The Church Needs to Be a Place for Radical Innovation: Here’s How

Last month marked the end of my third year in formal ministry as a pastor. Before taking on this assignment, I had taught theology and even preached regularly. However, providing pastoral leadership to one congregation with consistency is different from offering occasional ministry or thinking abstractly about the church.

In these three years, my view of the church has shifted in many ways. But the primary change I have noticed is this: I have come to appreciate the potential churches have for risk-taking and experimentation. A church, I’m learning, is like a research lab. A church is an experimental project carried out in real time. A church is a place where the actual facts of our lives and the dynamics of our society are held up against the biblical picture of shalom. 

The Church as a Skunkworks Project

Some time ago I began noticing the term “skunkworks.” I first learned it when a new design space was set up by the architecture school in Toronto. I learned that a “skunkworks” is an “experimental laboratory or facility for producing innovative products.” It used to be that most skunkworks projects were done in secret. I think the first one that went by that name was run by an aerospace firm. The company had to design a secret aircraft under rigid constraints of time and technical specifications. To make it happen, they pulled some of their best engineers away from their main responsibilities and set them up in an out-of-the-way tent. The team was released from having to participate in ongoing profit-making work so they could be free to innovate.

A church is a skunkworks project where we try to live the economy of God here and now.

As with any metaphor, the church as a skunkworks project is not one that can be stretched too far. There are elements of a skunkworks project that don’t apply to a Christian community. What a church does isn’t secret. It’s crucial, especially in a skeptical age, that the integrity of our claims be tested with transparency. 

But the church is and must be a place of innovation and experimentation. The early church experimented with a raft of things. Prompted by their vision of God’s economy, they explored new approaches to possessions. Some of them held their assets in common. They supported vulnerable members. The early church also experimented with a new social structure. They considered each other siblings. They came from vastly different ethnic and social situations, yet they ate, prayed, and worshiped together. The early church even experimented with a new organizational structure. Leaders were considered servants. They insisted that everyone had something to contribute. Nobody was meant to simply ride along. 

Our churches would benefit if we reclaimed this spirit of experimentation.

Nurturing the Skunkworks Mentality

If you’re familiar with the church’s history, you know that some of its experimental character was lost when it became tightly interwoven with the power structures of Rome and other empires across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Even so, Christian communities continued to be sites of experimentation in shared life, in education, in caring for the sick, even in the arts. Many monasteries were known for their artisanal products and economic productivity. 

At this moment in North America, it is crucial for churches to recover a “skunkworks” mentality if we are to be communities that nurture a timely love for God and neighbor. I’ve seen four key elements that can make this happen. Four ways church should be like a research lab. Read more here. Click To Tweet

1. Try new things. Do it differently than it has been done in the past.

I pastor a Mennonite congregation. Mennonites are probably best known for being strange. The willingness of our spiritual ancestors to be strange formed the ecosystem from which some of our best-known institutions have grown, organizations active in international relief have emerged, and fair trade economy has been promoted. These initiatives all began as skunkworks-style projects prompted by a desire to meet a need in a new way, a way that didn’t rely on existing structures.

2. Begin small. Not being “important” or “impressive” gives you flexibility. 

The beginnings of the congregation I serve were small-scale: a specific response to a specific challenge in a specific place. The church wasn’t planted as part of some grand strategy of market domination. One of my congregation’s most long-term ministries—welcoming and settling new Canadians—began with a relatively immediate and short-term focus. One of the community’s more recent projects, a house in the city dedicated to hosting young adults and visiting students, began with a few people, a limited budget, and a specific need. The need continues. The project has gathered momentum. An organizational structure has emerged. 

One of the key things any skunkworks project needs is freedom. It’s not a part of the main corporate structure. It doesn’t come with massive obligations. The intention is not to go big and make all the money.

Churches can be like this. The goal is not to turn a profit. This releases us from the obligation to control anything. 

3. Situate yourself in the specific and forget about “changing the world.”

What is just as important as freedom is having an awareness of needs. Governments are generally operating at too great a distance to know the granular realities of specific communities. Because of the connections churches have in specific communities, they can be aware of needs that others would miss. 

4. Innovate and be inspired by getting to know your history.

Churches have a lot of inspiration for finding creative solutions. Scripture and worship are two sources. These parts of our common life nurture new ways of looking at things. They help us to be hopeful and they nurture the sense that the status quo is insufficient. 

There is also the broader community of faith of which any congregation is a part. The historical church, the global church—these all contain amazing examples of communities that have turned themselves into living experiments. My hunch is that any vibrant Christian community has found creative ways of living by God’s economy in the context of the needs they see. From the fertile soil of their lives of prayer and their commitment to loving their neighbors, they have seen needs, experimented with solutions on a small scale, and then invited others to participate.  

Watching for the Spirit

Every church must be committed to some central practices, things like regular worship, listening to scripture, building relational connections, and participating in the rituals that define us. But beyond that, our options really are quite broad. I can’t help but wonder what ideas and experiments God might call forth from the congregation I serve now or from other communities of faith across the continent.  What ideas and experiments is the Spirit inviting your congregation to explore as you join God on mission? Click To Tweet

As I go forward in pastoral ministry, I intend to encourage the congregation I serve and others in our network to keep eyes open and schedules flexible. That way, when the Spirit points out the need for a church-based skunkworks project, we can jump in and see what new form love for God and love for neighbors might take.