Rhythms of Change, Growth, Innovation w/ Jon Ritner
Welcome to the GC Podcast, a podcast to help you develop into the healthiest ministry leader you can be by sharing practical ministry experience.
Cara: Hello friends, and welcome to the latest episode of GC Podcast. This podcast is devoted to exploring best ministry practices in the context of Grace Communion International churches.
I’m your host, Cara Garrity, and today I’m glad to be interviewing John Ritner. John is a pastor, church change catalyst and coach to church planners and pastors. He now serves as Chief Strategic Officer of Community Tasks International, which is a global church planting organization. He lives in LA with his wife and two kids. In his spare time, he likes playing basketball, golfing, reading, and traveling.
John, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it.
[00:00:53] John: Thanks, Cara. It’s great to be back with you and looking forward to diving in again to some great topics. This was really life-giving last time we connected.
Cara: Yes, absolutely. And for today’s conversation, we’re really going to be exploring together change and growth and innovation in the life of the local church.
Before we jump right in, I’d love to know what makes today’s topic something that is important to you?
[00:01:20] John: Yeah. I think I spent 10 years working in a kind of institutional form of church that was probably formed in the 80s and 90s in the church growth movement with a lot of emphasis on Sunday morning and professional leaders and highly intensive programs and big property.
And honestly that model was working and thriving for a while. But it’s easy to fall in love with models, and any sort of model begins as an answer to a cultural or contextual question. And over time our culture and our context changes, and if you fall in love with something, it’s very hard to try to change it.
And my own journey of recognizing the need to adapt, to innovate to the world around us—especially as I frame it, of post Christianity in the West or the rise of secularism in the West—led me on a journey to Europe and then ultimately here to LA to pastor and work with churches here who are facing that.
And we all need to embrace the call to perpetually adapt and innovate as leaders. And honestly, the more I dive into this, the more I recognize, for the primary reason is because we have a theological mandate. Repentance and renewal is at the center of God’s story. It’s at the heart of the gospel that God is changing us and transforming us.
And so we have a theological imperative to consistently evaluate and assess the health of ourselves, our families, our organizations, to hold them up in light of the character of Christ and to say, hey, what are the areas that don’t look like Jesus that we need to identify, repent of? And then try to seek Christ-likeness, try to seek transformation.
I think it’s very easy to just go about the flow as a church leader and assume that your church represents Christ. And not to pause and reflect and say, hey, do we look and sound and act like Jesus in the world? And if not, then we need to repent. We need to rethink. We need to reimagine what that could look like.
And this history of God’s people always includes this prophetic call to return to faithfulness. Whether it’s the prophets of the Old Testament calling out the people of Israel, or Jesus coming and calling out the Pharisees and the religious leaders, or Paul in his letters calling the church to return to the original understanding of the gospel or to return to behaviors that represent the person of Christ.
This prophetic call to faithfulness is one that I think is part of this idea of innovation. Innovation is probably even overstated; in that I don’t think everything that we’ll be talking about today has to be new. It’s not all about new and novel and super creative. Sometimes innovation involves a return to the ancient ways because it’s really more about kind of repentance and renewal and conforming to the nature of Christ.
So, I think that’s the idea of repenting which is so key—even in the book of Revelation, like the seven churches are told, if you don’t repent, your lampstand will be removed. And that’s all you need to, in my book, is to look at Jesus calling out seven churches and saying the essence of faithfulness is ongoing, continual repentance, is reforming yourself into his nature.
And then so there’s a theological mandate (for this conversation), I think around renewal and innovation, but there’s also a missional mandate. The world is just changing and it’s changing at such a rate and pace that most organizations are struggling to change at a similar pace.
And churches historically have done a really poor job of this. We are legacy institutional organizations that tend to be structured for longevity and for stability. And we historically have not been nimble, flexible, adaptable organizations like businesses can be. And so, we’re, in many ways, I think we’re falling behind the cultural trends.
And therefore, there’s potential for next generation to raise up, to grow up and have no real connection to the way that local churches are expressing the life of Jesus, that they often don’t find expressions of church to be connecting with their own spiritual journeys. Or even speaking the language that they’re interested in pursuing when they think about what does it mean to add value to the world? Or what does it mean to connect with a higher being? Or what does it mean to be on a personal journey of development?
And this kind of post-Christian culture that we are facing, is demanding a new way of thinking and a new way of structuring herself in order to connect with people who really are not walking into the doors of existing churches anymore. Whether it’s a lack of institutional credibility, they don’t trust the church. The church is filled with hypocrites or judgmental people, or the church has got all its abuses of power in the past—there’s that element. And then there’s also, I think, just the element that the culture, the practices, the liturgies, the songs, the language that are spoken inside of a church gathering on a Sunday are just not familiar to someone who hasn’t grown up in that.
And so, the cultural gap is too large for them to bridge on a regular basis. They end up staying in their culture and looking for answers within their culture, rather than being able to cross over into a, quote unquote, Christian culture or Christian space.
I think that from missiological point of view, that demands that we as the sent people of God go out and engage with them where they are, that we embed with them, that we embody Jesus, that we incarnate Jesus in those spaces.
It’s not enough to just sit and say, hey, this is the way we’ve always done it, and it’s on the people to come to us. That’s not the heart of the gospel, right? Jesus didn’t sit in heaven and say, all right guys, clean up your act and when you get it all together, I’ll be here ready for you.
He said, the world is broken, and I will enter into its brokenness, and I’ll take on the nature and the form of the culture as it’s being expressed, and then I will model something better in the midst of that. And so that’s the missiological mandate, I think, on the church right now—to figure out how do we contextualize Jesus in a culture that is very different than it was 50 years ago, especially here in America in the West.
