What Makes Christian Social Innovation Christian?


How can church leaders approach innovation in ways that are consistent with their faith? Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe interviews Kenda Creasy Dean, author of Innovating for Love. She says Christian social innovation focuses on people not problems and seeks to participate in God’s new thing rather than trying to get God to participate in ours.

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Douglas Powe: In your book, Innovating for Love, you suggest a need to rethink Simon Sinek’s premise of “starting with why.” Can you share your reasons for moving away from why as the starting point of innovation?

Kenda Dean: It’s partly because when we start with why, we start with problems as opposed to people. Starting with why isn’t terrible, but it’s just not the place Christians start. Christians start with who, with people. But also, the first who, the God of Jesus Christ and the people that God has placed on our path. It’s interesting that churches are beginning to pay attention to design thinking and some of the other emphases coming out of the design world that start with empathy, with the person.

The point is not to pretend we understand a problem from the outside. We want to understand the people, their needs, and how they are experiencing particular problems. In fact, since the book came out, I’ve become more familiar with equity-based design, which takes it to even a different level as we empathize with people as much as we listen to them. It’s a different kind of process if we actually design with them or do ministry collaboratively rather than helping people.

Douglas Powe: The church has gotten really good at doing things for people instead of doing things with people, which takes a lot more work. But doing things with people requires a different way of thinking.

Kenda Dean: Yes. I’m having to train myself to use different language. Instead of talking about helping and being the people who have the solutions, to working with partners in ministry to create the kinds of solutions that actually bless the people — in the ways they want to be blessed, not how I think they ought to be blessed.

Douglas Powe: Your book is about Christian innovation, particularly Christian social innovation. But you say you actually don’t like the word innovation. So, why don’t you like the word innovation. And what is the unique meaning of Christian social innovation?

Kenda Dean: We are so in love with the word innovation right now that we use it for everything. As a result, I think it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. It’s kind of like the word missional. Once we started using it for everything, everybody, and their brother, it kind of lost its focus. And I think that’s happening with innovation, as well.

I think about innovation pretty broadly. And I think the foundation is the idea that God is doing something new. That puts a different spin on it. If God is doing the new thing, not us, nothing we can do is going to compare with the new thing that God has done. So, what is our role in it?

Christian social innovation is also a really clunky term. I’m shopping for new language. But the term Christian is important because we are doing this as an act of faith; we are participating in God’s innovation rather than trying to get God to participate in ours. And the term social innovation implies we’re not just looking at newness for newness’s sake. We’re not just looking at product innovation. We’re not just looking at cooler churches. We’re looking at different ways of living together socially, different ways of being community.

It’s interesting how many conversations about innovation take the “social” right out of it. But for churches, in particular, I think that is really the sweet spot. It’s not that those other ways of innovating can’t be faithful. Monks invented champagne and we’re glad for that. But in the Middle Ages monks also reinvented ways to govern communities and ways to do agriculture that are credited with preventing famine. They created new, qualitatively better ways of living together. And I think that kind of innovation is more ministry based.

Douglas Powe: I think some people get nervous when they hear the term social. But you’re using it in a very particular way. For you, social has to do with community, the way we are called to be church, and participating in the new thing God is doing.

Kenda Dean: Yes, I think it has to do with the quality of community. Because of the upside-down nature of agape, a Christian understanding of community turns a lot of our public social norms inside out, particularly ones having to do with power. That’s the nature of love. Love gives. It invites people to the party that wouldn’t normally be there. It makes the last first and the blind see and the dead live again. It’s a pretty different way of being a community than what most people experience on an average Tuesday.

Douglas Powe: And it pushes us to think beyond an individualized understanding of Christianity. You’re saying Christianity is really about community and not just me and Jesus.

Kenda Dean: Yes. I would say first we have to be connected with God. And, through God, we are suddenly in communion with all of God’s children and not just the people we know and like. So, it’s not just being in community. It’s being in a particular kind of community, one that actually embodies Christ’s love.

