Imagination Station: Grounding Church Innovation in Tradition

church, innovation, imaginationI have written previously on how Christians should embrace an entrepreneurial spirit in pursuing God’s will (here and here), grounding their innovations and risk-taking in a holistic Biblical worldview and executing their callings through active fellowship and spiritual discernment.

Over at Faith & Leadership, James K.A. Smith provides some related thoughts on Christian innovation, paying specific attention to the role of individual church bodies. For Smith, “good culture making” comes from a properly oriented Christian imagination, and such imaginations are most reliably fostered and achieved through “intentional, historic, liturgical forms.”

First, Smith’s survey of modern evangelicalism:

The entrepreneurial independence of evangelical spirituality leaves room for all kinds of congregational startups that require little if any institutional support. Catering to increasingly specialized “niche” audiences, these startups are not beholden to liturgical forms or institutional legacies. Indeed, many proudly announce their desire to “reinvent church.”

Clearly, the cultural labor of restoration requires imaginative innovation. Good culture making requires that we imagine the world other than as it is — which means seeing through the status-quo stories we have been told and instead envisioning kingdom come. Yes, we need new energy, new strategies, new initiatives, new organizations, even new institutions.

But if we hope to put the world to rights, we need to think differently and act differently and build institutions that foster such action.

Next, his solution:

If our cultural work is going to be restorative – if it is going to put the world to rights – then we need imaginations that have been shaped by a vision for how things ought to be. Our innovation and invention and creativity will need to be bathed in an eschatological vision of what the world is made for, what it’s called to be — what the prophets often described as shalom. Innovation for justice and shalom requires that we be regularly immersed in the story of God reconciling all things to himself.

That immersion happens most powerfully in worship — in intentional, historic, liturgical forms that “carry” the Christian story in ways that sink into our bones and become part of us. This is why the unfettered, undisciplined “reinvention” of the church actually undercuts our ability to carry out innovative, restorative culture making. The story cannot shape us, cannot become part of us, in a church that is constantly reinventing itself.

I certainly agree that “unfettered, undisciplined ‘reinvention’ of the church” diminishes our ability to “carry out innovative, restorative culturing,” but I’m curious as to how we might start (re)defining standards for Christian worship in modern evangelicalism—how we are to pick and choose “intentional, historic, liturgical forms” and how we are to gauge the success of any “reinventions” in a broader, mere-Christianity sort of way. Some areas are certainly more black-and-white than others (e.g. communion, baptism), but what about the rest (e.g. “pledging allegiance in the Creed,” speaking in tongues, etc.)?

I’ve seen my fair share of “non-traditional” settings that foster healthy, full-scope approaches to Christian witness and mission, and I have also witnessed plenty of run-of-the-mill “traditional” churches where the liturgy does not appear to be informing anyone’s lifestyle and/or worldview. The answer might well be “both-and,” but traditional liturgy and what?

Perhaps the point is simply that we aim to ground our institutional “innovations” in some kind of historical Biblical tradition, and if so, I’m on board (heck, I’m a conservative). But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that that most churches across loosey-goosey, warped-imagination evangelicalism would also readily affirm such a generic approach (e.g. “Haven’t you heard our hip rendition of How Great Thou Art? Or do you prefer Gregorian chant?”).

Additionally, if we are going to prop up traditional liturgical forms as an antidote to modern evangelicalism’s imagination crisis, we would do well to ponder what the antidote(s) may be for the similar(/interrelated) imagination crises occurring across today’s more heavily liturgical church settings. I’m doubtful that the solution here is simply “more innovation”?

Whatever the way forward, Smith’s overarching description of the church as an “imagination station” provides us with a solid metric:

The church’s mission, to borrow from Simon, is to send out innovators and designers whose actions are “aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” To do that work, innovators, restorers, makers and designers need the church to be an imagination station, a space where we can re-habituate into our imagination the “true story of the whole world.” Our imaginations need to be restored, recalibrated and realigned by being immersed in the story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

That is what intentional, historic Christian worship does. It is in worship that we learn what God “prefers” for the world, giving direction to our design. We need pastors and priests and worship leaders who understand and appreciate that Christian worship is an imagination station, a place where the norms of the Christian story are carried and embedded in our worship.

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  • Remnant Culture

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