[00:08:07] Cara: Yes. What I think is so important about what you’ve said is—and I really like your phrase repentance and renewal because I think that really drives home the fact that we’re not talking about change or growth or innovation just for change, growth, or innovation’s sake, right?
We’re talking about these things happening in response to what God is doing in our midst. And for it to be framed in the sense of a theological and a missiological mandate, I think is so important because oftentimes we might want change just for change’s sake. Or familiarity, just for familiarity’s sake, based on our personalities.
But it’s not, at the end of the day, about us and whether we seek familiarity or change just for their own sake. But how are we being called as the body of Christ to that repentance and renewal? I think that’s really an excellent way for us to think about that.
And I’m wondering a little bit more specifically—you spoke to this really well—but is there more that you would add to what role does this repentance and renewal that can be expressed through change and growth, what role does that play in developing healthy church rhythms?
And on the other side of that, how can a church community be impacted when that isn’t present?
[00:09:41] John: Yeah. I think most organizations right now in America, just from a historical point of view, are facing a crisis. They’re facing a crisis of financial stability, a crisis of numerical stability.
Most churches after Covid have expressed that they’re averaging that they’ve lost 30% of their people, who have just created new rhythms of life and aren’t connecting with either Sunday services or existing programs. Like I said, there’s this kind of missiological crisis of how do we reach the next generation.
And the way I try to articulate this idea of repentance or renewal is almost imagining it as a journey down—how do I describe?—like a curve, which is the upside-down version of a bell curve. And I borrow a lot of these ideas from one of my mentors, Alan Hirsch, whose book actually just came out this past week called, Metanoia, which is really all about organizational repentance.
And some of these ideas, that some of us in his organization were discussing three years ago in Covid. But we’re all facing this kind of unraveling right now where the world is pulling hard on the loose threads of modern American Christianity. Whether it’s politics or social unrest or Covid. All sorts of things are just pulling, and the church in many ways is coming undone.
So, you’re seeing a lot of disunity in congregations. You’re seeing denominational fractures; you’re seeing disinterest. People are purely just up and walking away. And that unraveling is uncovering that there’s a lot of practices and paradigms within the church that are not very Christ-like.
They’re not very healthy, they’re not very kingdom oriented. There’s a lot of ways in which Western, secular culture has invaded the church. And we’ve started to look a lot like the culture around us. One of the most prominent ways, I think is the way we handle power in the church.
For all the talk about servant leadership in the 80s and 90s, I’m not sure that most churches really hold power loosely in service of others the way we’re called to. There still tends to be a lot of a hierarchy and a lot of triangle, top-down decision-making.
And yeah, we’re not necessarily reproducing the quality of leaders that we wanted, and we wonder why. And I think a lot of our paradigms are being uncovered and what that’s leading to then, when people, even in the church, go this isn’t what I signed up for, or this isn’t what I wanted it to be, or I’m disappointed.
The big word now I hear is deconstructing. People are deconstructing their faith. They’re basically unlearning it. They’re rejecting it. They’re either walking away from what they know to be true (which is often how deconstruction is described). I really think what they’re basically doing is holding onto what they know to be true but walking away from the ways it’s being expressed.
And they’re trying to cling to Jesus, trying to cling to even the Holy Spirit, but they’re frustrated with the ways that institutional church has expressed those things, and they’re not resonating with them. And so sadly they’re often trying to go do the Christian life on their own, which is really unhelpful.
This unraveling, this uncovering, this unlearning, I think is causing a lot of leaders to have to try to come to a better understanding of what are the paradigms and practices that are defining modern day Christianity. Are they actually biblical? Are they Christlike?
The way we deal with power, our treatment of women, our treatment of the outsiders, the way we’ve handled resources—all of these paradigm shifts that need to take place. And this is really what the heart of innovation is to me, is this repentance of, hey, let’s get down to the core of who we are, of our operating systems and find out, does this really look like Jesus?
And if we find out it doesn’t, if we have the courage to admit there are things in our organization, there are things in our systems that don’t really represent the kingdom of God; they don’t represent the values of Jesus, they don’t look like an upside-down kingdom that we’re supposed to be embodying, then how do we renew them? How do we—again, you can use the word innovate or adapt.
I like the repentance and renewal language. How do we renew them to create something that looks more like the kingdom? So that upward journey of renewal to me is one that I’ve been helping a lot of organizations think through, and some different leaders.
And for me, the language I use on the upward scale, there is wrestle, experiment, develop, and scale. Like how do we wrestle to express some new paradigms? How do we wrestle to express new practices? If we agree that most disciples don’t look like Jesus, that the discipleship pathways we’ve created are not actually forming people to look like Jesus, then how do we wrestle with some new practices, some new paradigms?
I know a lot of churches are leaning into—and this is why I say innovation is not always about the future—they’re leaning into the ancient concept of a rule of life, which is just a community committing to each other to live out a set of personal practices on a daily basis. So, it could involve spending time in God’s word on a regular basis, which is often the one practice that people initially think about.
But it could also involve hospitality. It could be a weekly expression of hospitality for your neighbors. It could look like a rule of life that includes one intentional act of blessing to someone who doesn’t know Jesus every week or three meals with people where you ask a spiritual question to try to have a meaningful conversation.
But the idea being that maybe we’re not forming people well on Sunday and small groups alone, but maybe what we actually need to do is wrestle with some daily practices that might form people to look more like Jesus. And so, wrestle with that paradigm.
