“What Makes Christian Social Innovation Christian?” featuring Kenda Creasy Dean

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
“What Makes Christian Social Innovation Christian?” featuring Kenda Creasy Dean

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Podcast Episode 105

How can church leaders approach innovation in ways that are consistent with their faith? Kenda Creasy Dean says it starts by focusing on people and not problems, and by seeking to participate in God’s new thing rather than trying to get God to participate in ours.

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How can church leaders approach innovation in ways that are consistent with their faith? In this episode Kenda Creasy Dean says it starts by focusing on people and not problems, and by seeking to participate in God’s new thing rather than trying to get God to participate in ours.

Douglas Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, Director of the Lewis Center, and your host for this talk. Joining me is Rev. Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is the author of a new book, Innovating for Love. And our focus for this podcast is social innovation. Kenda, welcome to the podcast. Happy to have you and really excited about your new book.

Kenda Dean: Well, thanks. It’s great to be here.

Douglas Powe: You really start off in your book strong, and really, I think, surprised many people because you push us to rethink Simon Sinek’s Starting With Why. Can you share more about your reasoning for moving away from his logic of “why” as the starting point?

Kenda Dean: Yeah. I think it’s partly because, when we start with “why,” we start with problems as opposed to people, number one. But the big thing is, for Christian social innovation, I don’t want to say that starting with “why” is terrible, but it’s just not the place Christians start, right? Christians start with “who.” With people. But also, the first “who” is the God of Jesus Christ but also the people that God has placed on our path. You know, it’s interesting that, with design thinking and some of the other emphases that are coming out of the design world, churches have begun to really pay attention to all of those — start with empathy, with the person.

The point is not to try to pretend that we understand a problem from the outside. We want to understand the people and what their needs are and how they are experiencing particular problems. In fact, I’ve become more aware of this actually since the book came out. I’ve become increasingly 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. That’s a different kind of process if we actually design with them or do ministry collaboratively rather than helping people.

Douglas Powe: Well, you make a really good point. It’s something I’m sure you talk about in your class, also. There’s a really big difference in doing things for people. The Church has gotten really good at doing things for people. Even in ministry it’s sort of like “Let’s go out and do this for the community or for those individuals who need help, instead of thinking about how we do things with people, which takes a lot more work. It’s a much slower process. A lot of what I think you’re arguing and we’re going to unpack during this podcast is, I think, absolutely right. Doing things with people requires a different way of thinking.

Kenda Dean: Yeah. I’m having to train myself to use different language even. 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 that they want to be blessed instead of how I think they ought to be blessed.

Douglas Powe: Yeah, absolutely. You talked about Christian innovation and particularly Christian social innovation, but what’s interesting is that you actually don’t like the word innovation. You comment on that in the book. So, let’s start off with why you don’t like the word innovation. Then, I want to spin that into the uniqueness of what you mean by Christian social innovation. I think we have to be frightened that you say you really don’t like the word innovation. Well, let me back up. It’s not that you don’t like it. You feel it has begun … I will let you share.

Kenda Dean: We’re so in love with the word innovation right now. We use it for everything, and so it doesn’t really mean anything anymore, I think. It’s kind of like the word missional.  After we got used to using it for everything and everybody and their brother, it kind of lost its focus. And I think that’s happening with innovation as well. First of all, I should say I think about innovation pretty broadly. You can slice and dice it academically if you want to. I frankly think that’s kind of a waste of time. But I think the idea that God is doing something new is kind of the foundation for it. It kind of puts a different spin on it, though, if God’s doing the new thing instead of us, nothing we’re going to do is going to compare with the new things that God has done. So, what does that mean our role in it is?

And so, I think Christian social innovation is also a really clunky term. I’m shopping for new language. If anybody’s got a good idea, I’m listening. The fact that we are doing this as an act of faith is the reason “Christian” is important — the fact that we’re participating in God’s innovation rather than trying to get God to participate in ours. And social innovation is important because we’re not just looking at all newness for newness’s sake. And 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 communities, and 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 innovation can’t be used in other ways faithfully, right? Monks invented champagne — we’re glad for that. But what monks also did in the Middle Ages was reinvent ways to govern communities and reinvent ways to do agriculture, which is credited with preventing famine. They created new ways that made living together qualitatively better, and I think that’s more the kind of innovation that is ministry based.

Douglas Powe: To sort of stay on this track, then “social” for you has to do with community and the way that we actually are called to be the church. To participate in the new thing God is doing is the way that you’re using “social.” Because I think, again, “social” is one of those terms where people hear it, and they start getting nervous. But you’re really using it in a very particular way in this case. Am I correct?

