The Innovative Church (Scott Cormode) - A Review


THE INNOVATIVE CHURCH: How Leaders and TheirCongregations Can Adapt in an Ever-Changing World. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2020. Xvi + 282 pages.

                The world is constantly changing, which means the church must adapt. In reality, the church has been adapting to new realities from the very beginnings of the Christian movement. However, in recent decades the pace of change in the world has accelerated. In many ways, the pace of this change has outstripped the ability of the church to respond effectively. Thus, adaption has been a lot more difficult to secure. What worked yesterday might not work today. If you don't believe me, check out the effects of human development on nature.

                Many a book has been written on church leadership that offers strategies for adapting to new realities. Unfortunately, sometimes the new realities emerge before we have a chance to read the books or the new realities require responses that the books didn’t consider. As I write this review the world is in the midst of a global pandemic that has caused churches and clergy to adapt on the fly, making do with the resources at hand. I imagine many books will be written in the aftermath, but they may be too late to help as something new will require our attention. That’s why we likely didn’t learn how to deal with these concerns in seminary. No one in 1985 would have imagined that we would have had to create online worship services for months on end. So, while Lyle Schaller had lots of good advice to give us back in the 1980s, much of what he had to say won’t be all that helpful today. Therefore, new books and resources will emerge to help guide us.

                Among those books is Scott Cormode's The Innovative Church. Scott is the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary. Before going to Fuller he taught leadership studies at Claremont School of Theology. In these positions, he serves as a consultant to churches and religious communities. I've known Scott for over thirty years. We met back when he was an M.Div. student at Fuller Seminary, where he now teaches. I was a Ph.D. student and Scott signed up for our historiography class that was designed primarily for Th.M. and Ph.D. students. From there he went to Yale and earned a Ph.D. in American Church history. His subsequent career moves demonstrate that we church historians may study the past be we are very adaptable! So, I became a pastor and he became a professor of Leadership Development.

                Scott notes in his preface that he was putting the finishing touches on the book as the pandemic broke out. I wonder if, nearly a year later, after watching churches doing their best to adapt and even survive if he would change anything. Perhaps a subsequent edition will address some of these concerns.

                Like many books on leadership amid change, Scott suggests that the church, to use his words, “is calibrated for a world that no longer exists." It’s possible that the church that existed when Scott wrote this book no longer exists. Nevertheless, he reminds us that the church needs to be innovative if it wants to be effective in its ministry in the world. As a good historian, Scott doesn't discount the importance of what has gone before. We are dependent upon an inherited tradition. Innovation, therefore, doesn't mean throwing out that tradition, but it requires that we regularly recalibrate based on that original foundation.

                As Scott moves forward he spells out what innovation means for Christians. He notes the principle that he regularly shares with all his classes and the groups he leads: "Leadership begins with Listening." It's a principle that we should imbibe, but often forget! I light of this principle, he speaks of making spiritual sense, to make it clear that this book is about spiritual things, even if he makes use of secular ideas and principles. Having laid this foundation, he speaks of reinvented practices, processes for innovation, and organizing for innovation. Once he lays out all of this, he reminds us that innovation will lead to change, even if churches aren't always aware of this. He speaks of next steps and then concludes by speaking to the emerging generations, which he refers to as the Smartphone Generation. I must admit that I struggle with some of this, but I'm of an older generation that came of age long before Smartphones. Yes, I use them, but I can remember a time when flip phones were the stuff of science fiction (Star Trek, the original series). Nevertheless, I have advocated for and worked for change throughout my ministry, even if I'm always comfortable with the changes we are experiencing. Nevertheless, new generations emerge, and with them come new ways of being the church.

                I believe that many will find Scott's book helpful and perhaps even encouraging. He shares stories from his own life and ministry, along with examples from the churches he has worked with over the years. He introduces us to various principles and processes. I must admit that at this stage of my ministry (just months before retirement), I have less invested in these processes than those who are in the thick of things. Hopefully, those who read Scott Cormode's The Innovative Church can learn valuable lessons, though sometimes, as we've learned during the COVID pandemic, reality is often the mother of innovation!


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