Then experimenting—let’s just try this. And then as you get some success with some experiments, developing them and creating some pathways others can follow, hopefully you can scale up and reproduce.
So, I’m just summarizing that. We can dive into that journey as well there. But to me the repentance journey is the journey of awareness that things aren’t as they should be.
And then the renewal journey is the journey of activity and action to try to create things that we think should be. And that is honestly, I hope the journey that all of us are on a daily basis as we walk with Jesus. What’s not right and how do I get it right?
And then also, what do we do as an organization to admit what’s not working? What’s not faithful? What’s not Christ-like? How do we identify that, change it, shape it, and try to express something that is right?
So that’s the language that I’m using when I think about this idea of innovation; it’s just really a return to faithful expression of Jesus.
[00:16:50] Cara: Yeah, that’s really good. And when you’re working with a church leadership or local congregation, whoever it may be, in that process of repentance, that kind of recognizing maybe what isn’t as it should be and that process of renewal, how do you help? Or how do you recommend a group to know when it’s time for that repentance and then renewal? What are some signs that folks look out for? How do we discern that process of repentance?
[00:17:30] John: I would say in one time it’s always time for repentance and renewal. The church of the reformation is always reforming, right? So, it’s like we should always be just identifying what areas of our organization are we focusing on right now—and again, there’s a balance to that. You can’t change everything all at the same time.
Every organism that is adapting also has part of it that is creating stability, right? So there has to be a balance of both risk and security at the same time. Or else you’ll burn out. So too much security, you don’t innovate. Too much stability, you don’t grow new cells and you die. But too much innovation and you can’t stabilize that growth and you’ll die as well.
So, you do have to think through adaptation at a pace that your organization can withstand. And I do think the timing and tempo that you roll out new ideas and new changes is important because you can easily blow up your church in 90 days over innovation, ideas. And if you don’t blow up the church, then you’ll just lose your job because they’ll just get rid of you. Because every organism has its own way of eliminating threats to its comfort.
So, that’s the first thing I’d say is don’t wait until you feel this pinch. I think it’s always healthy to be prophetically asking Jesus, bring to our awareness areas of our organization that are not honoring, that are not faithful, that could grow, that could change. And then make that part of your culture that it’s not as if we only innovate when we’re dying.
Or it’s not as if we don’t change when we’re failing. We’re always changing, we’re always growing, we’re always trying new things because we want to be an adaptive organization that is a learning organization really that we never assume we are certain on how to do things. We’re always curious about, is there a better way? Is God doing something new? How do we join that?
So, I think that’s the first thing I’d say is don’t make it into a dramatic declaration that we have to innovate because we’re dying. That just sends people into a panic. It’s better to think about the fact that we’re perpetually innovating and renewing because that’s what it means to be a humble organization.
And then I think at that point, then trying to identify what are key leverage points in the organization that you really want to think about. Is it working with youth? Is it engaging in your neighborhood? What are some of the key places where you might be able to make a small change for a big impact?
And for me, a lot of that in my experience has been in getting people engaged in serving the local communities, the local neighborhoods, becoming more aware of their own sense of calling and giftedness so they have more confidence that when they go about their life and the places they live, work, and play, they know how to add value in that environment.
They know the phrase we often say, they know how they are good news there. They know what they can do to embody the kingdom of God in those spaces. Most people, if you ask them that, if you say, hey, how are you good news in your workplace? Or what are you doing to live out the life of Jesus? They just kind of look at you like, I don’t know what that even means.
And then if you said to the average church-goer, okay but what’s your ministry? They might say, oh, I work in kids, or I’m a parking lot attendant. That’s not your ministry. Those are the chores that we perform when we gather as a family so that we can care for all the needs that we have.
But your ministry is primarily one where you join Jesus out in the world. And to me that’s been a big leverage point for innovation is churches trying to think about, how do we equip our people to live as everyday missionaries in the places they live, work, and play? And what are the skills and practices they might need to do that?
Yeah, I think that’s the two things I’d say is normalize this repentance journey, so it doesn’t feel as anxiety-producing. And then also secondly, is to try to identify what are some key places where a small change could make a big difference. It’s probably not Sunday mornings. It’s probably not even something as stable as your property. It’s probably going to take place in the spaces of life that exist between your Sunday gatherings.
[00:22:11] Cara: Yeah. Thank you, John, for saying that. And one of the things that I think is really important for us to note is this idea that change—our growth, innovation, repentance, and renewal—is not just this one-time thing.
I think that is really key that you mentioned it’s an ongoing rhythm and ongoing posture. And so, I’d love for you to take us back to that process of renewal and maybe zoom in a little bit to each of those steps in the process of renewal and talk us through, what does that looks like. And how does it look for a church community to go through that?
[00:22:51] John: Yeah. I’ll give a couple examples of paradigms that I think need to be—we need to repent and renew, so to speak. One of the classic ones from my own journey is just the idea that most American churches, their disciple making process is super reliant on professionals, properties, and programs.
It’s a professionally trained person on the stage. It’s a property that people can gather in. It’s a series of programs that take a lot of volunteers. And all of those things are pretty centralized forms of disciple making that aren’t resonating as much with people in post-Christian culture who aren’t necessarily comfortable in a church space.
And therefore, they’re not going to meet your professionals and they’re not going to join your programs. If you recognize that old paradigm is passing away and we need to repent of it, meaning, again, not moralistically repent of it, but just mentally and in our soul, rethink it and have a new mindset and recognize that a more ancient and maybe even more biblical (from a first century point of view) pathway is everyday disciples making disciples.
So, you hear that language, right? Disciples making disciples, and that’s what everyone wants. But are we really equipping our average person, our ordinary person in our church to go out and be able to make disciples the other six days of the week?
Most people that I talk to feel like no one’s ever trained them to do that. They don’t know how to do that. They rely on a program, or they rely on a professional.
And once you identify that there’s something broken there, then you wrestle with, and you articulate this new paradigm. Hey, we want to have every disciple in our community knowing how to make a new disciple without a reliance on property, programs, professionals. Then you start experimenting. You say, okay, so if we’re wrestling with that, let’s state a hypothesis and experiment. What’s a way to try to train those people to do that?
Or what does a disciple need in order to do that? Do they need a supportive community? Do they need a set of resources? Do they need tools? Maybe let’s ask them, what prevents you from engaging in more disciple making in your spaces?
But maybe you hear them say, hey, no one’s ever trained me to live that way; what you’re talking about sounds almost like being a missionary. And I’ve never thought of myself as a missionary. I’ve never been trained to live as a missionary. And so, I would need someone to train me to do that.
Okay. Why don’t we create an experiment, a small batch experiment at low cost, where we take 10 people and we put them in a three-month training program? And we look for some resources where we can try to train and equip them to live as missionaries and give them a set of practices that they can engage in and be accountable to, and we can learn together and let’s experiment with this three month discipleship program and find out does this train people and equip people to do what we want.
It’s not a 10-year commitment. It’s not a hundred thousand dollars commitment. It’s low cost, low risk. And in a small batch, you’re not putting everyone in the church through something, but you’re just running a little experiment on the fringes of the organization.
And then you’re finding out what did we learn? What we learned was it resonated with extroverts, but introverts had a hard time. Okay? So, it didn’t quite connect. So now let’s run another experiment for how introverts make disciples. What are the tools they need? You know what I’m saying? So, what you’re basically doing is creating an experiment that creates a feedback loop. You experiment, you fail, you learn, you repeat.
And the failure actually is what helps you keep learning. And the goal then is to create a culture of kind of perpetual experimentation within your church.
So, any of these paradigms that you might identify. Another paradigm that you might think about is, we’re frustrated that our church tends to be a hierarchical, top-down authority or centralized authority organization, and we don’t think that is biblical or really healthy. So, what would it look to have more of a team-based or a dispersed leadership organization? Let’s start, let’s put together a team of people that maybe are representing different gifts and experiences in the church.
And let’s give them responsibility for one project or one task. And let’s see, what do we learn about team-based leadership? And what are the challenges? What are the benefits? And how do we begin to scale that up so that eventually maybe our entire organization is a team-based organization and not a solo kind of heroic based organization.
So, I’ll give you an example of that. In Brussels when I was over there, we were really trying to decenter the professional. We didn’t want anyone thinking that only professionals could teach the bible, only professionals could lead ministry, only professionals could make a disciple. And what we didn’t want was a paid pastor teaching 40 Sundays a year at any of our gatherings, because that would just reinforce that, right?
So, we created an eight-person teaching team. And every Sunday, we had small, localized gatherings, but in all of our localized gatherings, it was non-professional people who were doing the Bible teaching.
Now the experiment that we came up with to try to figure out how to help them be successful was we would gather Tuesday night with this team, and we would identify our scripture. We’d break it down together. We would pray through it. We’d begin to structure some main ideas, and then basically we would work together to create a common lesson, even though each person would individually put their own application onto it and tell their own stories and things like that.
That was an experiment and some of it worked, some of it didn’t. We were always tweaking it as we went to improve it. The question you ask with an experiment is if it didn’t work, let’s pivot and go another direction. But if it did work, then let’s persevere. Let’s just keep doing it more and more until it becomes a habit.
And that was one element of culture where we identified, hey, here’s part of our church we don’t think represents the heart of Jesus. Let’s repent of it. Let’s identify a new paradigm and a new practice, and then let’s begin to seek renewal by experimenting with new ways of expressing this.
And then once it worked and the experiments worked well, then now you have something that you can develop and scale and express in other areas. So maybe you take that same mentality, and you create other teams within the organization in areas of leadership where primarily there was just one individual. Again, you’re running these experiments with people who want to experiment.
Don’t try to find the stodgiest, grumpiest, oldest person in your church and say, hey, you’re joining the experiment. But you’re looking for some of those innovators and early adopters. And you’re basically trying to create—in the business world, they call it a minimum viable product, like the experimental version of something that you can run and implement. It’s the beta version, right? It’s the thing they release first to the testers.
So, I think that cultural change of not just saying we’ve always done it this way, but saying we want to be a church that is always trying to do it in new ways. And specifically, around trying new things because they are more faithful expressions of Jesus and the church, not just for the sake of novelty,
[00:31:01] Cara: Yes. And I think that in that process, something that I find really helpful is that experiment phase where you really do something on the side. It doesn’t require the whole church to do that. And in GCI, a connection that I make is, we use a lot in our leadership teams this tool called the 5 Voices [Giant Worldwide].
And some of those voices are a little bit more future oriented in their thinking, some more present. And some of them are more of that innovator. Let’s go get it! Let’s move ahead. And some are a little bit more, let’s see what actually works. First, let’s dot all our i’s and cross our t’s.
And so I think when you create a rhythm and then even a culture where we’re doing experiments, that’s a good way to negotiate all of those voices that are present, not just on the leadership teams, but even membership in the church where we can see what possibilities, where we can go, what might be possible without putting everything on the line with the first new idea that might come along.
And we call that often in GCI with the 5 Voices, building a bridge. So, it gives us the opportunity to not get stuck in our ways. But to build a bridge for those who might need to see a more tangible, solid pathway forward in that process of repentance and renewal together as a church community.
[00:32:44] John: Yeah, that’s a great point, Cara, because if you’ve studied any sort of change management books or books like Diffusion of Innovation, how do ideas tip and become accepted by culture, by any community?
One of the things that you know comes up time and time again is that there’s only a very small portion of any organization or any community that are energized by new ideas, where they don’t have to actually see it modeled for them. You can just tell them about it. I always say when there were all these Macintosh Apple fanatics who, when Apple announced they’re coming up with an Apple watch—no one had even held it in their hand or really knew all that it could do, but they were ready to pre-order it because they wanted that technology because they could imagine in their mind how it could benefit them.
That’s a small fraction. The majority of people in your organization will actually have to see these ideas modeled for them. They’ll have to see them in action. There’ll have to be enough confidence that this is working for other people before I’m willing to buy in.
And you see the Apple Watch now where people look over and they [say], oh, what is that? Did you get that? Do you like it? What does it do? Is it helpful? And when they see, okay, this thing adds value, then they’re willing because of the credibility of that other person who’s doing it and using it. That’s when they finally buy in.
So, the value of these experiments is that you experiment with your innovators, your risk takers, your courageous apostolic-style people. But then if they create something tangible, then that becomes a model that others can see and experience, and they will have an “aha moment,” not by the idea, but by the actual practice and implementation of that idea.
[00:34:31] Cara: Yes. Yes. And that does seem to have a different effect—just the idea versus the embodiment of that idea. Yes. That’s powerful.
[00:34:43] John: And this is why I think, remember Jesus’ version of this is come and see. There were some people who literally experienced Jesus, had a miracle moment, and they’re like, I’m in; I don’t even know what we’re doing, but I’m in.
And then others would ask him questions and he would say, I’m not sure ideas are going to convince you, so why don’t you just come and see what this is all about. Come walk with me for a week, for a month and then you’ll have a better understanding. For some, he invited to join them in the moment he met them.
For others, he said it’s okay to come and see this model for a bit because that’s what you’re going to need in order to fully buy in.
[00:35:21] Cara: And one of the things that I caught that you said too is in that experimenting sometimes the failures is really what we need to learn. And I think when we think about experiments, being with that smaller portion of maybe the innovators, the creatives, those people that like to be out ahead, it makes that necessity of failure, maybe even a little less risky because we can fail without bringing harm or failure to the whole community.
Which I see as sometimes the fear, right? That if we try something new and it doesn’t work, how’s that going to impact everybody in our church community? It’s not just because we don’t want to be in renewal, be in repentance, in faithfulness to what God’s doing, but what happens if we do it wrong and people are harmed in the process?
[00:36:21] John: Yeah, exactly. And that’s another element of culture is to create a culture that celebrates risk and is able to learn from failure. So, you’re not going to be punished if you try something and it fails. As long as you can maybe articulate what you learned through that.
And again, you’re not going to be punished because it was low risk. It was small batch. It wasn’t a thousand people going through it. We didn’t give you a million dollars to try it. Maybe we gave you a thousand dollars and 10 people to try it. And any damage that might be done was very contained, number one.
But as long as you were leaning in the direction that you were trying to move in, then that’s fine. That’s called validated learning, and that’s effective. Now, run another experiment based on that. So, the old line that—what is it? Thomas Edison figured out a thousand ways to not invent a light bulb before he invented it, or some quote like that. Which I’ve always loved. Of course, the guy didn’t sit down one day and just whip out a light bulb. It took him thousands of iterations of things that didn’t work, or just a little piece worked to continually improve and create that.
I think that’s a cultural element to try to bake in, that it’s okay to do that and there’s permission even to do that. Back at my former church here in Hollywood, we even created what we called a micro grant program for community activity. So, if you had an idea for a way to bless or benefit the community around you, you could apply for a $1,000. That was the cap. It didn’t have to be all of that, but the cap was a $1,000 micro grant. For you and a team to engage in trying to serve and bless the community and build relationships that might lead to disciple making.
A thousand dollars is not nothing, but it wasn’t all of our budget by any means, and we had the ability to do it. But it gave people the permission to say, hey, we’ll put some resources behind your experiments. Not all of our resources, but some.
But you have to then come back and tell us what you learned. So, if you tried something and it didn’t work, we want to know what happened. And I was one of the guys pioneering that we did something at a local pub for eight weeks. And it was fun and interesting, but ultimately it didn’t accomplish our purposes of making disciples or making new relationships in the community.
It was a fun, entertaining night for Christians, and that was not our goal, so we shut it down. And so, then I remember sitting outside the last night at this pub and us all saying, all right, what did we learn? Why did this not work? We thought it was going to work. And it was funny; we learned things like parking is really important. And the fact that it’s $12 to get a beer at a pub in L.A.—it is a factor that not everyone wants to go do.
And that the bar offered us Tuesday nights, because that was their slowest night. But that also was really hard to get friends to join you at something on a Tuesday night, which is why it was the bar’s slowest night. But we were willing to experiment by blessing them. We said, hey, we want to help you, so we’ll try to bring in people on your slowest night. And that’s why they gave us the room for free. And they liked having us there. We just couldn’t get enough people out. So, we had all these lessons that we learned, and we talked about it, and then we shut it down.
And those things stick in my mind as I think about what else could I do to engage people in our community. I’m not going to try the old way, but I’ll take some of that and experiment and build off of it.