Douglas Powe: You also write about the importance of humility. In some ways humility may be just as tricky as the love piece because there’s a sense that once you think about humility, you’ve already sort of lost it.

Kenda Dean: I think humility may be a lost art for most of us, particularly Americans, but it really is one of the signature qualities of Christian social innovation. A Christian needs to be willing to be part of God’s innovation — to get ourselves out of the middle of things and put God’s new thing in the middle. Usually, we start with our own great idea and then see if we can reel God into it. I’m trying to flip that around. And it takes a little bit of humility to say this isn’t really my great idea. I’m participating in something that’s bigger than me. And then to say this might be a huge, huge gamble on my part that could fail. In all of these things, we have to be able to acknowledge that we’re not the center of the universe.

To be honest, I think it’s really liberating to acknowledge that it’s not all on us and it’s not just running on our steam. When we take part in what God is already doing, the Holy Spirit’s energy fills our sails. We become part of something way bigger than ourselves. We’re not solely responsible for it, but we have a part to play.

Douglas Powe: So, how do we avoid getting caught up in our own thing and instead really try to follow where God is leading us?

Kenda Dean: Well, that’s the million-dollar question. We’re not always going to get it right, but we can try our best. I think the most concrete thing we can do is spend a lot more time listening and a lot less time spouting answers. I know that sounds so basic, but the truth is we all are apt to act on our own impulses before listening to the context and the situation. Innovators have a phrase: “You should fall in love with the problem not the solution.” But it’s very easy to fall in love with the solution. “If we just did this, everything would be great.” But that means we have lost sight of really trying to understand the way people experience hardship.

In the last couple of years, Black Lives Matter has forced us to stop and say, “Wait a second. There is a way of experiencing our society that has been really painful for a group of people. It is time for us to shut up and listen and see how they’re experiencing this and what we can learn from that.” Even people who want to be allies are quick to jump to solutions before we really understand the person who’s in pain.

Simone Weil has a really great line for most of us to lead with. She likes to ask someone, “What are you going through?” What she’s basically asking is, “What is life like for you right now?” And that’s a non-biasing way to say, “Tell me what it feels like to be you right now.” The most concrete thing, I think, is to slow it down and listen.

Also, we tend to associate innovation with making things stronger, faster, leaner, quicker. Christian social innovation challenges that. A lot of times the things that matter most slow us down. They stop us in our tracks. We don’t necessarily go faster. We don’t necessarily go bigger. Anybody with kids knows that the slowest thing in the world is a walk with a child, right? Because they notice all the things down close to the ground. Every flower, every berry, every bug. But that’s the kind of noticing that is actually qualitatively new in our culture. It’s not new to God, but it’s new to us. And if creation is God’s good thing, it would be good for us to slow down and notice it.

Douglas Powe: At one point in your book, you state that you believe most congregations want to innovate. Do you really mean that, given how so many congregations seem to cling to the status quo?

Kenda Dean: I think I should have said they really want to want to innovate. Because I think most people have a hunch that there’s another way to do things, but they don’t have an imagination for what that is. They’re not against new things; they’re against change. If somehow that change feels a little less threatening, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so odd. Most people wouldn’t say that trying something different is a bad idea. But when it gets to changing things, it gets nerve wracking, right?

Douglas Powe: One of the case studies in your book is about Pastor Erich at St. Bart’s. Can you share a bit of that story?

Kenda Dean: Rev. Erich Kussman is a Lutheran pastor and a former student of mine. But I can’t take credit for him. He is living out a vision for ministry he had coming into seminary. Anyway, he was serving a little tiny church in Trenton, New Jersey, with maybe 20 or 30 faithful members. They were in the middle of a struggling community. And the church itself was struggling. He lost sleep over whether he was going to make payroll every week.

When the pandemic hit, he realized the area was pretty food-insecure and their food pantry was getting a lot of extra traffic. So, the first goal was building up the food pantry. But when the schools closed, families that had relied on the school lunch program had to scrounge to put lunches together for their children. So, then Erich created a bag lunch program and other area churches contributed bag lunches. And as people came in to get these bag lunches, he got to know them. He started to notice that some were taking eight or nine lunches. So, what’s that about? He doesn’t assume. He goes and talks to the people. And he finds out the internet is so bad in this part of Trenton that kids were having their online school in whatever house in the neighborhood had the best signal. So, then Erich’s said, “Well, shoot. Maybe we should help get a better internet signal.”

And after a while, the people knew Erich was going to bat for them. And they were like, “Well, that’s my pastor. That’s my church.” Now, understand, they’d never been to this church. Everything was shut down. And a lot of them didn’t even speak English. But they were like, “Those Christians in that little community, they’re on my team. They’re advocating for me. They’re helping us get through this terrible time. That’s my church.” And, true to form, when the church started to open back up again and the weather got good, they even became part of the worshipping community — not everybody, but a significant number.

Douglas Powe: I sort of picture Pastor Erich as the driving force behind what happened. But I think there’s a danger when pastors put themselves out there pursuing change. The people are likely to say, “You go do that, pastor. That’s great. We’ll stay back here and do our thing.” So, how did he build momentum for congregation-wide change?

Kenda Creasy Dean: I think at first it was just Erich. Maybe it’s easier with a small congregation, but pretty quickly lots of other people got involved. His congregation was very involved in helping to distribute these meals. And it led to a renewed sense of purpose. People want a purpose. They want their churches to matter, to make a difference. When that happens, I think it’s contagious. With each step Erich took, he got to know his community better, and it led to deeper and deeper change within his own congregation. Yes, it started because the pastor listened. But very quickly it was something that was shared.

And it was shared by people outside of the congregation, too. From the very beginning, Erich recognized he only had 20 or 30 people, so he reached out to other congregations and other communities. I really believe the future of ministry is partnership and collaboration and doing things with people both in and beyond church communities. That in itself is ecclesial innovation.

Douglas Powe: One of my favorite lines in your book is: “Steward abundance. Do not manage scarcity.” Obviously, Rev. Erich actually did this in your example. But how can we take steps towards doing this?

Kenda Dean: First, we need to recognize that we are called to a life of abundance, and we are actually situated within abundance even when certain resources are scarce. Lots of churches identify assets within their communities that go beyond financial assets. One example is St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. They began cataloging not only who came into their church, but also what their gifts were and how they would call on them to serve in ways related to those gifts.

I think a lot of it is mindset, recognizing that everyone brings assets to the table. Often our first instinct is scarcity because we have bills to pay. Cash and time are the two most measurable things we have, and usually they measure our scarcity. But the truth is, what we have in abundance are people — either the people in our pews or people in our neighborhoods. We’re called to be in ministry with the people God has put on our path. And those people have gifts. Sometimes they know it and sometimes they don’t.

Douglas Powe: You wisely advise congregations to try little experiments rather than looking for “the next big thing.” Can you share a bit about how congregations can get started trying these little experiments?

Kenda Dean: I think because many churches don’t have a lot of financial resources, if something is going to cost any money, they want all of the i’s dotted and t’s crossed before taking any step at all. But things that start this way rarely succeed. We start with small wins, right? We might have a great idea or a big vision or dream for our community. It’s good to have those dreams. But you start with a thimbleful and not with a gallon bucket. What is the first thimbleful we can test? How can we try this out?

And so, it’s just little things, one step at a time, trying things out, and finding out what bombs and what doesn’t. Some things have more traction than you think they will. Others that you think will be home runs just fall flat. That’s true for every substantial project in churches and in other organizations, too. Take one small step. I think we’re afraid to do that because what if it fails? There’s a very good likelihood that it will fail. But if you start small, maybe you’ll have wasted $10 instead of $10,000, which is a far better use of your resources. We want to dream big and start small.

Innovating for Love book coverRelated Resources


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.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.

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