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Can Christians innovate?

Tuesday, 23 April 2024  | Greg Clarke


Nicodemus is the best kind of conservative: the Jewish politician, Pharisee, senior figure of the ruling council in Jerusalem (John 3) and a man with sincere inquisitiveness. A skeptic, he comes to see Jesus (at night, mind you, presumably to avoid the notice of the 1st century equivalent of an investigative journalist). Nicodemus approaches Jesus and makes his position clear: ‘Jesus, we know you have some blessing from God, some special power — we’ve seen your deeds, we’ve heard your teaching. Who are you?’

Jesus could have replied in several ways. ‘Nicodemus, you’ll just have to wait and see’. That would have been the political response, keeping his powder dry, not leaking any secrets to the opposition, not getting drawn on the question of where his powers lie.

Or Jesus could have been cynical: ‘You call me Rabbi, but I’m not convinced you mean it. You want to catch me out as a fake somehow, from the wrong school, not really knowing the protocols, unaware of the secret handshake. I’m wary of you trying to belittle me’.

But instead, Jesus took Nicodemus’ enquiry to be sincere: ‘How, against the odds, against tradition, against the flow, are you a wise teacher and performer of divine signs?’, asks this institutional leader of the times. He wanted to know what is different about Jesus. So Jesus gave an innovator’s answer: you must be born again. There’s nothing more innovative, more ‘new’, than that. You’d better start over, he says, with a different origin story, with a different set of principles. You and your institution are not the future; you have to start again.

Nicodemus, we imagine flustered, and perhaps not well schooled in the ars poetica, takes Jesus literally and replies, ‘What the…?’ At that point Jesus expands and delivers one of his famous speeches, in which he declares that no one has been to heaven except the Son of Man who came from heaven (making claims for himself that foreground our understanding of him for centuries to follow). And he uses the wonderful metaphor of wind and Spirit, familiar to Hebrew speakers, as ruach, breath, the wind of God, the whisper of God, the shout of God even. ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8). Jesus tells Nicodemus to be born again of a Spirit that blows wherever it pleases!

Christianity can innovate because the Spirit blows where it wills. Even Nicodemus, ‘Israel’s teacher’ as Jesus describes him, has to remember this, in order to understand where Jesus’ power lies. Your institution, your establishment, your kingdom of God that you seek to establish, sits lightly to the work of the Spirit, the work that will overcome the world and bring something new to be born.

And so Christians, followers of the Spirit of Christ, should expect change. If the Spirit of God is active in the world, we should expect the unexpected, but all for the ushering in of the kingdom of God. All for the renewal of the world to align with God’s purposes in creation. The message is that God is in control and his creatures are not, no matter how well credentialled.

I’m assuming then, because of this theology of creation and the Spirit, that innovation is a good thing. In Genesis, God saw that his world was ‘good’, but not ‘perfect’ or static in a classical sense. He finished the work on the seventh day, but only the work of ‘creating’. The work of sustaining, growing, modifying, cultivating, nurturing was just beginning. That’s innovation, and that’s the way of the world.

Les Murray expressed this succinctly in a poem he wrote not long before his death in 2019:

Continuous Creation

We bring nothing into this world

Except our gradual ability

To create it, out of all that vanishes

And all that will outlast us.[1]

Christians would do well to consider their place in the world not primarily as conservers, protectors, defenders, but as agents and operatives of renewal, seeking to keep in step with the swerving, untameable, invisible and yet powerfully noticeable Spirit of God as he acts in the world.

Christians have indeed been good at setting up institutions: hospitals, schools, universities, charities. Even insurance companies. The historians among us may know that AMP’s first insurance salesman was the evangelist and church planter, Benjamin Short, who set in place the notion of ‘mutual providence’ (really a term from Scripture[2]) as important to the flourishing of both poor and rich alike. The Australian Mutual Provident Society introduced equal terms for women and men, largely thanks to Short’s advocacy on the AMP Board. What a wonderful innovation.[3]

These institutions, let’s face it, are really the only reason humanly speaking that Christians still have some influence on society today. Without the pervasive influence they have had on the shape of Australian life, Christian thinking would now be a minority view, rarely platformed and certainly not informing the laws and customs of the nation. Without its institutional base, Christianity would likely have a role comparable to other religions in Australian society: minor. But as it is, we see evidence of Christian shaping of our medical system, our legal system, our education system, our finance systems and so on. The fact that Christian people came to these shores 250 years ago meant that the colony grew in a roughly Christian way.[4] Roughly Christian, because a lot of non-Christian things also took place; the whole enterprise of ‘arrival’ is dubious if one is trying to defend it from a Christian point of view. Nevertheless, the rough shaping of Australia became Christian.

But it is clear that this is changing. Fault lines have appeared in all institutions that historically have built their practices on biblical teaching and might still wish to do so. Christian teaching (at least some of it, particularly in the areas of personal and relational ethics) has moved quickly from mainstream to marginal, from accepted to rejected and even despised, sometimes outlawed.

This is OK, by which I mean it is historically normal. In most countries during most of the past 2000 years, Christianity has been a minor event. China, India, most of Asia, a lot of Africa, Australia until 1788 — they were all places where Christianity had a minor impact. It’s normal for Christians to be a minor force, even with all our missionary endeavours. Christians historically know what it’s like to be struggling to establish themselves or struggling to survive. Which is pretty much the experience of all innovators: struggling to get going or struggling to keep going. Find the seed funding; find the next round of support. Test and fail, try again. Struggle is normal; comfortable establishment is not.

It should not perturb Christians that they’ll need to struggle; the sooner we get over our persecution complex and sense of entitlement, the better, in my humble opinion. Rather, let’s innovate, let’s use the principles that have served the world well when it comes to struggling to get things going or to sustain them.

Following is what I hope might feel like a freshly energising set of tactics to be Christian in today’s Australia. There’s nothing theologically innovative going on here. I’m trying to find a fresh process and set of habits for being Christian at a time when it is increasingly at odds with the mainstream. I have six principles to offer, drawn from the innovator’s handbooks.

Principle 1: Simplify. Simple faith is a good start. Jesus said that those who wish to be part of the Kingdom of God need to come to him like a child. Christianity has become complex; let’s simplify our words and actions, at least in our work external to the church. Most Australians are actively disinterested in the internal matters of the faith. One simplifying approach is to talk primarily about Jesus. Let the cultural discussions lag behind for a while, so the author of our faith can again be heard. Our task in media and social contexts ought to be to remind people that we believe God revealed himself to us in Jesus. Far from dull, such a focus will find Jesus’ life and actions speak richly across the issues of interest to today’s cultures.

Principle 2: Be agile. Agile is a malleable buzzword for a way of thinking about development, but its earliest champions gave it a clear shape. Break large tasks into smaller ones; value people before processes; aim for working models not comprehensive solutions; collaborate, don’t silo; and change your plans readily. Each of these maxims is a significant gift and challenge to the Christian church today! For a couple of centuries after Christ, the church was quite good at this. They met in households before building things; they focused on people gathering together and sharing; they found workaround solutions for new converts (i.e., Gentiles) in areas of marriage, food and rituals (e.g., Acts 15). Paul’s letters are full of agile thinking. But acceptance led to stultification: we became part of the institution, the empire. The processes and rules took over. The established church doesn’t change its plans readily. We need to rethink this.

Principle 3: Iterate. To iterate is simply to repeat a process, looking for improvement and refinement in each repetition. It accepts that we will learn things along the way rather than be clear at the start. We have to be able to stop things, start new things, change things, expect to learn from things. Christians need ventures that expect, as my therapist wife says in counselling, progress but not perfection. There are some Christian organisations that do operate this way: student and workplace ministries, for instance, especially post-Covid. It is fascinating the way publishing has gone from a ‘print it when it’s perfect’ approach to a ‘publish your first thoughts’ approach through blogging and social media. This article is an iteration of an address, seeking to refine the communication. Christian ventures should start easily, modify easily and finish or change course easily. We know how to do it; we just need to give ourselves permission within our structures and politics to carry it out.

Principle 4: Co-design. One of the great insights of innovative thinking is that the hive works better than the bee; collaboration is the key to building ‘products’ that in fact solve human problems. For too long, solutions have been delivered from on high by those empowered to do so. By working side-by-side with all stakeholders in a project, we are less likely to make wrong assumptions about what is needed, the impact of our work and its sustainability. Co-design by its nature requires both leadership and humility; a team must be guided and also listened to and taken seriously. Co-design principles immediately speak to the Christian desire to treat all people as equally valuable, bringing differing gifts to the table. But the principle of co-design has to be stated to work; you can’t just add a few ‘diversity picks’ to the boy’s club and expect it to work. It has to be done deliberately, equipping and enabling all voices, holding a genuine belief that it will produce better results.

Principle 5: Reduce costs. This goes with simplifying, but it also frees up change. Most of our approaches to Christian life are high cost: buildings, schools, colleges. And when costs or overheads are high, your hands are tied. Could Christianity become less expensive? Not only would that enable more agility, but it might send a message to society that we are not about mammon. I well recall being shocked when the current Pope upon election said that he wanted ‘a poor church for the poor’. Both parts of that phrase generate dissonance in the majority of Western churches. Are we deploying our wealth in ways that reveal Christ to the world? Or have we botched it? Do we aim to spend less on buildings? Can we redirect profits into the kind of approach I’ve been advocating? This isn’t so much an anti-capitalist rant as a call for review. The culture is unimpressed by Christian wealth, as witnessed recently in the backlash against several church-connected private schools. And the culture is impressed by Christian generosity and sacrifice (for example, in the care sector). Can we really critique our consumerist, materialist culture and be as wealthy as we are? Or do we need to utilise our wealth differently?

Principle 6: Create

This leads to perhaps my major suggestion. Christians should spend more time creating culture than conserving it or attacking it. I’ve been involved in ventures that did the attacking and the conserving, apologetics projects that are pointing out what’s wrong with alternative views of life and what’s right and reasonable about the Christian view. I hope it has done some good. But through that process, I came to see the principle that Andy Crouch has emphasised: the most effective way to be a Christian in the world is to create Christianly. To create with Christian intention. To create for Christian purposes. Crouch calls it ‘culture making’, which could just sound like painting still life daffodils or writing symphonies.[5] It could be that, but he’s using it much more broadly in the same way Les Murray does in his poem.

To create as a Christian human being, to ‘make culture’, is to attempt to fashion and nurture and organise the world in ways that express the love of God. The ways in which this can be done are endless. Makoto Fujimura, the renowned Christian artist, calls it cultural stewardship, by which he is contrasting it with attempting to ‘win the culture’ or ‘defeat the culture’ or ‘dominate the culture’. No, he says, Jesus calls us to ‘steward’ or ‘cultivate’ the culture’ in a ‘generative’ manner.[6] Andy Crouch throws out a real challenge to our intent as publicly engage Christians when he writes: ‘Most of us want to be a force, but Jesus calls us to be a taste’ (p.130).

It would be truly innovative for Christians to be known this way. And in many ways, it’s a call back to our roots. Why did we start hospitals? To care for the sick, not to try to run the country’s health system. Why did we start schools? To educate children in the truth, not to protect them from anything that might challenge that truth. Why did we set up insurance companies? To protect the vulnerable in a time of need (tomorrow it could be you), not to minimise the amount paid out and maximise the premiums.

Of course, the biggest innovation is the gospel of Jesus itself. The biggest innovation was from the Jewish expectation of a political messiah to the arrival of the king to Jerusalem on a donkey. The biggest innovation was that a person’s sins would not be held against them and require sacrifice, but that God himself in Christ would provide the sacrifice for sin. The biggest innovation was that sin and death would not win, but Christ would be raised from death and a life beyond the mortal world could be imagined not just for him, but for those who follow him, too. Startling innovations!

This radical rethink of the Jewish religion, divisive then as it is now, was a simplification, and an iteration of religion, leading to a whole different kind of culture-making to which we can contribute, at minor and major levels, if we are willing to be like Christ.


Greg Clarke is CEO of Leprosy Mission Australia and has worked in media, academia and charity roles across the past 30 years.


This article is from an address given to the Christian Management Association on 22nd February 2024.


Image credit: Man in black jacket holding spark by Matt Palmer at Unsplash.

[1] Les Murray, Continuous Creation: Last Poems by Les Murray (Carlton: Blank Inc, 2022, 21).

[2] E.g., Galatians 6:2: ‘Carry each other’s burdens’, matched a few verses later with 6:5: ‘…each should carry his own load’. Mutual providence.

[3] ‘Benjamin Short’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/short-benjamin-4578.

[4] A term from another Murray poem, ‘The Quality of Sprawl’, https://www.poetryverse.com/les-murray-poems/quality-sprawl.

[5] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Books, 2008), 37-49.

[6] Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care: reconnecting with beauty for our common life (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Books, 2017).

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