Eric Elnes: Where do you see the growing edge of innovation in ministry?


At the Presbyterian General Assembly which met in Portland, Oregon, I was invited to participate (as a United Church of Christ interloper) in a panel discussion hosted by San Francisco Theological Seminary on the topic, "Where do you see the growing edge of innovation in ministry?" Here's how I answered the question - or rather, the version I would have liked to give had I more time. I would love to hear your response.

When I consider where the leading edge of innovation, I think of Wayne Gretzky, who became one of the world's greatest hockey players by learning not to skate to where the puck currently was, but to where it was going. You can innovate all you want to get yourself to the puck where it is now, but by the time you reach it, it's long gone! So when I think of innovation, I think of where the world's "puck" is going, and how people of faith - of all faiths - might be more faithful and helpful participants in a game where we're playing for keeps.

Where is the "puck" going? If God were less loving or less generous, I would be downright terrified about where I see human civilization's "puck" headed right now - which is toward civilization suicide and the extinction of many of the planet's life forms. If the "puck" related to our carbon footprint heads too much further in the same direction, on the one hand, enormous deposits of methane and other green house gasses will be released from currently frozen tundra and ice structures beneath the oceans that we could literally reduce our carbon footprint to zero and the world would continue to warm for centuries, radically changing all of life as we know it and potentially putting the planet into a death spiral.

On the other hand, if the "puck" of international relations and the democratization of the weapons of mass destruction heads too much further in the direction it's going, I wonder what the chances of Pope Francis' words becoming true, that we are heading toward a piecemeal WW III? We've already experienced two world wars in the last century. How many will this century bring, and who or what will survive them?

What's the solution? Frankly, I don't know if there is one, but I am hopeful because I believe in a God who continually surprises me. If our planet and its peoples are truly headed toward a climate or conflict catastrophe, then I believe that God's will is to save the world, not destroy it, as the fundamentalists seem to think.

In the early 1800s, the most innovative church folk were those who were holding the "camp meetings" in what became known as the Second Great Awakening. While we today might not embrace each and every one of the beliefs proclaimed by these evangelists, I am impressed by what is said to have happened if you "came to Jesus" at one of Charles Finney's revivals. They led you into a back room where someone prayed with you, then gave you a card to sign up for either the women's suffrage movement or the abolitionist movement, which they considered to be the two greatest calls of the Holy Spirit in their day.

What are the greatest calls of the Holy Spirit in OUR day? With the life of the planet and its people's all hanging in the balance, I say that for the next century, it will be Reconciliation with God, our Neighbor, and the Earth. So the first three places of innovation I look for in the church is anything that is advancing these  three primary concerns of the Holy Spirit. 

But in order for anyone to put their name on that card, devoting time and energy to Reconciliation with Neighbor and Earth with the kind of energy and persistence needed to actually make a change, people will need to  reconcile themselves with God  as well, starting with the Church itself. As I see it, reconciliation with God means (a) admitting what we have done, and not done, with respect to climate change and world conflict, then (b) seeking and receiving forgiveness, and (c) throwing ourselves into the arena, joining the struggle for the planet's future not out of guilt but gratitude; not out of judgment, but joy.

What does it mean for people of the Church to Reconcile ourselves with God? It means  admitting that we are facing the greatest threat that the planet has faced in human history,   and being far too slow to respond.  And it means mobilizing people of faith on an unprecedented scale. In so doing, we'll need to ask some tough questions of ourselves. Questions like, "What is it about our beliefs, and our organizational and political structures, that caused us not to hear the Holy Spirit's call to respond until it was almost too late?" And "How have our beliefs and organizational structures actually contributed to the peril we're in?"

Organized religion is not solely responsible for the challenges we face. In fact, I predict that we'll eventually look back and conclude that secularism played a larger role because it convinced us that we could easily separate our faith from the rest of our lives (including our business and investment decisions, and our political decisions). I am in no way arguing for a theocracy, by the way. That would make things far worse. What we need is a robust pluralism - one that honors people's freedom to follow many different paths, or in place of a religious path then an ethical path that is clearly articulated, and encourages them to do so provided that they are helping to heal the earth and its peoples.

The leading edge in innovation in the Church (or anywhere else in society) is found wherever people are skating like mad toward the edge of oblivion, seeking to get just far enough ahead of it to whack it off course. This includes projects that advance Reconciliation with God, Neighbor, and Earth.

To this I would add one further cutting edge innovation, which is part of our Reconciliation with God but merits special focus: projects that advance our abilityto pray - to pray in ways that don't primarily involve talking to God, but listening forGod. We need to teach how we may best discern the difference between God's voice and our own, and how we gain the trust and confidence enough to act on what we are hearing.

I have little doubt that God has already been nudging millions, if not billions, of people to act in ways that will protect the planet and its peoples well into the future. Yet only a fraction respond, perhaps because they've "never done it that way" before. If we're truly going to send the puck in any direction other than the one it's going, we're going to need to employ "skating" techniques that are more advanced than Wayne Gretzky's. We'll need to discern God's will more accurately, and with more robust response, than ever before.

Most churches currently teach very little about spiritual discernment. And most denominations aren't equipped to help nurture and unify all the grassroots actions that would result if they did.

Are you an innovator? Could you be one? Chances are high that the Spirit is calling YOU to join Her work to save the planet and its peoples. The first step is to act on those intuitions and hunches you have probably been feeling already, and for a very long time.

Follow Eric Elnes on Twitter: