By Patrick Scriven
One of the blogs I try to follow is by author and entrepreneur Seth Godin. While he rarely writes about anything religious, I find his insights on innovation and business to be both practical and often applicable to the church world, after a small bit of translation.
On Tuesday, Godin offered his thoughts on Tesla Motors’ public reveal of the Cybertruck, its first all-electric truck which the company was sharing with the public for the first time. The much talked about reveal has been praised and ridiculed due to the stark futuristic look of the vehicle, and an embarrassing fail during the presentation.
As per usual, Godin uses the moment to talk about a more significant issue—the confusion of ‘attention’ with ‘innovation.’ Just because something catches our attention, it doesn’t mean it has value. Godin continues on to talk about the fascination our culture has had with innovation and how that fascination has been tempered some by a more nuanced understanding of what it takes to move an innovative idea beyond a small group of “early adopters” to a viable audience.
In summary, he writes:
Early adopters are thrilled by the new. They seek innovation.
Everyone else is wary of failure. They seek trust.
In Godin’s opinion, this is where the Cybertruck reveal was something of a disappointment for Tesla. He writes that the company has worked very hard to establish itself as a serious automobile manufacturer, noting that that effort is starting to pay off with the Model 3, by far the most popular EV on the roads today. In chasing attention and clicks, Tesla was appealing again to thrill-seeking early adopters where it could have used its hard-earned trust capital instead to reach a broader market; a market quite invested in established truck brands.
Godin isn’t really against innovation, so long as it provides real value. He writes, “The thing is, innovation has long-term benefits for all of us. The craven search for attention at all costs does not.”
Navigating Fear in Church Change
It is something of a truism to say that the church struggles with change. That is why we need innovators to help us to develop new ways to reach out to people so that we can be faithful in the work God has given us. Some of that innovation is going to fail. Some may never get beyond the drawing board or excite more than a few early adopters. But when something succeeds, we all get to benefit if we are willing to adopt their hard-earned insights.
For innovation to thoroughly permeate the church though, we need capable clergy and lay leaders who have earned the trust of their faith communities to help these innovations to set in. These are not innovators or even the earliest of early adopters. Instead, these are people open to and looking for the best ideas that will help them to shepherd necessary change in their congregations.
Such leaders are often dissatisfied with the way things are. Still, they are also patient enough to build the necessary trust to help their congregations to cross the ‘chasm‘ between early adoption and broader acceptance. Paradoxically, they earn the requisite trust to usher in change by resisting their impulse to adopt ideas without some evidence that they might indeed work in their congregation. They are leaders eager to “test the spirits” and ask of the innovative idea, “Is it any good?”
Innovators and early adopters provide an essential function for any healthy organization, but so do these people who are tempered in their excitement for the latest new thing. Naturally, this can create some tension, especially as the self-confidence of innovators crashes into the caution of those with different leadership responsibilities. Still, this engagement across the adoption chasm can help innovators to improve their ideas, and other leaders to escape the proverbial box they may be stuck in.
Horsepower, MSRP, & Trust Equity
A week after the Cybertruck reveal, people are still debating whether it was a success. Eventually, the Cybertruck will launch, some people will buy it (or not), and it will be tested by consumer groups (and competitors) to evaluate whether it lives up to the hype. As a publicly-traded company, however, Tesla will need to sell enough units to justify the many expenses they’ll have invested in the vehicle’s production. Either they will meet that benchmark, or they won’t—the number of retweets won’t matter.
The same is true for the next innovative ministry idea you encounter or try to pitch to your local church. As you discern whether an idea is worth embracing, it’s helpful to know how you’ll evaluate its potential success.
While a leader may accomplish small changes with the trust equity they’ve built, significant change requires more in a system that genuinely values the community. A shared understanding by church leaders about their mission is a valuable asset, allowing a majority to move ahead through the anger, frustration, and grief that any significant change might engender.
When change doesn’t go well, great preaching and a flashy delivery are unlikely to cover the gap. As Godin might caution, attention drawn to an unworthy or poorly implemented innovation is corrosive to the trust that change and institutional health requires.
There is nothing wrong with being energized by change. And being bold for the right reasons, with a good idea, might be precisely the right approach. But before you drive your Cybertruck of an idea onstage, it’s important to reflect deeply on the capital that you’ll need to extend to make it happen, and whether the benefits will justify the costs involved.
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated layperson working professionally in the church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries.