markers, and be present and invite our neighbors.” This type of very simple experiment opens up deeper connections with neighbors but doesn’t cost a lot. It’s not about starting a new ministry or launching a program. They are not clergy or staff driven. These are lay lead, grassroots experiments intentionally designed not to be institutionalized or require a lot of institutional maintenance.
Ann Michel: Step three is share. Can you speak to that?
Dwight Zscheile: Share is the reflection part of the action learning experiment. It’s where we gather after the experiment and ask: How did that go? What did we learn? What went well? What could we do differently next time? Was there life-giving energy? Were there connections with our neighbors? In sharing, there might be an invitation from God for the next step. Another dimension is sharing these stories within the life of the congregation. Typically, this experimentation work is done by small teams of people. If the reflection only stays with the small teams and not the larger congregation, the change doesn’t go very far, so it’s very important that there is a public story sharing and reflection process where the community begins to learn and interpret how God is actually leading them.
Ann Michel: At the same time, you say this work needs to begin with a small group of people because that’s how change happens.
Dwight Zscheile: Yes. It’s important to start small and on the side. For instance, don’t focus your experimentation on your primary worship service. Leave that as it is, but experiment on the edges where the stakes for failure are much lower. In our view, there’s no such thing as failure. If you learn from whatever happens, there’s only feedback. Michael Moynagh wrote, “There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.”
Ann Michel: Could you give an example of how a congregation has successfully engaged in this type of innovation?
Dwight Zscheile: One example would be a very rural congregation in Wisconsin. They were asked to do a neighborhood walk, but all that’s around their church is cornfields. What they realized is they didn’t actually know the farmers around their church building, so they did a simple experiment of taking some bag lunches to these farms, approaching the farmers and asking if they could offer them lunch, and then just praying and giving thanks for the fact that these farmers were feeding the world. They had no idea whether the farmers would throw them off the property or what would happen. Turns out, the farmers were really honored by this.
Their next experiment was to go to the grain elevator when the farmers were bringing in the crop at harvest time. They set up a table. These were some elderly Lutheran ladies who had never prayed a lot with anyone in their lives, but they found themselves there as the farmers were coming in, praying with them, giving thanks for the harvest. And the farmers said, “Well, you need to come out now and pray over our fields in the spring when we’re sowing.” And it developed this deeper connection over time. Again, simple, simple practices.
Another example is from Women of the ELCA (WELCA), which is the ladies’ auxiliary guild in Lutheran churches. It is mostly more mature ladies, and they were having a hard time getting younger women to join. They began with a church question: “How do we get younger women to join our WELCA group?” They kept being frustrated about that, and then they reframed it as a God question: “What might God be up to in the lives of younger families, particularly younger women, and how might we join in?”
Their experiment was to begin to actually listen to the younger women. They asked, “What times are particularly spiritually meaningful in your families?” And they learned it was mealtime and bedtime. Their experiment was to develop some resources for families to have simple prayer and spiritual conversations at those times. They created prayer bears, which were teddy bears that they’d sewn pockets onto with little prayers the children could pull out at bedtime and mom or dad could read to them. They went from the frustration of “people won’t join our group” to joining into where God was active already in the lives of those families.
Ann Michel: You describe “everyday disciples” being at the forefront of engaging neighbors in this process of listening, acting, and sharing. How do you see the paradigm of leadership in the church changing? And what’s the role of a clergy leader in this three-step innovation process?
Dwight Zscheile: We talk about a paradigm shift away from the inherited model of performative ministry where clergy are expected to “perform” the faith for people. They are the ones to pray, to read the Bible, to do the evangelizing to bring people into the church. Everyday disciples — lay people or regular members of the congregation — are expected to support the congregation institutionally through committee service, prayers, and giving rather than actually growing as mature disciples who can live out their faith in daily life. This performative model of ministry goes along with the voluntary association model of congregational life and a professional model of ministry where theological knowledge gets specialized and professionalized in the hands of the experts — clergy and other formally trained leaders.
The “listen, act, share” process is a way to shift that. The role of clergy is to walk alongside, to encourage, to give permission to ask theological questions, and to equip people for this work. A clergy person might serve almost as a group spiritual director who’s wondering with the community: Where do you see God active in these experiments? How may God be leading us? But the clergy person is not managing the process or doing the work because in our experience clergy are pretty depleted right now and don’t need one more thing on their plates. But they are trained theologically and have great knowledge of the tradition. They can ask good God questions and help the community faithfully answer those in light of scripture and tradition and experience.
Ann Michel: So, in this process, one task of a leader, whether clergy or lay, is to serve as an interpreter, creating and sharing a narrative around the meaning of the work. But it’s also important to be a cheerleader because this work can be really hard. Right?
