Are we institutionally handicapped when it comes to innovation?

What place does innovation have in our thinking about cultural change in the Presbyterian Church? I think development of innovative capacity is critical if  churches able to respond to a post-modern environment, both now and in the future.

Perhaps that innovation might recommend some renovations and ask what might “externals” like our present brand represent to people, both inside and outside the Church? What exactly do we think is being communicated by the term “Presbyterian” and does it matter?

We know that it speaks of a certain style of Church government and ministry, but does this distinctiveness really matter to the vast majority? Even if it was understood to mean something about the “rule of elders”, it is likely to be understood as meaning we are less democratic and possibly authoritarian on the governance continuum.

My question is not intended to negate our ecclesiology or devalue our preferred form of polity, but rather ask why it is important enough to our mission to be used on the front sign? I am not asking us to throw away who we are as a family of churches, rather to ask what capacity we have to welcome and encourage innovation. Or are we so wedded to the debates of the past that we would not even explore defining ourselves in a name that people could understand and mean something to them?

Innovation is needed at different levels. One of these is artistic expression. How we do thing and how we communicate says much about the level of creativity and innovation.

I remember back to the 1980s when one of the possible signs of creative innovation was the making and hanging of church banners. Just a few weeks ago I attended a meeting at a certain Presbyterian church and, sure enough, there were a number of banners hanging on the walls. All of them said good things. There was no faulting what was written on them. They were the product of commitment and conviction and possibly a desire to break the monotony of the colour scheme.

However, I would advise that particular church to ask some of their young people what they made of the banners, and then ask others outside the church how they understood the message. There could be some surprises, perhaps similar to the ones I gained over listening to younger people’s perceptions over the last seven years of some of the banners hanging in my last church.

My suggestion is that many of these banners are now old hat. But what culture of innovation exists that would allow them to come down and be replaced with creative pieces more at home and able to communicate in the present environment?

Often, to question many of these trappings is interpreted as some sort of desecration or negation of the past, and this is indicative of a low innovation quotient.

Perhaps the situation with church banners is indicative of a wider problem. We live in an era of discontinuous change and we appear to be institutionally handicapped.

What is needed is a culture of innovation but this does not mean a “free for all”. That would be more a revolution than a reformation, and revolutions have the tendency to eat their children. A culture of innovation needs to be anchored in who we believe ourselves to be and what we exist for. Both of these need to be understood and expressed creatively in terms of what we are for, rather than what we are against. Not for what we reject, but what we embrace.

Perhaps this might mean a change of name that expresses something more important than a form of church government, a dead issue for the majority of people. It might go so far as to replace church banners with modern “iconography” that engages people and communicates the Christian story and the biblical narrative of the people of God.

Perhaps we might like to consider the importance of being an organisation oozing innovation and creativity. We might particularly consider it if we are to attract young and highly capable leaders for the future. Young people are attracted to a cause and if we wish to enlist their imaginations and energies, then we must communicate an enterprise that both challenges and gives permission for innovation.

In an era of discontinuous change, the rule is innovate or die.

Kevyn Harris

Kevyn is a Presbyterian minister, and has recently completed research which, among other things, examines the links between missional churches and innovation. Read Kevyn’s research >

6 thoughts on “Are we institutionally handicapped when it comes to innovation?

  1. I agree we have a bad public image. We seem to be an inward facing church rather than a world-facing church. The words surrounding the Stalingrad Madonna sketch inspire me. They are – Light, Life, Love. What other words or sketch could make a suitable replacement for a burning bush that enlightens no-one? Russell Feist.


  2. With regard to brand: ‘Presbyterian’ is a strange word… and it sure isn’t the only strange one we use. (Still, the burning bush has a lot of potential!) Of course people expect good leadership and good governance as part of the skeleton of any trustworthy organisation… but it is a strange thing to major on.

    I agree – the way we communicate our identity is an important part of developing an ‘innovative culture’.


  3. Kevin, people were asking exactly the same questions in the early 90’s when I was Director of Communications. I think it’s helpful to differentiate between innovation and marketing. Anytime ‘brand’ language is used IHMO it’s marketing. But innovation to me is about how imaginatively we engage with our communities in conversation around the table. What does our hospitality look like. How willing are we to respond to the hospitality of people outside the faith community. To do this we have to exegete the community: where are the spaces the community call ‘sacred’ etc. Let’s meet them there. Let’s hear their stories, lets get creative together, let’s open up interesting conversations about God, forgiveness, ‘withness’, healing silence, lets dance!


    • Diane, I agree it is essential we exegete community and the culture. All the practices you listed get a hearty amen from moi. Listening is critical among them, and, preferably over food.

      And yes, there is most certainly a distinction drawn between innovation and marketing (with the associated “branding”). But as branding goes further than the organisations “name/label”, the organisation cannot escape it’s label being associated with people’s perception of the organisation, that is, it’s brand. Sometimes an organisation perceives its brand to be so tainted that it changes the label. Or it does so because it believes the label does not adequately express how it wishes to be seen. (What was wrong with Telecom? Why go for Spark? And yet, immediate corporate returns suggest the change was worthwhile).

      My question was not so much about the name but how it might be understood in the culture and communicating to the wider community. Once, and in Christendom, it could be understood because it announced a “distinctive”. Today it announces nothing intelligible to a post modern/christian culture. However, and again, this misses the point. My question is more like this: does our denominational label communicate a group keen to engage (and therefore “incarnate”) with the surrounding community and culture or does it suggest we belong to a different era with a conversation (narrative) belonging more to that time?

      It wasn’t about church banners or even the label “Presbyterian”. My question about those and other things is whether they suggest the presence of innovation/creativity or communicate it may be welcomed? And I think there are many people in our midst for whom our label is comforting in that it suggests nothing radical is likely to happen because we, like our label, have always done it this way. Thus the brand and associated label are perhaps part of a systemic dysfunction. We can play around the fringes and re-arrange deck chairs to our hearts content. We have done so in admirable fashion, and earlier back than the 90’s. Yet, still, the organisational slide continues. My question is wondering out loud as to what outward signs there might be in our shop window that announces (a) what business we are in and (b) whether we are open for (that) business?


  4. Hi again,
    When I was minister at Wanaka we decided to change our key identity statement to
    ‘Loving God, Loving People’ This followed a five year discernment process in relation to our strategic vision. IMHO Presbyterian is a trusted brand in many places, But the proof of any pudding is in the perceived actions of everyone and every team .


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