[00:39:56] Cara: Yes, that’s good. That’s good. I am wondering for maybe our local church leaders that are listening and they’re wanting to, with their group of leaders, try out this process of the wrestle and the experiment and maybe develop and scale. What would be the first question that you would suggest that they come together as a leadership team and discuss?
[00:40:38] John: It’s interesting because I think part of human nature is to come together and say, let’s identify what’s broken. What’s our biggest weakness? And let’s deal with it. Let’s address it. Let’s experiment around it.
What science has shown in human nature, and I think what the gospel of grace leads us to, is a different approach. Which is to come together and say, okay, if we recognize we need some innovation, we recognize that organizationally we need renewal, start by asking the question, where is God working? And how can we add more resources to that? Where is the Spirit moving? What is Jesus doing well? What are the stories right now that we’re celebrating?
Now, we may want more of them, but rather than starting with what’s broken, how do we fix it, start with what’s beautiful and how do we fan that flame? Where is God already working in our church? It’s the language of appreciative inquiry (is the phrase that I hear that’s based on a book) where you start with this idea of asking, what is working, what’s good, and how do we join it?
And I think that is very biblical. It’s starting with Genesis 1 rather than Genesis 3. So, Genesis 3 is that humanity is broken. Genesis 1 is that humanity, it bears the image of God. So, it’s, hey, let’s go back to the beginning and start with, what in this organization is thriving?
Now, it may be very small. It may be a pocket, it may be one community group, it may be one local outreach team. It may be … who knows? But then saying, how do we add resources to that? How do we experiment to either scale that up or to try to duplicate that, or to just nurture it and provide more resources or expose more people to it?
And I think that approach tends to build positive momentum. There’s only so many people that will be inspired by a narrative of decline. You can only get up there and say, this church is dying, and we need to change, and there’s maybe 3% of your people will go, that’s it. That’s what I’ve been waiting for. I’m ready!
Most people will just be depressed and then just go, that stinks, and why am I here? And you know what I’m saying. But if you say, hey, there’s this thing going on in our church that we don’t all know about. We need to, we want to invest more in it. We want to hear more stories about it, and we want to replicate that. [That] is much more inspirational and aspirational and energizing than the decline narrative.
So, I think that’s the first thing I would say is go on an investigation. Go on a scavenger hunt and try to find what area in the life of your community—it doesn’t have to be a program, doesn’t have to be something done by professionals, doesn’t have to be something on the property. Where’s the nook and cranny in the life of your church that God is doing something really beautiful?
And then how do we celebrate that and learn from it and maybe even begin to try to reproduce it or scale it so that others could join it.
[00:43:53] Cara: I really like that as a starting point. That’s fantastic. And I like that comparison too, that it’s the Genesis 1 starting point. Yes, it’s much more encouraging.
I wonder too … right now in GCI, we’re in a time where we’re really wanting to focus on developing our missional rhythms and mindsets and be really focused in our neighborhoods. And I know that you’ve already spoken about the missional mandate that you believe is part of this rhythm of repentance and renewal.
What more would you have to add to that specifically that may be helpful to our listeners as they continue on this journey of repentance and renewal?
[00:44:43] John: There is a paradigm that I grew up in that basically—when I came to Christ in 1999 and started joining churches and being involved and coming on staff, there was this paradigm that God did his best work in the church.
And that if you really wanted to know what God was up to, you should come to a service on Sunday. And the most spiritual moment of the week was Sunday at 10:00 AM, maybe Wednesday at 5:00 or 7:00 at your small group. But that’s where we pointed to say, what is God doing and how do I experience God?
And I think one of the paradigms that I have been trying to embrace and rethink and renew is this idea that God does his best work out in the world. And he invites the church to join him. And that idea in the same way we talked about appreciative inquiry within the organization to say, within my community where is God working and how do I join the work he’s doing?
Where is the Spirit moving? Who are the people who are seeking God and asking questions? Where are the pockets of my community where I sense healing is happening or renewal is happening, or there’s flourishing happening and how can I join him there?
When I enter into my missional spaces, which as you mentioned earlier, are often around sports, golf, and basketball and softball, and things like that, I often will get out of the car and pray just a little prayer, like Spirit alert me to the ways that you’re working in people’s lives today. And so, then it just sets me into a posture of, it’s not my job to bring Jesus into this relationship.
What I’m wondering is, what is God already doing with this person? How is God trying to reveal himself and how could I join that? Maybe it’s by adding clarity, maybe it’s by being curious. Maybe it’s by celebrating that. So I think that same idea of the missional scavenger hunt or the curiosity piece for organizations is really helpful.
And I know a lot of churches who have expressed that they feel like numerically they’re dying, financially they’re dying, generationally they’re dying, who have changed their posture from trying to get the community to come to them on a Sunday in order to experience God, and said instead, we’re going to turn this church inside out. And we’re going to go join the community and try to figure out where God is working.
And we’re going to do the things that Jesus did. We’re going to pray and bless and try to offer healing and repair and acts of service. We’re going to discern what is good news to these people and try to live it out.
There was an incredible article that I read probably about five years ago, about a church up in Minnesota that basically acknowledged, we’re dead. This is, as I like to say, last man out, close the door, or last woman out, close the door. Because this organization is not going to self-generate new life.
And they said, rather than just sitting around for the next three, five years until we all die, or everyone leaves, what if we just spent all that time trying to figure out how could we go out as a blessing to the neighborhood? And they basically became like free handymen in their neighborhood, and they started providing all these free services. And so rather than gathering for all their programs, they just turned the whole church inside out and said, okay, instead of a men’s breakfast on Saturday, we’re going to do a workday.
