It can be a scary word, “innovation,” particularly for a fellowship that prides itself on sticking with Scripture as its core anchor—as it should. But COVID has thrust us—many of us kicking and screaming, some of us quite happily—into a very new world of how we do church. Thousands of Christian leaders across all stripes have had to look down the barrel of 2020 and make some bold decisions about how their church will go forward in its worship, discipleship, community engagements, and so on.
And we just can’t shake the feeling that all this streaming and ‘online footprint’ is not the type of church leadership for which we signed up when we were writing our term papers and translating Hebrew in grad school. New skills notwithstanding, some of us have learned the hard way that what COVID really did was expose decades of poor stewardship and church leadership. The best livestream gear in the world can’t save boring preaching and teaching. No amount of social distance will solve an ugly room and bad (non-existent?) discipleship methodology. Your congregation might settle for it, but the ones we’re trying to reach online won’t. And when there are so many great lectures, sermons, and podcasts out there in which to find encouragement, the implication of why more people don’t watch our live stream can be ego-crushing.
So now it’s 2021, and we find ourselves in the unenviable position of recognizing that we must innovate but being unsure whether we’re equipped to do so effectively, having used those muscles so seldom pre-pandemic. We’re not even sure what “effective” means in a post-pandemic landscape. Should we be happy with 70% of our pre-COVID numbers? Should we keep the live stream or stop it? Should we hire an ‘online pastor?’ Innovate how? Our theology? Our practice? What have we held onto that is radically obsolete now? Bigger: What must we jettison that will sink us if we don’t?
Enter Luke 5, quite possibly the most innovative chapter in all of Scripture. Let’s take a quick little survey of all the fresh ideas emerging, all the sacred cows slaughtered, and all the ossified notions of ‘how things are done’ being shattered like a cold mirror in this gem of a chapter. 5
1 One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the
people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.
2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen,
who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one
belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then
he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
Innovation #1 – Change the where and the how of your preaching. As it turns out, sound carries further over water than land, so Jesus was using physics to allow more people to hear. He was adapting to his surroundings for the benefit of the crowds. And he was still preaching the Word. The message didn’t change, only the method. So go preach in a boat. Have a worship service on the lake. Or in the lake! “But we already livestream our sermon, Duncan?” Yes, you do. In a room. With walls. And probably fluorescent lighting. What if you did the sermon while hiking? Spelunking? Scuba diving? Or a man-on-the-street sermon? Or a sermon at a touristy spot?
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep
water, and let down the nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master,
we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because
you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done so, they
caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help
them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to
Innovation #2 – Go where you’ve not yet gone and fish in a way you’ve not done before, despite objections from the ‘experts.’ Because—spoiler warning—this is all new territory for everyone. There are no experts in a post-Covid church landscape. Peter is the professional fisherman here. Jesus grew up a carpenter. It would have been well within Peter’s right to say, “Jesus, I appreciate the sermon, and if you’d like to show me how to make a dovetail joint for my cabinets, I’m all ears. But why don’t you leave the fishing to us, ok, bud? Thanks.” No, Peter was courageous enough to break the conventions despite no evidence that it would work. So, what if you did a two-man sermon, with one of you at HQ and the other out in the field? Hmmmm. Interesting.
Innovation #3 – Create the infrastructure now to prepare for the massive catch. Peter and co. were not ready and consequently their methods were insufficient, i.e., their boats began to sink. Boats are made not to sink. That’s like the number one thing boats have to do: not sink. And these were sinking. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean build a new building and saddle the congregation with debt. But it does mean asking the question “what’s our plan for when double this many people show up?” Because asking that question is a step of faith, like praying for rain then grabbing your umbrella. How long has it been since you’ve prayed an outrageous prayer?
8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go
away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his
companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken,
10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s
partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you
will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left
everything and followed him.
Innovation #4 – Have the courage to go with the better goal/method and dump the old goals/methods as the situation arises. It would have done Peter zero good to leave his fishing business, follow Jesus, but still carry the net with him. Yes, this might mean leaping out of your comfort zone. Welcome to leadership. It might be high time to give some space to that voice in the back of your head that’s been saying for months ‘we really shouldn’t do _ anymore because it doesn’t work.’
12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
Innovation #5 – Hurting people need your presence, not your distance. Your care will become their witness, which makes your care a bit of discipleship. Practically, can we please figure out something worthwhile to do with our nation’s assisted living residents? I don’t care how nice the facilities are, they live in a suck hole devoid of joy. Prove me wrong. So what if we flipped the script and honored them instead? What if we got them on camera telling stories from when they were teenagers? Or how about those who are abuse survivors? Maybe not put them on camera if they aren’t up for it, but surely we can think of some ways to communicate acceptance and safety?
15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
Innovation #6 – Offset the viral-content chasing culture by aggressively pursuing alone, solo communion with the Father. This will likely mean innovate the places you go to pray.
17 One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. 18 Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. 20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
Innovation #7 – When taking the message of Jesus is important enough to us, we will come up with and execute hole-in-the-roof ideas, despite the reasonable objections of the We can’t do that crowd. Yes, we can. Yes, it will likely be messy. So are omelets. Get on with it. Block party for the streets surrounding your church, with a dunk tank and live music? Yes. Backpack trip to climb a mountain? Yes. (That’s a built-in sermon series right there, by the way.) Church at the beach? Yes. Painting? Yes. Skateboards? Yes. Competition Day? Yes.
21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”
Innovation #8 – Like Jesus, speak to people’s hearts, not their arguments. Look deeper. Jesus said out of the overflow of the mouth the heart speaks. So listen to people’s words and let that inform our preaching and teaching.
Innovation #9 – Let go of the old ways of doing things once the new thing starts to get some traction. In this passage, there’s no reason in the world why the healed man still needed his mat. Yet he took it with him. Why? You know the answer: habit. But what used to be a necessary tool was now just extra weight he had to carry. What are our mats? What’s our extra weight?
27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
Innovation #10 – Don’t let a person’s secular job scare you from asking them to serve in ministry. They might just surprise you. The fact that you even ask will do wonders for their faith.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Innovation #11 – Have a dinner party for the regular folks in your community, no strings attached other than just to get to know them. Getting them to rub shoulders with people in whom dwells the Holy Spirit is always a good thing. Most of us don’t do banquets very well or very often, and they can be stuffy and intimidating. But what if you invited a dozen food trucks to set up shop in your church parking lot? Once a month?
33 They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.” 34 Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.” 36 He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
Innovation #12 – Finally, the passage from which this publication derives its name. There are new things and there are old things, and according to this passage, each has a place in God’s economy, and each may be useful depending whether they complement each other and the gospel. The trick is discerning which is which. The innovation here is more of a summation of common sense leadership: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. Your system is perfectly designed to get the result it’s getting. So if you don’t like the result, the solution is do things differently. That is waaaaaay easier said than done, I know. But remember, it’s not a choice between doing something and doing nothing, because…even doing nothing is doing something.
There might still be a place for doing things the way they’ve always been done, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of how our message engages a new culture. The reality is culture is never static. Ever. But good news: one of the geniuses of the church is the ability to adapt to any context to share a message that is beautifully timeless and eternally relevant.