The church as we know it is calibrated for a world that no longer exists.
Almost everything about the current experience of church was established in a bygone era: the way we worship, the passages of Scripture we cherish, and who we expect to see. The basic contours of church have not changed, even as the world has been transformed. The church as we know it is calibrated for a world that no longer exists.
Erica knows this all too well. In 2018, she brought her youth ministry team from Florida to Fuller for an “innovation summit.”1 Erica came to the summit with a problem she was trying to solve: Her young people were looking to the church for help, she said, in “navigating their way toward hope and joy in a world of suffering.” But the old ways of doing church emphasized following rules rather than dealing with pain. As she listened to her middle-schoolers (and their parents), Erica could see that young people today are far more anxious, busy, and stressed than they were in the past. The old ways of being church are not calibrated to speak to the new (and painful) circumstances.
A changed world demands innovation, and a changed religious world demands Christian innovation. But there is a problem. Most of the literature on innovation assumes that the best innovations will tear down the past and replace it with something better, in the same way that the iPhone camera destroyed Kodak and Amazon replaced Borders bookstores. The best way to innovate, they want us to believe, is to abandon the past. “Burn the boats,” they say. “Cut the ties to the past.” But we Christians cannot abandon the past. We are inextricably—and happily—bound to the past. We will never stop reading Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, we will never stop loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we will never stop saying, “Jesus is Lord.” Christian innovation cannot abandon the past.
So the question of Christian innovation comes into focus. How do we Christians innovate when our credibility depends on continuity with the past and honoring tradition? Or to put it another way: How do we maintain a rock-solid commitment to the unchanging Christian gospel while at the same time creating innovative ways to express that faith in an ever-changing culture? This is why Erica came to an innovation summit at Fuller. She wanted a way to do ministry that took seriously her middle-schoolers’ experience of pain and one that encouraged them, in the midst of that pain, to be what she called “people of compassion and empathy.”
As Erica worked through the process of innovation, she answered five questions. The first three questions helped her stay connected to the ever-changing experience of her people, and the final two questions helped her construct a response that is anchored in the never-changing gospel. Allow me to list the questions and then to show how they helped Erica create an innovative way to bring the gospel to her people.2
1. Who are the people entrusted to your care?
2. How do those people experience the longings and losses that make up the human condition?
3. What Big Lie do your people believe that prevents them from hearing the gospel?
4. How do you make spiritual sense of those longings and losses?
Q5. How do you express that spiritual meaning as a shared story of future hope?
Let us consider each question, along with Erica’s responses. Together, these questions allowed her to create a shared story of future hope to make spiritual sense of the longings and losses of the people entrusted to her care. And that is Christian innovation.
1. Who are the people entrusted to your care?
Christian leaders do not have “followers”—only Jesus has followers. Instead, Christian leaders have people entrusted to their care. There are three theological reasons for recasting the mental model of leadership to be about “a people entrusted to your care.” First, it emphasizes God’s role as the one doing the entrusting. Second, it emphasizes that we are stewards of people who already belong to God. And third, it says that the measure of good work is not my intentions, but is instead the effect my work has on the people entrusted to my care.
How, then, should we understand Christian leadership? One short verse of the Bible summarizes Christian leadership. The church in Corinth was founded amidst turmoil and even dissent. And, at that fractured founding, Paul “planted; Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor 3:6). In Christian leadership, God’s action is the decisive work. Paul and Apollos tended the Corinthian crops, but God made them grow. The distinction is important because the work of Christian leadership is planting and watering.
My grandfather was a citrus farmer for an absent landlord (what the Bible calls a “steward”); he recognized that the trees did not belong to him and that his labor would be measured by the fruit his trees produced. He stood between the owner and the trees. In the same way, a Christian leader recognizes that God may have called Paul to plant and Apollos to water, but the Corinthians were not Paul’s people nor were they Apollos’s people. The people belong to God and it is God who gives the increase. This has serious implications for how we understand the practice of vocation. God calls leaders not to a task but to a people.
Erica came to Fuller with a clear sense of whom she was called to serve. Her first responsibility was to her youth group, especially the large percentage of middle-schoolers. After that, she would recognize an additional responsibility to the teens’ parents and to the congregation as a whole. But, from the start, Erica was called to the middle-schoolers entrusted to her care.
2. How do those people experience the longings and losses that make up the human condition?
Leadership begins with listening.3 The greatest act of leadership began with the greatest act of listening, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Every time God entrusts a new person to my care, I have to begin by listening because, before I can invite a person into a story, I have to understand that person’s story. I have to understand what matters most to them—what stories define them. Only then will I be able to invite them into a gospel story that gives them hope. Otherwise, I am just treating them as a stereotype.