And we’re just going to go door-to-door and say, hey, we’ve got six guys here. We have our toolboxes. Anything in your house that needs repair, we’d love to do it for free. And if it’s a bigger project, let us know. We’ll try to get a team. We’ll come back next week. And within six months, nine months of this church doing this, they had a whole new reputation in the community.
And people were like, who are you? Why are you doing this? And then, people honestly started wandering in on Sunday mornings because they knew, that’s when a church gathers, to say thank you, to bring cookies and donuts and to say, hey, we love that you guys are in our neighborhood.
And it actually turned their life. They didn’t die. They actually started adding new people to their community who said, we want to join what you’re doing. But it all started by getting out of their traditional paradigm that spiritual things happen when we gather in this space and saying no, we want to go join the work of God as an act of scattering out in the community and be a blessing to people out there.
I think that inverting your stance from insiders to focusing on outsiders is one of the best things that churches can do to try to catalyze some of this new experimentation and creativity.
[00:49:36] Cara: Yeah. That’s incredible. And I encourage y’all who are listening to meditate on that, discern, meet with your teams and just pray about what areas of experimentation could that look like in your neighborhoods.
I don’t know, but it’s an exciting time. It is an exciting time to be Jesus’ church. It always is. Maybe I’m biased because this is when I’m alive, but it is an exciting time!
And our time together is coming to an end. So, John, I’m just wondering what final words of advice, encouragement do you have for our listeners?
[00:50:16] John: Yeah. In my coaching of leaders and pastors and talking to people, I think the first thing I always say is don’t try to do this alone. There is a natural reaction that takes place within organizations when you try to innovate and change. And it’s usually based on anxiety.
People get anxious, and as I have learned, anxious people behave badly. It’s just not the best version of themselves when they’re fearful and anxious. And they do things like sabotage and triangulate and gossip. And it can get really overwhelming to try to lead change all by yourself.
So, it’s so important to have either a coach or some sort of a denominational cohort or just a tribe of people. I sometimes call them freaks like me. Who are the other freaks like me trying to do something that we can just encourage each other on a weekly basis and say how are you doing? How are you holding up?
Maybe this week I’ll celebrate your win because I don’t have any wins, but next week I’ll get to celebrate my win. And that’ll encourage you. A lot of the coaching even that I’m doing is trying to just help support and nurture and pastor coaches who are trying to bring change into their organization.
And then the second thing is just to put your own efforts in perspective and remember that all of God’s promises in the New Testament are to his church. They’re not necessarily to your church. God has not promised that your local church will thrive and exist forever. Revelation makes the point that even those seven early churches, they’re not around anymore.
I don’t think any of those churches—a lot of those cities aren’t even around anymore, but I’ve been to the ruins of those cities. And it’s not like there’s a group of people hanging out on Sunday morning and they’re like, look, our church survived. Wow! Nope, it passed away. But God’s global church is thriving and is growing.
One of the prophetic voices of my life who I look up to as a mentor is a woman named Danielle Strickland, whose background was in the Salvation Army Church. And she lives up in Toronto and does a lot speaking. But she just had a great analogy at a conference I was at last year, talking about the end of Acts when Paul’s about to be shipwrecked and he has a revelation.
God basically reveals to him that the ship is going down and he says, all the people aboard will survive, but the ship will not make it. And she used that as this prophetic analogy of the modern church. She felt like God was saying to her, listen, the ship is going down, but all the people will make it.
Meaning the people of the church are going to be fine. But the structure, the system, the hull of the church, which is more like the ship that holds the church, that’s probably not going to make it. And to have the courage and to just remember that the church, as it is, may not make it, but that God’s commitment is to his people.
And so even if my local expression doesn’t survive, my confidence is that God will always provide for his people. And that’s what inspires me, is not necessarily even trying to change churches today. What inspires me is having the courage to experiment so that my son (who’s 14), in 10 years when he’s in his young twenties, that he will know that it’s okay to express church in ways that are creative and innovative, that resonate with his friends, and that he’ll have the courage. He’ll have seen another generation try some things and ideally, we’ll have learned some lessons that he can build on.
But I think that you have to have that generational mentality in order to not get too discouraged. Your church may not make it, but God will provide for his church, and maybe the lessons that you learn will help the next generation build the better ship, so to speak.
[00:54:22] Cara: That’s so good. That’s an excellent word to end on. Thank you so much, John, for joining us today. But before we fully close, I have a couple of fun questions for you.
Alright. First thing that comes to mind, if you’re ready to go. The first question is, what is the best thing that you have bought so far this year?
[00:54:47] John: The best thing that I have bought this year is a $20 magnetic ring from Amazon that goes on your laptop that allows you to use your iPhone as a web camera, because most laptop web cameras are miserable, and they’re cheap.
And all the zooming and speaking and all the things that we do now. People think, oh, you have to upgrade your laptop. You don’t. Your camera on your phone is probably 10 times better than your laptop camera. So, for 25 bucks, you can buy a little clip that hooks onto your laptop and attaches my iPhone, and all of a sudden now my video quality is like a hundred times better and everyone wonders how it happened. And I’m like, it’s 25 bucks. I’ve become like a salesman for these little things. Yes.
[00:55:37] Cara: That’s wild. I had no idea. Yeah. The more you know.
Okay, next question. Would you rather have a pet sloth or a pet parrot?