Kenda Dean: Yeah. I do think it has to do with the quality of community. I talk a little bit about the upside-down nature of agape, right? So, the way Christians think about community turns a lot of our public social norms inside out, particularly ones that have to do with power, and that’s the nature of love. Love does that. It 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 also sort of pushes us to think, because we have unfortunately continued this sort of individualism within our Christianity. In some ways, you’re saying, “No, Christianity is really about community and not just me and Jesus.” But we really have to think about how we are connected to community and what that means. Is that a fair statement?

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

Douglas Powe: Coming back to CSI or Christian social innovation …

Kenda Dean: CSI. I never thought of that. Thank you for that.

Douglas Powe: You’re welcome. Coming back to that, you talk about love and humility. And you’ve talked a little bit about love. What do you mean by humility? It is also key and I think in some ways is just as tricky as the love piece. Can you say a little bit more? And I’m curious if you’re thinking about how we really live into that. I mean, as I was reading it, I agree with you. But I think humility is one of those things that, when you think about it, you’ve sort of almost lost it already. You know?

Kenda Dean: Yeah, I do. I think humility might be a lost art for most of us, particularly Americans. I do think it’s really one of the signature qualities of Christian social innovation. If you’re going to be a Christian involved in trying to do new things, as long as we are willing to be part of God’s innovation, if what we’re trying to do is get us out of the middle of things and put God’s new thing in the middle, we become collaborators with that. I think usually, we start with our own great idea and then see if we can reel God into it. What I’m trying to do is flip that around. And you know it takes a little bit of humility to say first, “This isn’t really my great idea. I’m participating in something that’s bigger than me.” And secondly, “I might suck at this. This might be a huge, huge gamble on my part that could fail.” And in all of those things being able to just acknowledge “We’re not the center of the universe.” And I think that’s really liberating, to be honest, if it’s not all on us and if it’s not just running on our steam. I mean we’ve just been through a pandemic, and a lot of the stuff that we experienced as innovation really was more adaptation of what we were already doing. But nonetheless it was new for us, and we’re exhausted. And a lot of that is because they were our ideas that we were running on our steam. To the extent that we can be part of what God is already up to, it allows first for the Holy Spirit’s energy to fill our sails. But we’re also part of something that’s way bigger than we are. We’re not solely responsible for it, but we have a part to play.

Douglas Powe: So, there are two things I want to unpack with this. The first is, how do we do this? This is the part that I struggle with because I agree with you, but how do we live into not getting caught up in our own thing? Because you know what we do at churches. We get into a situation and we sit around in a committee and we try to figure out how we resolve this thing. We come up with like this great idea that we have. It’s not necessarily what God is doing that we’re following. We’re pursuing our own sort of thing to fix whatever the problem happens to be at that time. So, how do you take a step back to say we’re really going to try to follow where God is leading us?

Kenda Dean: Well, that’s the million-dollar question. We’re not going to get this right; we’re going to do our best. The most concrete thing I think 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, you know, it’s a human thing. It’s not just a church thing. We all are apt to act on our own impulses before we’re going to listen to the context, to the actual 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.

And you know, in the last couple of years there is a case in point. One of the things that Black Lives Matter has done for us is to force us to stop and say as a culture, “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 because even people who wanted to be allies in that were quick to jump to solutions before we really understood the person who’s in pain. You know Simone Weil has this great line that she just thinks helps us understand one another, but it would be a really good line for most of us to lead with. She likes to ask someone, you know, what are you going through? You know, good or bad, just “What are you going through?” What you’re basically saying is, “What is life like for you right now?” And that’s a nonbiasing 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.

Let me just add one other thing. I’ve been persuaded by some of the work that Andy Root has done on this. We associate innovation with making things stronger, faster, leaner, quicker. I want to challenge that. With Christian social innovation, a lot of times the things that matter most to us slow us down. They stop us in our tracks. We don’t necessarily go faster. We don’t necessarily go bigger. You know, for example, anybody with kids knows that the slowest thing in the world is a walk with a child, right? Because they are noticing all of these things down close to the ground. My daughter — it was like impossible to take a walk with her when she was little because every flower, every berry, every bug … but that’s the kind of noticing that is actually qualitatively new in our culture, right? It’s not new to God, but it’s new to us. And you know that, if creation is God’s good thing, it would be good for us to slow down and notice it. Anyway, that’s just a pedestrian example of that. But I think that’s another way Christian social innovation can stand apart from our traditional understandings of innovation.

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Douglas Powe: That was helpful. Thank you. I appreciate that great example, especially for those of us who have children. We understand exactly what you’re saying. Let me stick with this but come at it from a very different angle. I’m going to push against you a little bit and I want to get your impression. At one point, and I forget the page number, but you say that you believe most congregations want to innovate. You know as well as I do the reality of congregations really liking the status quo. So, I’m really curious about what you mean by this statement.

Kenda Dean: Okay. So, that’s fair. I think maybe I should have said they really “want to want to innovate.” Maybe I should have said it that way 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 bad. But most people I don’t think would say that trying something different is a bad idea. But then when it gets to changing things, that’s when it gets nerve wracking, right?

Douglas Powe: Yeah, that makes sense. I’m with you. Okay. That helps.

Kenda Dean: But I could have said that better.

Douglas Powe: Yeah, we all could do those things. I was like, all right, I want to see what she means by this. I now want to dig in deep to one of your examples. One of the things I really appreciate about the book is there are some wonderful examples for people to read — case studies that relate to the point you’re making. One of them has to do with Pastor Erich at St. Bart’s. I’ll let you sort of set it up and just share a little bit about the story. But the question I have related to it is — I sort of picture him being the driving force behind what happens, and I’m wondering if the congregation also participated and was sort of following God and this work because I think the danger is that many pastors sort of get stuck where they’re out pursuing this change, but the people are like “You go do that, pastor. That’s great. We’ll stay back here and do our thing.” So, I’ll let you share a little bit about the story but also if you have any insight about whether it really was an effort by the congregation and, if so, how he was able to build that momentum.

Kenda Dean: Thank you. That’s a great setup for that. So, the story is Erich Kussman. He’s a Lutheran pastor. He was a former student of mine, but I can’t take credit for him. He had a vision for ministry coming in that he is now living out. Anyway, he is at a little, or what was a little, tiny church in Trenton where there are a lot of little, tiny churches that have 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, you know, that kind of thing.

Well, a pandemic hit, and he realizes they’re in a pretty food-insecure area, so he begins by getting some other churches on board to help support the food pantry which is getting a lot of extra traffic. I also go to a little, tiny church, and our church was one of the churches that helped him out. What happened was that, with each step Erich took, he got to know his community better, and it led to deeper and deeper change within his own congregation. 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. So, for example, he was first like, “Let’s build up the food pantry. That’s what we should do.” Well, then all the schools shut down, and one of the things that happens in a food-insecure neighborhood is school lunches help families out quite a bit. These families had to scrounge and put together school lunches, so then he created a bag lunch program and churches contributed bag lunches. He got to know people as they came in to get these bag lunches, and then he realized that some of them were taking like eight or nine lunches. And he was, like, what’s that about? Again, he doesn’t assume. He goes and talks to the people, and he finds out that the internet situation 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, they would all be together; hence eight or nine lunches. Well, then Erich’s like, “Well, shoot. Maybe we should help get a better internet signal.”

This goes through several iterations, right? And with each iteration, a couple things happen. His congregation was very involved in helping to distribute these meals. They had a renewed sense of purpose out of it actually. Yes, it started because the pastor listened, but very quickly it was something that was shared. The interesting thing was it became shared by people outside of the congregation, too, because after a little while they knew that Eric was going to bat for these people, and they were like, “Well, that’s my pastor. That’s my church.” Now, understand, they’ve never been to this church. Everything was shut down. They didn’t even speak English, a lot of them. 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. So, it has to start somewhere, but it doesn’t take a lot of people. People want a purpose. They want their churches to matter, to make a difference. When that happens, I think it does get contagious.

Douglas Powe: I think that’s helpful because it gives a concrete example of everything you said prior to how Christian social innovation can start with one person really pursuing God’s calling, but then others get involved. Then, it just keeps morphing into something new. I appreciate that powerful, great example.

Kenda Dean: Let me just say one other thing about that particular pastor. From the very beginning, he recognized that he’s got only 20 or 30 people, so he reaches out to other congregations, other communities. My church thinks of it as “our” ministry, too. It became something that was shared. And I say that because I really believe the future of ministry is partnership and collaboration and doing things with people who are both in and beyond church communities. And that in itself is ecclesial innovation.

Douglas Powe: Yeah, absolutely. Let me go to one of  my favorite lines in the book: “Steward abundance and do not manage scarcity.” How can we take steps towards doing this? Most of us sort of steward scarcity and do not think about stewarding abundance. So, how do we help people to do it. I mean obviously Reverend Eric actually did it in your example. He does that, even though the church obviously did not have a lot of resources and they could have just simply said “We can’t do this.” But that’s not the way he thought about it. What is it, do you think, in his makeup or the way he thought about this that really helped him to steward abundance?

Kenda Dean: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the first part is recognizing that we are called to this life of abundance, and that actually we are situated within abundance even when we have a scarcity of certain resources. There are lots of examples of churches that have done this, where they’ve been able to identify the assets of their communities that go beyond financial assets. The one that’s most well known, maybe, in Methodist circles is St. Luke’s in Indianapolis. And you know where they began? To not just catalog who was coming into their church, but what their gifts were and how they would then call upon them to serve and various ways that were related to those gifts. So, they had not just a bank of food or a bank of services, but they had a bank of gifts. That’s one way of recognizing that we’re situated in abundance.

I think a lot of it is mindset, you know, and recognizing that everyone brings assets to the table. Often our first instinct is scarcity because we have bills to pay and so on. The most measurable things we have usually measure our scarcity, and that’s cash, right? Or time. Either one of those. But the truth is, what we have most are people — either the people in our pews or people in our neighborhoods. But you know we have people and we’re called to be in ministry with the people God has put on our path. And those people have gifts, and sometimes they know it and sometimes they don’t. It’s fascinating to me.

One of the things that happened in my own congregation was getting involved in Christian social entrepreneurship through a food truck. For 70 years the people thought that, to do ministry, you had to be on a church committee. They did not know that the gifts they used every day in their jobs, in their careers that they often loved, could be used for the kingdom of God. They thought they put those aside to serve on a search committee for a couple of hours and that’s how they did ministry.

When we wound up with a food truck with a bunch of young people, we did not know what we were doing. But Al turned out to be kind of on the side. He used to work for Hewlett Packard. He helped invent the inkjet printer. I mean here’s this guy most people knew because he had a part-time job at True Value, but nobody knew his career background. And he became a business consultant for us in the way he had been throughout his career, and it was transformative for him and for us.

Douglas Powe: Yeah, I appreciate that and I really appreciate the people because I think you’re right — we think small and we don’t think about the gifts of the people and how we can actually call on them to help us to do the work that God is calling us to do.

As we get ready to bring this to a close, I really appreciate this. The conversation has been great and, again, just a wonderful book. I hope all our readers will get it because I think it will make a difference in their ministries.

I want to move toward the end where you talk about the importance of not looking for the next big thing but trying little experiments. I think that is just the best wisdom that can be given. Can you share a little bit about how congregations can get started trying these little experiments? I think that the hard thing for congregations is taking that very first step. It’s sort of like when a child is starting to walk. That first step feels like the toughest one to make. How do you take that very first step?

Kenda Dean: I think especially because churches don’t have a lot of financial resources, if something is going to cost any money, we want all of the i’s dotted and t’s crossed before we take any step at all. And there is absolutely zero research or examples of anything that has ever succeeded that has started that way. We start with small wins, right? The catch is not how do we have … we might have this great idea or this big business vision or some dream for our community. That’s good. It’s good to have those dreams. But you start with a thimbleful. Not the gallon bucket. What is the first thimbleful that we can sort of test-drive out? How can we try this out?

I told you about the food truck example at our congregation. In retrospect, we should have started smaller than a food truck, but at least the first thing we did was not go buy a food truck and then figure it out. Over a series of months, on Sundays after church, we would test menu items. We would get feedback on things, like, “Here’s a logo. Does this feel consistent with the mission of this church?” That kind of stuff. Sort of gathering pieces along the way, until a grant became available that allowed for the purchase of a truck that we turned into a food truck. And so, it’s just little things, that one step at a time where you can sort of try them out and find out what bombs and what doesn’t. Some things have more traction than you think they’re going to. Others that you think are going to be home runs just fall flat. That’s true for every substantial project. I think that’s true for churches and not churches, too. One small step. I think we’re afraid to do that because what if it fails? I mean there’s a very good likelihood that a lot will fail. Then, that money will have been wasted, but maybe you’ll have wasted $10 instead of $10,000, which is a far better use of your resources. So, we want to dream big and start small.

Douglas Powe: Kenda, thank you. This has been wonderful. I appreciate it. Again, I’m hoping that individuals will buy the book. It will really help them in the work they’re doing.

Kenda Dean: Well, thank you it’s really fun to be here. And blessings on the podcast.

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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.

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.