What do we listen for? The sociologist Robert Wuthnow argues that the reason our current crop of congregations is in crisis is that we have been listening for the wrong things.4 Most congregations, he says, are too concerned with the culture war issues of (other people’s) morality and the minutiae of doctrine, paying attention to the small issues of theology that separate Christians rather than the large issues of theology that unite us. Wuthnow does not say that values and beliefs are unimportant; quite the opposite. He says that what we believe is so important that it must be connected to the lives people lead each day.
We need to listen to the issues that matter most to the people entrusted to our care—issues such as work and money or health and family. The way I describe it is this: There is a moment for each person when she lays her head on the pillow at night. She is not yet asleep, and the worries of the day come rushing in upon her. Do you know that moment? That is when the issues that matter most to you jump into your mind. Some are aspirations—things you long for. And some are fears—things you worry you might lose. These are the issues that are so important that they keep a person awake at night. Before we can engage in Christian innovation, we must listen to the people entrusted to our care until we know their stories.
Before Erica came to Pasadena, she engaged her team in a listening project. As they listened to their middle-schoolers, they heard about the things that keep them awake at night: “school stress, fitting in, sports performance, social media, family dysfunction, homework,” as well as what her team came to describe as “sources of worth failures (predicted and experienced).” The listening led them to see their people as anxious, busy, and stressed.
3. What Big Lie do your people believe that prevents them from hearing the gospel?
Longings and losses are such a powerful and indeed overwhelming part of most people’s lives that we tend to create ways to simply cope with the questions, rather than find ways to actually address the human condition. I learned a lot on this point from a presentation made at the installation of Fuller Seminary’s president, Mark Labberton.
When President Labberton was inaugurated, he chose to use the occasion as an opportunity to elevate voices that the seminary would not normally hear (“leadership begins with listening”). He invited speakers from around the globe to speak to the seminary about the needs of the moment from their social location. There were speakers from Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe.
One speaker, Aaron Graham from Washington, DC, was asked to speak from the perspective of an urban church planter. His first point fit nicely with what we have said so far. He said the way to grow a church that can transform a city is to begin by listening to the context—to listen to the lives of the people entrusted to the church’s care.5 Then he went on to describe what his congregation listened for in the lives of the people who began attending his new church. These were people who were, for the most part, young transplants who had come to Washington as idealistic contributors. In terms of longing and loss, they longed to change the world, but they were experiencing the long hours and heavy burdens of their jobs as a tremendous loss.
At this point in his presentation, Graham introduced a device that he learned from activist and Fuller professor Alexia Salvatierra.6 Early in the civil rights movement, the leading organizations sent young people into Southern communities and asked them to listen (yet another example that “leadership begins with listening”). They already knew a lot about the Southern longing for equality and the loss of rights, so they asked their people to listen for what the leaders called the “Big Lie.” They were also tasked with coming up with a spiritual response to that Big Lie. Eventually, these leaders came to codify the Big Lie at the heart of Jim Crow as saying, “Some lives are worth more than others.”7 Without that Big Lie, all of Jim Crow’s oppressive system falls apart. And the spiritual response to that lie, they decided, is to say, “Everyone is created in God’s image; therefore, all are equal.”
Graham took inspiration from this cycle of listening and spiritual response and asked his congregation to listen to the people entrusted to their care—these lonely idealists who had come to Washington. And here is how Graham’s congregation came to articulate the Big Lie that they heard: Their people believed that “you can change the world apart from community.” The people entrusted to Graham’s care, he said, were educated but unfulfilled; they had “amazing resumes but felt alone.” This lie captured both the longing and the loss that defined Graham’s people.8 They longed to make a difference, but they felt the acute loss of community. And, of course, the Christian truth that countered the Big Lie is that the Holy Spirit binds Christians together in community. Aaron Graham’s ability to minister to the idealistic government workers entrusted to his care turned on his ability to counter the Big Lie that trapped them.
As part of Erica’s online preparation to come to the Fuller innovation summit, she listened not only to the longings and losses of her middle-schoolers, she also listened for the Big Lie that was underneath their anxious, busy, and stressed lives. She found that they were constantly asking themselves, “Am I valuable?” which led her to articulate their Big Lie as saying, “Love is conditional.” Although no one spoke the phrase aloud, the sentiment summarized the conditional acceptance that nagged her young people each day. And she came to see that whatever innovation project she pursued needed to provide a spiritual antidote to that Big Lie. Ultimately, she said, she wanted the project to provide her young people with what she called a “grace-based identity” that would allow them to experience “the authenticity of being known and loved anyway.”