[00:55:48] John: Oh my gosh. I am fascinated by parrots, I think. Oh, okay. I think the concept of parrots imitating language and conversation, I just think it’s fascinating and I would love to run some experiments with my own parrot. I’d love to like how much can you teach parrots to sing and what sort of—could you teach him multiple languages, and could you train it to say something when a new person came in the house? I think that would be super fun and creative to have a pet parrot.
[00:56:14] Cara: Oh, that when you say it like that would be pretty fun. What is your favorite kitchen gadget?
[00:56:24] John: Ooh, I’m sitting next to my kitchen. That’s a great question. My family’s gotten obsessed with these little—oh, gosh. How do you describe this? You clip them onto your fingers, your middle finger and your pointer finger. And they almost look like miniature chopsticks that extend out from your fingers.
And they are meant for eating popcorn without getting your hands greasy. Oh. And so, you like slide them over your fingers and then you move your fingers and grab popcorn. You can only get like one kernel at a time, which is good. It slows you down, but at the end your hand is not nasty. And so, I’m taking my two kids tonight to go see a movie. And I know both my kids before we leave, they will reach in the drawer and grab their little popcorn eaters, because we actually bring them to the theater with us. And so they were like stocking stuffers that my wife got as a gift that have been totally implemented and accept, adopted into the normal course of our dietary life around here.
[00:57:29] Cara: I love that. Especially like movie theater popcorn can make you so greasy. Yeah. Oh, that’s awesome. I hope y’all have a good time.
All right. And then what did you want to be when you grew up?
[00:57:45] John: Oh, the first thing I can ever remember wanting to be was a dinosaur digging archeologist.
And that was long before Jurassic Park or anything, but I just always thought it’d be cool to have those little tools, the chisels and the brushes and to just sweep away and discover old bones. Yeah, I was probably eight years old just like a boy digging in the dirt, looking for fossils in my backyard thinking how amazing would it be if I discovered a T-Rex back here in right upstate Connecticut, put the city on the map.
[00:58:24] Cara: Oh, goodness. And then finally, since we’re talking about growth, innovation, and all those things. What is a favorite invention of yours?
[00:58:35] John: Ooh. Favorite. Here’s what I’ll say. Yesterday, I had a moment of total appreciation and amazement over the airbag.
Sadly, here in Los Angeles, I had a car accident right in front of me. It’s the closest I’ve been in years to two cars t-boned each other and one car went right into a light pole, and my first thought was, oh my gosh, they’re dead. And I looked in the window and the airbags had deployed and within about 30 seconds, the door opened, and this woman just walked out of her car, and she was clearly shook up.
But I was like, are you kidding me? And I just, the whole way home I was driving, I’m going, how did we invent something that can deploy faster than you will collide with your steering wheel? Just the technology of understanding that an accident is happening and being able to react faster than that light pole can stop your car.
I thought, I wonder how many lives we’ve saved through the airbag and so I’ve never had to use one. Thankfully, I don’t even know how they work. But I definitely had a moment of just awe and inspiration for human innovation and technology that God gave us the creativity to come up with something like that, which literally is saving lives.
[00:59:50] Cara: Yeah. Amen. That’s incredible. John.
I so appreciate you joining us today. It was a rich conversation, and you gave us a lot to chew on and pray about and to discuss with our leadership teams and our local churches and listeners.
If anything that John said today really gave you something to nibble on in your mind, I highly encourage you to check out his book, Positively Irritating, Embracing a Post-Christian World to Form a More Faithful and Innovative Church. It is a really helpful book in thinking about how are we repentant and going about our rhythms of repentance and renewal one with another as a church community.
And so, John, we love to end our episodes with the word of prayer. And so, if you would, I’d love to invite you to pray for our churches, church leaders, members, ministry leaders in GCI.
[01:00:49] John: Absolutely. And I’m so looking forward to being with you guys, your global gathering here in a couple months and meeting you in person after all the conversations we’ve had on Zoom, and so many of your other leaders from around the world. And just being encouraged, inspired by what God’s doing in GCI’s communities globally.
But I’d love to pray for you guys.
Heavenly Father, I thank you for the work that you’re doing in the world. I thank you that even amidst cultural changes and global pandemics and all the divisions and challenges that people are facing, that you continue to work, that you are faithful, that you are good, that there is a through line to all of history that is marked by your faithfulness and your intervention.
Father, I thank you that you are God who is creative, who imagined the entire world and called into existence, and that every day as we look at the beauty of the nature around us, and even celebrate the innovation of your human beings, that we can see it pointing to you and revealing your desire to create, to explore, to make things new.
And so, I pray for leaders who may be discouraged, who may be feeling burnt out or exhausted, who are frustrated with not knowing what direction is next. I pray that you would allow them to see the ways that you’re already working, that you would inspire and encourage them, and literally just speak into them words of hope and affirmation.
Help them to find tribes of leaders around them so they know they’re not alone in this endeavor. And we just pray, Lord, as a community, that you would help us become better at repentance. Give us the courage to be honest about ways in which our own lives, our families, our communities, our organizations are not expressing the nature of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
And give us the courage to confess that and to go down this renewal journey of becoming more faithful in those areas. And conform us to your image. Transform us in your likeness, Lord. And we pray your Holy Spirit would sustain us in all these efforts that we do to try to worship you. And we pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
[01:03:07] Cara: Until next time folks keep on living and sharing the gospel.
We want to thank you for listening to this episode of the GC Podcast. We hope you have found value in it to become a healthier leader. We would love to hear from you. If you have a suggestion on a topic, or if there is someone who you think we should interview, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, Healthy Churches start with healthy leaders; invest in yourself and your leaders.