Dwight Zscheile: It can be, so it’s important for leaders to create a space where it’s possible for folks to take this journey, to try on the practices, to be able to make mistakes without being shamed or being in fear. I’ve seen how powerful it can be when leaders make that shift, when they realize that they don’t need to do it all themselves. They can step back and let the whole people of God lead and also let the neighborhood lead. It can be a really freeing way to lead.
Ann Michel: Near the beginning of the book, you and your coauthors write: “The social and cultural shifts that are eroding established church structures are too big for any of us to reverse. Trying to ‘fix’ the church will not get us very far and will instead distract us from the deeper work at hand.” Do you think that the institutional church as we have known it is just going to fade away?
Dwight Zscheile: From the time following the American Revolution through the 1960s, churches in America were organized around the voluntary association model. People found a lot of meaning in supporting and serving and building up the institution. But since the late ‘60s, we have shifted from the age of voluntary associations to the age of authenticity, where meaning is found in discovering and expressing your true self. It used to be that working within an institutional church, serving on committees, was sacred work for some people. Generationally, that is now less and less the case with younger people. And often that means they are disembedding themselves from institutions.
There’s a particular form of institutional Christianity that is eroding quite rapidly in American society, particularly that midsize, program-size congregation that has a dedicated building, a professional pastor, and maybe a couple staff people and that relies on a lot of volunteer energy and committees to keep it going. That is just imploding. And I don’t think it can be reversed easily. The mainline is impacted most acutely, but it’s not just the mainline. Many other denominations are impacted as well.
I think the church is getting larger and smaller. We see megachurches that are thriving because they’re not asking that much of their people. They’re not asking, “Hey, come serve on a lot of committees and come fix the building.” It’s more about speaking into everyday things that keep everyday people up at night, connecting faith to daily life, and then small groups that allow the experience of tight community. And I think a lot of small churches are resilient because they don’t have a lot of structure. And we are seeing a lot of vitality in some other models — in immigrant communities and the Black church, which has always had a different narrative and different way of embodying its life. From the beginning, it figured out how to not rely on professional full-time clergy.
I think that more and more in the future it will be micro-churches, things like Fresh Expressions or networks of house churches or other forms of micro-communities that are much more contextualized to how and where people live today, where the primary ask isn’t “support the institution” but rather “I want to help you discover authentic life and human flourishing and faith.”
Do I have theological reservations about the age of authenticity? Yes. But the age of association was often very hierarchical, restrictive, patriarchal, and exclusive. Before that was the state church, which has its own problems, too. So, the church always evolves. Trying to retrieve or extend the life of that voluntary association model of church in the age of authenticity will involve diminishing returns because on a basic level it is an inherited model that in most cases can’t be retrieved.
I am not an anti-institutionalist. I think there are a lot of ways in which institutions are necessary for any movement to survive over generations. But the model of the institution is going to look different. Using one metaphor borrowed from the U.K., it is a “mixed ecology” of inherited forms of church and Fresh Expressions or innovative forms of church coexisting. I think we are in a bridge period where we really need that mixed ecology, where traditional forms of church can learn from experimental forms of church and vice versa.
Ann Michel: If a congregation or a church leader wanted to start on this journey of faithful innovation in the way you’ve outlined, what are one or two first steps you’d recommend?
Dwight Zscheile: I think the key thing is to start small and on the side and to really focus on practices rather than programs. For many congregations, the introduction of a simple grassroots practice that anyone can lead is transformational. These don’t require a clergy person. They’re replicable. They become a part of the culture of a congregation in ways that begin to shift the focus toward a deeper spiritual connection with God, each other, our neighbors.
Many congregations have people who are there primarily for social or cultural reasons. Maybe it’s the community service emphasis. When we invite people to share spiritual stories from their daily life or read scripture together in community, it can be hard for them. But that’s why it’s important to start with those who are more open. Those who are less open will eventually come along.
We found that a lot of energy is unleashed when congregations take this journey, in part because we’re really helping people make connections between their faith and their daily life. And if there’s one thing churches need to do right now, it’s to help people make spiritual meaning out of what keeps them up at night, what Scott Cormode calls “everyday longings and losses.” And the churches that succeed in doing that are the ones that will thrive. If churches aren’t oriented around that, I don’t see them being able to thrive in today’s world.
- Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress Press, 2022) by Doug Powe and Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- Christian Social Innovation Starts with Who, Not Why or How by Kenda Creasy Dean
- Moving Forward in Uncertain Times by Susan Beaumont
- Conquering the Challenges of Change by Ann A. Michel
Cover photo by MART PRODUCTION