4. How do you make spiritual sense of those longings and losses?
Every Christian leader is called to make spiritual sense.9 Understanding the longings and losses of the people entrusted to our care is the necessary beginning, but it cannot be all that we do. We Christians will need to make spiritual sense of the longings and losses of the people entrusted to our care, and in doing so, we will join a great cloud of biblical witnesses. Throughout the Bible we see God’s appointed leaders explaining the spiritual meaning of the people’s common experience.
That is exactly what Erica set out to do once she had recognized that her middle-schoolers believed that “love is conditional.” She wanted to provide them with “an identity found in God, not conditional acceptance”—one that gave them what she called the “liberating sense of being known and loved anyway.” She decided to do this by focusing on the Christian practice of lament.
Christian practices are particularly useful for innovation because they are both new and old at the same time. They are old because each practice has been an essential part of Christianity since its inception. And they are new because the expression of each practice changes drastically over time. But, along the way, we have forgotten (or neglected) some practices. Recovering those practices can accelerate innovation. As part of the preparation for the innovation summit, we introduced Erica to as many as nine reinvented Christian practices, which included lament. In learning about lament, she was able to imagine ways to use this ancient practice to help her middle-schoolers create a “grace-based identity” that refuted that “conditional acceptance” they experienced every day.
Anyone interested in longing and loss must recognize that the appropriate biblical response to loss is lament. A lament allows the people of God to individually or corporately cry out to God in protest—to say directly to God that things are not how they should be—and to call on God to change whatever is amiss.10 Laments are often raw with emotion. We Christians can lament both for ourselves and for others, both for individual complaints and for societal concerns. We can do that because our model for lament comes from Scripture, especially the psalms of lament and the book of Lamentations.
About half of the book of Psalms are psalms of lament.11 How do you know which ones are laments? They are the psalms that aren’t often read in our churches. They are the ones that cry out to God in pain and protest. They are perhaps the most honest and raw statements in Scripture. But that is the point. The message of the psalms of lament is that God can handle your honesty, even and especially if you are angry at God.12
We need models for lament because it would be easy to draw the wrong conclusion about our complaints by thinking that God is like other authority figures we have in our lives. It is often not safe to speak honestly to a human authority figure—especially if you want to accuse that authority figure of neglecting their promises. But God invites it. We need so many biblical models of lament because we easily forget that God is not like other authority figures. God’s love is not conditional. For example, we think that if we refrain from speaking about our anger, then God won’t know that we are angry. But that assumes that we can hide our thoughts from God. God invites our honesty because God already knows what is in our hearts. Let me give you a few of the examples that inspired Erica as she learned about lament.
Fuller professor John Goldingay is one of the world’s leading Old Testament scholars, but his encounter with the psalms of lament is intensely personal. He describes how his late wife, Ann, had a debilitating case of multiple sclerosis (MS) and, after many years of deteriorating, became noncommunicative.13 John used to push her everywhere in her wheelchair—to class, to faculty meetings at Fuller, to church—even as she became a shell of herself. In the evenings, John would say prayers of lament on her behalf, shaking his fist at God and crying out, “This is not how things should be.” He would hold God to God’s promises for a better world. Eventually, after Ann passed away, John married a woman named Kathleen. Now in the evenings John and Kathleen pray lament for the people suffering in Darfur, where Kathleen’s daughter serves. John prayed lament about an intensely personal situation and now prays about more public concerns. But in either case, he uses lament to speak honestly and, even in anger, directly to God.
The scholar Soong-Chan Rah also uses lament. He wrote a commentary on the book of Lamentations that uses each chapter to describe the situation in urban America.14 He has ministered in multiracial settings in Boston and Chicago, and he grew up in urban Baltimore. He uses the language of Lamentations to express the pain of poverty and the outrage of racism in urban America.
Meanwhile, Leslie Allen, senior professor of Old Testament at Fuller, also wrote a Lamentations commentary, this one about his experience volunteering as a hospital chaplain. Each chapter begins and ends with a discussion of a specific situation where someone is suffering in the hospital setting. He then uses the language of Lamentations to express a Christian response to the pain of deteriorating health and the loss that comes with death.
Whether it is intensely personal pain like MS or very public suffering like the African American experience in urban America, whether it is pain across the ocean in Darfur or the plight of the sick in a local hospital, the practice of lament allows people to cry out to God—to say to God that this suffering is not what God intends, and to call on God to do what God has promised: to end suffering and make things right.
The psalms of lament follow a form—a structure—and that structure contains the elements that separate healthy lament from sinful whining. We are all familiar with how the structure of a statement communicates more than just the words. Think of a business letter: If I get a letter from my bank, it starts out, “Dear Scott,” and ends with “Sincerely.” How foolish it would be if I took those words literally, but that familiar business letter structure communicates something about the letter’s message. It is the same with psalms. The structure is a message as much as the words are. These psalms follow a format and traditionally contain these parts: (a) the opening address, (b) the complaint, (c) the statement of trust, (d) the petition for help, and (e) the vow of praise.
This structure became very important to Erica as she taught lament to middle-schoolers. She wrote a simple lament, using almost a Mad Libs style for each of the components:
God, I don’t understand .
God, please fix .
God, I trust you with my future even if .
God, I will praise you even
That structure became the way that she would help her young people make spiritual sense of their anxious, busy, and stressed lives. She believed that if they could express themselves honestly to God it would be “liberating and provide an honest connection” that would rebut the conditional acceptance that filled their lives.
5. How do you express that spiritual meaning as a shared story of future hope?
The ultimate goal of Christian innovation is to invite our people into a new story—a communal story, a hopeful story. People do not latch onto a plan, or an abstract statement of doctrine. That does not change them. Instead, people are transformed when they participate in a story—a story that sets them on a trajectory.
Sometimes that transformation can happen when the story finally names the deep difficulty a person feels. I think that, for example, a significant part of Martin Luther King’s early success was not about offering a plan. It was about naming a dilemma.15 When he talked about what it meant to be trapped by Jim Crow laws, people recognized themselves in that story. Then, when it came time to offer a plan, that too came in the form of a story. Indeed, his “I Have a Dream” speech was a vision in the form of a story.16 His audience did not come to some intellectual decision that nonviolence was the best philosophy (although Dr. King himself had done just that).17 They “bought into” the vision because they could picture it. They could see the story playing out, and they could see themselves in the story. Vision is a shared story of future hope.
We Christians offer something more specific than “future hope.” We offer a hope rooted in the gospel—rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christian hope is different from other kinds of hope. When you hear a person say, “I hope it does not rain,” they are expressing a wish for the future. They may or may not have much reason to believe that their wish will come true, but that is what they want. Christian hope is different. Our hope is not in something (like the weather); our hope is in someone (our Savior). So Christian hope is more like a quiet confidence. It is the sense that all our eggs are in Jesus’ basket, and that is just fine. Christian vision is a shared story of Christian hope. We communicate that hope by inviting people into stories, just as Jesus did. And that is what Erica did with her middle-schoolers.
Erica’s ten-week experiment began with the youth group meeting on a Sunday night. The first week, Erica asked them to come up with lyrics from songs they know that expressed loss, or anger, or whatever else they might be feeling. The young people pointed to Christian songs and to secular songs. That first week, Erica also brought in a storyteller from the community so that the teens could understand the power of stories—including their own story. The storyteller told them about Psalm 22, Psalm 42, Job, and Lamentations. Then, in the second week, the group listed together issues that they thought were lamentable, then replaced lines from the previous week’s song lyrics in order to express their pain. Starting in the third week, they wrote and recited together a group lament on the topic of their choosing, using Erica’s fill-in-the-blank format. The fifth week’s meeting was Parents’ Night. The parents came to learn about lament and participated as each teen used the lament structure to write about something that was happening with a friend. During the teaching portion of the evening, Erica reminded the parents and teens that sometimes they might want to lament about something for which they themselves were partially responsible. In other words, they might make confession part of lament. In the sixth week, they did a group assessment (more listening) to see how the young people were experiencing the process. Then for the seventh, eighth, and ninth weeks, they asked each young person to write and pray their own lament. Finally, for the tenth week, they wrapped up the experiment. After ten weeks, the middle-schoolers had a habit of lamenting.
The most powerful part of the experience for the young people was writing their own laments. “I used to think we had to be nice to God, but I can come to God when I am sad or mad. I don’t need to sugarcoat what I am feeling,” one of Erica’s students said. “It has created a deeper and stronger, a more honest, relationship with God.” Another said, “It’s hard to see how love and anger can go together.” But she eventually got it: “I now see how trusting someone even in anger makes a deeper relationship.” Likewise, one mom quoted her daughter as saying, “I realized it is okay to go to God with my rough draft; I don’t have to wait for the final draft. My life is not polished but it’s honest.” In fact, lament led some, just as Erica hoped, to confession: “I did not realize my part in [the issue I was lamenting] until I talked it out with God. Then I realized I had a part in creating the problem.”
The experience of lament changed the teens’ view of God and who they were before God. Erica reports, “They can now see how they are God’s beloved and that God is their Abba, Father.” Lament was crucial because in order “to help them understand who God is, it is imperative for them to see that God actually invites their complaints and concerns over what doesn’t seem right in the world.” The project allowed them “to understand who they are in light of who God is” and that “freed them up to be their authentic selves.” The end result was a shared story that created a trajectory of future hope. They could now together say, “God loves us unconditionally. We can bring our honest selves to God.”
The experience even changed the trajectory of the youth group. The young people started inviting their friends. The lament experiment showed the teens that “God can handle whatever they throw at God, and God won’t run away,” said Erica, and that attitude of welcoming love permeated the youth group. She reported on one newcomer in particular: “It never entered my mind that he would come to church because of this experience, but, a year later, he is still a part of the youth group. He sees it as an open, safe place to say things out loud to his friends and to God that he could not say anywhere else.”
Erica engaged in Christian innovation. She focused on the longings and losses (Q2) of the middle-schoolers entrusted to her care (Q1). She refuted the Big Lie that “love is conditional” (Q3) by allowing them to experience through lament the idea that “God knows you and loves you anyway” (Q4), which created for them a way of narrating their life (Q5) that said that, when they see themselves as God’s beloved, they are free to be their authentic selves. The old model of being church told Erica that the way to minister to middle-schoolers was to teach them to behave. This innovation, instead, allowed her to proclaim that “God can handle whatever they throw at God, and God won’t run away; and that’s our youth group.”
Erica came to Fuller as part of one of three parallel innovation grants at Fuller: Youth Ministry Innovation, Ministry Innovation with Young Adults, and Innovation for Vocation. Together the projects have gathered upwards of 100 congregations to summits at Fuller. Each project followed a similar path: the participants engaged in a five-week online training course before coming to Pasadena (the course guided them through a listening project), a three-day summit at Fuller (that eventuated in a project prototype), and a ten-week congregational experiment (guided by a Fuller coach). The Fuller Youth Institute (and especially Caleb Roose and Steve Argue) have been instrumental in these projects.
These questions, and this article, are excerpted from my forthcoming book entitled The Innovative Church (Baker Academic, 2020).
S. Cormode, “Leadership Begins with Listening,” Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, https://depree.org/leadership-begins-with-listening/.
R. Wuthnow, The Crisis in the Churches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
He described the importance of listening to the longings and losses of the people entrusted to your care this way: “You can preach and lead with greater authority when you know your context; when you know the place and people to whom you minister.” A. Graham, “Windows on the Church: Session II,” presented at Fuller Seminary on the occasion of the Inauguration of Mark Labberton as President (November 6, 2013). Graham’s presentation comes in the video during minutes 15:00-25:00.
A.Salvatierra and P. Heltzel, Faith-Rooted Organizing (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014).
It is important to note that people rarely if ever speak this lie out loud. It stands in the background or as the foundation for their actions. But it is never spoken. Indeed, it often loses its power if spoken aloud. Thus, one of the roles of a Christian exercising her vocation is to surface the lies prevalent among the people entrusted to her care so that those lies wither in the light of the truth.
Graham, “Windows on the Church,” minute 20:00ff.
For a more detailed explanation of this idea, see S. Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006).
About 65 of 150 (43%) of the book of Psalms are psalms of lament.
The contemporary recovery of lament traces its roots back to an article by Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36 (1986): 57–71. The best contemporary summary comes from John Witvliet. See J. Witvliet, “What about Liturgical Lament?” (January 17, 2016), http://www.academia.edu/20220148/Reflections_on_Lament_in_Christian_Worship.
“John Goldingay on Lament,” FULLER Studio, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXyuLxqAw88.
S.-C. Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015); S.-C. Rah, “Let the People Lament,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6-z-DbVqF4.
M. L. King, “Address to First Mass Meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association” (December 5, 1955), http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/the_addres_to_the_first_montgomery_improvement_association_mia_mass_meeting/.
M. L. King, “I Have a Dream” (August 1963), https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf.
On the effects that theological education had on Martin Luther King, and especially on his decisions to pursue nonviolence, see T. Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years (Simon & Shuster, 1988), 69–104.