A good place to start is to use Lausanne’s integral mission as a focus. The Cape Town Commitment says:
“Integral mission means discerning, proclaiming, and living out, the biblical truth that the gospel is God’s good news, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for individual persons, and for society, and for creation. All three are broken and suffering because of sin; all three are included in the redeeming love and mission of God; all three must be part of the comprehensive mission of God’s people.”
The follower of Jesus has three interconnected obligations regarding the biblical gospel: to discern, proclaim, and live out.
From this definition of integral mission we can say that the follower of Jesus has three interconnected obligations regarding the biblical gospel: to discern, proclaim, and live out. The believer does these in three integrated contexts of mission: individual lives, society, and creation.
This is still a broad area of application for innovation, but it will serve well for this article.
There is a lot written about innovation. A quick search for books on Flipkart and Amazon shows over 76,000. In fact, a survey of academic literature came up with 41 different definitions of innovation. So, if innovation seems a bit overwhelming, it is. Larry Keeley says it so well in his book about innovation and the discipline of building breakthroughs: ‘Through overuse, misuse, hype, and enthusiasm, the word innovation has essentially lost its meaning. We often confuse the outcome and process, and we describe everything in breathless terms.’
As with all things, we need to pick a direction and move forward. So, let me explain how I see innovation best fitting with integral mission. Most things written on innovation come from business and technology. The newer area of social innovation is also exploding. Integral mission shares some aspects of these industries but with emphasis on personal and societal transformation:
From these we can construct one definition that fits our mission: Innovation for integral mission is the creation of sustainable new solutions to the problems faced in discerning, proclaiming, and living out God’s good news for individual persons, societies, and creation.
Mission innovation is the creation of sustainable new solutions to the problems facing the integral mission of the church.
Or, to keep it short: Mission innovation is the creation of sustainable new solutions to the problems facing the integral mission of the church.
Keep in mind that these behaviors and contexts are all intertwined. As The Cape Town Commitment says, our ‘proclamation [evangelism] has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.’
The word ‘sustainable’ in this definition may cause some confusion. It indicates the difference between an intuitive idea and an innovation. Sometimes you just know something is right or you have a great idea without the need for analysis or planning. That is wonderful. What makes that insight an innovation is when it becomes able to maintain itself over time.
If someone sitting in a very poor part of São Paulo births an idea on how to get reputable and reliable dentists to serve the people, that is wonderful, but until dentists are actually serving the people on a regular basis, it remains an intuitive idea and not an innovation.
With the definition in hand let us look at some features of the social innovation and business/technology innovation industries. The goal is to learn from them and apply what is helpful to our ministries.
In an article in the Swedish, Journal of Systems and Software, the authors say there are four general areas for innovation: products, processes, markets, and organizations. The Brazilian journal, Revista de Administração Mackenzie, recently published a special edition dedicated to exploring social innovation. They broadly define social innovation to include similar areas: new products and services, and new social, organizational, and institutional arrangements. An almost endless list could be made of the kinds of innovations that are happening. However, it is no surprise that there is innovation in mission since hints at innovation can be seen in the biblical record since Genesis.
Here is a short list of missions innovations. They are in four categories: products, services, processes, and organizations. See the endnotes for more information about them.
It takes prayer, planning, and hard work to turn an intuitive idea into an integral mission innovation or startup.
Sadly, not all attempts at innovation succeed. In Larry Osborn’s book, Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret, he says that most innovations and new ventures fail. In fact, Neil Patel writes in Forbes that 90 percent of startups fail in the first year. Although this may not be completely true of ministry and mission startups, the reality highlights our need to pray well. It takes prayer, planning, and hard work to turn an intuitive idea into an integral mission innovation or startup.
Will your holistic ministry in the social sector bring gospel transformation to society? The results are not clear. An examination of over 1,000 diverse social innovations around the world concluded that ‘the relationship between social innovation and social change remains a largely under-explored area.’ However, other researchers have found that groups of people with ‘changed, alternative social practices and lifestyles, are the basis and relevant drivers of transformative social change.’ This gives hope. It is exactly what believing in Jesus creates. Social transformation will improve through continued holiness and prayer, together with measuring the changes in a society that result from ministries focused on integral mission.
At the beginning of this article we saw that one obligation of integral mission was to discern the biblical truth that the Gospel is God’s good news. There are many facets to the Gospel. These include being made in God’s image, sin, shame, love, reconciliation, humility, understanding, the reality of a Jewish Jesus during the Roman occupation of Israel, and much more.
What is good news for one culture might never enter into the heart or mind of another culture. One culture might bask in the wonder of being created in God’s image while another feels shame about individual sins. How do we innovate with these things? How do we discern this so that we can create materials for evangelism? Do we innovate services or ways of living out the gospel?
Deeper thinking, deeper spirituality, and more profound love are required. Those who think deeply about these things are not always the ones who turn insight into innovation. Those who innovate do not always spend weeks and months in deep thought about these things. We need to work together for the sake of the gospel. Thinkers should encourage doers, and doers encourage thinkers.
You can help your innovation succeed by using the Lean Startup methodology. One example of this is the social innovation Give Her Life (GHL)—a startup organization that seeks to prevent gendercide, when a family kills or aborts a daughter because of a cultural and economic preference for sons. This practice is widespread through East and South Asia.
Although numerous actors in the social sector have been working to prevent sex selection for several decades, the practice has proved to be extremely complex and nearly immune to interventions. India has been a hot spot for gendercide; so Give Her Life originally focused on developing small-scale services there. However, they encountered substantial ecosystem challenges, including a political climate that is currently very hostile to civil society.
This resulted in an organizational pivot. GHL refocused on the East and South Asian population surrounding their home office in Los Angeles, and discovered that gendercide is equally prevalent in these populations. This pivot took advantage of a healthier ecosystem for change and allowed GHL to maximize their unique contribution. Given the complexity of the problem and the lack of proven intervention methods, it has been critical to focus on short-cycle learning and responding with adept pivots that the Lean Startup methodology describes.
The call of the gospel requires more divergent, more creative, more innovative, and deeper thinking, planning, and action.
Innovation for integral mission is the creation of sustainable new solutions to the problems faced in discerning, proclaiming, and living out God’s good news for individual persons, societies, and creation. The call of the gospel requires more divergent, more creative, more innovative, and deeper thinking, planning, and action in order to spread the gospel to the corners of the world.
For addressing complex social problems:
For Social/Spiritual Entrepreneurship:
Paul Dzubinski is Director of the RDW Launch Lab, the innovation lab of Frontier Ventures. He has been serving diaspora peoples for many years and has done church planting in Europe. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife.