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Does the church need innovation?

mcmassEarlier today, someone on one of the clergy-based Facebook groups I belong to, posted a link to a project known as ‘McMass.’ ( I needed only to look at the advertising image to know I would not like this idea. McMass is the brainchild of several individuals from ‘Lux Dei Design’; which advertises itself as a Christian design-consulting company. According to the FAQ section of the McMass website, the project is an attempt to solve the ‘vacant church problem’. The founders are quoted as saying “We saw so many churches, grand old buildings, fallen into disuse or empty for significant portions of each week… We realized that a design approach—an entrepreneurial approach—had the potential to revolutionize how churches engage with the world.’ The logic involved in this idea is pretty strait-forward

1: Churches are empty. 2:McDonald’s is full. 3: Let’s jam a fast-food joint into the narthex.

McMass is centered around the idea that the Church needs to innovate in order to survive. The website is quite blatant about this fundamental fact. It boldly declares: “The Church needs innovation!’, and ‘It’s time for the church to innovate and PRAY DIFFERENT.” Why exactly the church is called to pray differently is never fully revealed. Will we choose the prayers via menu? Do we choose an order of Thanksgiving, with a side of Confession and a Blessing to wash it all down? Will hamburger buns be used for the Eucharist? Whatever is meant, it is clear that those behind this project believe that the church is being hampered by its current structure and nature, and thus can only move forward by being ‘reinvented’ (yes the website uses this word!)

I have to admit that I am not altogether sure if this is entirely legit. McMass could be a hoax. Yet while I do not know for sure if this campaign is true, I do know that these conversations are true. I have personally been part of many conversations that have centred around the church’s need for innovation. I imagine I am not alone in this. The idea that the church needs to be more innovative in this world seems to undergird some of the more popularized expressions of ministry. After all, what are “U2charists”, “Seussarists”, “Pubchurches”, or countless other ideas but mere permutations of this idea. McMass would simply be the latest attempt to build ministry upon the faulty and dangerous premise that the church needs to be innovative and new.

Is this really the case? Is ‘innovation’ the saving grace of the church? Do we ever pray ‘O Come, Innovation, Come’?

Frankly, I reject the premise that the church needs innovation. For one, all new ministries and programs are innovative in the sense that they are new. Furthermore, eventually, even the most successfully innovative programs or projects will eventually become familiar and ‘old’. If innovation is what it is all about, we simply condemn ourselves to an eternity of perpetual upheaval. Thus, innovation doesn’t actually solve anything except the vain attempt to create a popular craze. Herein lies the fundamental problem with the notion that churches need innovation; this idea is dangerous for the health of the church because it links the future of the church solely to the increase of numbers.

McMass is nothing but a numbers scheme, lacking any mention of the mission of the church or the presence of the Spirit. The idea behind McMass is merely an attempt to capitalize on the 70 million McDonald’s customers. ‘Innovation,’ as highlighted here, isn’t about ministry, but about merely placing people inside church buildings. What these individuals actually do in that building is of secondary importance.

Yet the church’s life and work has never been about vain attempts of number-gathering, or a desire to be ‘innovative’ or ‘forward thinking.’ In last Sunday’s epistle reading, we heard how Paul give thanks for the Corinthian church, yet he does not give thanks because they are innovative or because they ‘pray differently’. Paul writes:

I thank my God always because of the grace of God that has been given you In Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind, just as the the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1st Corinthians 1:4-9)

I do not believe that Paul is trying to ‘butter up’ the Corinthians before pointing out the issues they need to face; I believe Paul is highlighting the spiritual nature which forms their entire identity and life. For Paul, it is only in understanding who they are, in Christ Jesus, that the Corinthians can then move forward and tackle the issues that face them.

What this world needs, and what we long to be as people of faith, is not a church based on innovation, but one which lives and breathes the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We are not called to strive to be a church merely filled with people, but one filled with the Spirit of Christ our Lord, a spirit that empowers and strengthens us for the ‘testimony of Christ’ in this world. The community which is at the heart of the church’s identity is about fellowship not mere familiarity. We are called to a radical type of togetherness, one that goes far beyond politeness and social nicety, because it is rooted in our immersion in the Holy Spirit and our joint worship of Christ our Lord.

Before we ask ourselves if we are innovative or not, we should take a cue from Paul and ask ourselves: Are we a body of grace-dependant and Spirit-filled people who gather together, in Christ’s presence, to worship Him and sing his praise?

This is what the church needs, and it is to this which we must be faithful.

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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18 Responses to Does the church need innovation?

  1. Well put, Fr Kyle. I wrote some similar thoughts down recently on the idea of cultural relevance and the idea, to use your term, that the Church must innovate in order to remain relevant to a changing culture. The conclusion I drew was that there are a lot of things that the Church ought to do to remain relevant. As St Teresa of Avila put it, the Church is Christ’s agent on earth: “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.” The danger is that in seeking new and innovative ways to do Christ’s work we forgot that it is His work we are doing and not merely filling pews. When we innovate merely for the sake of innovation, that’s what we are doing though.

    In my meditations, I was also reminded of the words of St Paul, though from Rm 12. 2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

  2. Kyle Norman

    Hi Matthew

    Thanks for your encouraging comments. I think it was the plethora of the word ‘innovate’ that caught my attention. Of course this is a bad idea (of that I imagine all would probably agree), but it struck me that it appeared a good idea because it fit some ‘criteria’ of innovation which is lacking in the church.

    I ended up having a lengthy twitter-conversation about this. Of course, ministry can be innovative. Innovation is not necessarily a bad thing, just as tradition is not necessarily a bad thing. The important thing is how the church’s life and ministry is informed by the Spirit in our midst and is based on a desire to live in the grace of God.

    After all, if the church is to sell out to corporations, at least let it be a coffee company! Blessings!

  3. Naomi Miller

    I think we do need innovation. We pray for it all the time, “Let us ask the Lord to renew the Church through the power of his life-giving Spirit” (litany for morning, BAS p118) sounds a lot like a cry for innovation to me.
    Innovation is so inherently Anglican that its in the 39 articles “IT is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.” We are constantly seeking to proclaim Good News in ways that are “understanded of the people”.
    That said- I don’t see what is being proclaimed in this particular partnership. Come for the bland, unsatisfying food- stay for the bland unsatisfying theology! Jesus- just as good for you as a McNugget! Transformation- if you can’t get it in less than two minutes, our crew has failed to serve you!
    I love the idea of bringing people into the nave who are seeking something other than Jesus, and letting them discover there is more to be found than they knew.
    But how about partnering with an outdoors club, and using our ridiculously-expensive-to-heat high ceilinged nave to house an all-season climbing wall. Proclaim something about constant striving, and choosing a new path when the one you’re on proves to be a dead end, and being held safe through a struggle.
    Churches are already partnering with food artisans (the trappists weren’t mega-brewers, they were artisans!) and proclaiming something about nourishment and abundance- while creating opportunities for job training and fair employment.

    There are lots of partners with whom we could work, to invite people to participate in healing, nourishing, forgiveness, justice-seeking, resisting evil, creating community… all things that Jesus called people into. Ronald McDonald houses aside, a megaburgercorporation is not that partner.

    “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
    Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.” – Isaiah 55:2

    • Kyle Norman

      Hi Naomi

      Thanks for your thoughts. I think what I was reacting to is the notion that the church NEEDS innovation, as if innovation is the altar to which we must bow. I agree that following the Spirit leads us into new and exciting things. The Spirit often calls us to ‘leave our comfort zones’ and step out in faith. However, I would argue that what is happening here is the faithful following of God and NOT an attempt to be innovative.

      Yes we pray to be renewed by the Spirit – but this is more about a spiritual closeness with God Almighty rather than an attempt to be creative and out of the box. To completely mis-quote Hosea, I believe God says “I desire mercy not innovation, and acknowledgement of God rather than empty creativity.”

  4. Before even digging into the theological/marketing implications of such a move, one wonders if these visionaries have even contacted McDonalds about the possibility? I can’t imagine that this kind of venture would be supported, at least with the goal of evangelism. Moreover, McDonalds corporate logo has been modified, presumably without permission. I guess the questions I’m left with are these: do we, as Christians, sometimes presume too much? Do we make plans for other people/institutions without actually involving them in the conversation, much less receiving their consent? Hmm.

  5. It seems to me that the church has to get back to being the church as Christ had set out in the beginning .It is time that we get back to preaching and teaching the gospel as once delivered by the saints and not some warm fuzzy to make people feel good about themselves.We have to realize that we are not the ones that bring people into the church God is .We are the tools and are called to live a life truth to Gods Truth, people will take notice.Now a days we live like chameleons,blending totally into our surroundings. People in the world see no difference between the world and the church ,so why go. There is a letter written in the 2 century , to Diognetus here is a short blurb from it “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.” It is a shame the same thing could not be said of us

  6. My guess is about 80% sure that the McMass project is a hoax. A pretty good one though, considering the discussion it has engendered here. Perhaps a seminary class or a group of design students practicing web design at the same time they study how consumerism has effected American Christianity.

    Evidence for my guess is that they have deliberately hidden the “whois” site ownership and their sponsoring site has only been registered this last month. If my guess is wrong, I have even less hope that younger western Christians are grasping the difference between gospel of the kingdom and the gospel of consumerism.
    Anyone want to try emailing them to test the hoax hypothesis?

  7. Kyle Norman

    It should also be noted that the people behind this probably have very good motives. They want to see churches full. They long for a sense of livelihood and excitement in church buildings. It is a well intentioned but poorly thought out idea. I just think that it is a great example of how the striving to be new and innovative may not be what God calls us to.

    • The question, then, if McMass was an art project designed to make a statement about contemporary society, is what can we take out of the experiment? What does it mean to know that, while the idea was offensive to many, it was still (mostly) taken at face value? Improbable, but not impossible. What does that tell us about ourselves?

      Meanwhile, what does it tell us that, since the beginning of November, the project has raised $242?

  8. Di Lucca is quoted as saying “we hope that the campaign itself will draw people to think about different ways of bringing churches into the 21st century.” By virtue of the discussion on this blog alone I think this worthy goal has been achieved.

    Kyle, did you mention coffee? try this “project” about filling church buildings:

    What Paul di Lucca may have achieved is a brilliant example of what Derrida et al may have been on about: the likelihood that the intended meaning of a “text” (ie his claim to want to build a McDonalds church) crosses over or bleeds into the margins: the context in which the claim is articulated: (a hackathon “art project” plus the serious? utilization of the fundraising ability of the internet.) The ability to judge the hoaxness factor of this endeavour is hidden from us in the intention of di Luca’s imagination. He may become the object of his own joke like the person applying for a grant for a tongue-in-cheek project to teach ravens to fly underwater (a British comedy routine). When they unexpectedly get the grant they realize the benefit of actually following through with the ludicrous plan.

    But Kyle, I think “filling church buildings” is itself a red herring rather than a “very good motive”. The times when Jesus’ followers multiply most rapidly seem to be contexts largely unencumbered with the distraction of church buildings. I.e. the first two centuries, and the last 65 years in China where there is now evidence the government is attempting to use institutional aspects such as buildings to control/curb that growth.

  9. The church is the people of God, not the buildings we use. Bringing our services to where other people are (malls and the like) has worked in one local case I’m aware of. It was opened about a year ago and is adding a second service as there were just too many attendees at the one.

  10. I would like to hear more comments on the “innovation” conundrum raised by Kyle, Naomi et al. To innovate is “to introduce a new way of doing something”. Our bishop encourages us to be creative as we move our focus from maintenance to mission …even using income from church property to fund mission endeavours etc. But what criteria might we use to discern between good and not so good attempts at such innovation ?
    Kyle, perhaps what troubled both you and I was the assumption that there would be an easy bridge between coming to consume burgers and coming to worship and submit to Jesus?

    • Kyle Norman


      I think what I reacted to regarding the idea of needing innovation is the notion that innovation is that which we are to pursue. The McMass add’s (and other discussions that I have heard and had) make it sound as if innovation is a criteria of work and activity that we must adhere to. It makes innovation idolatrous.

      We do not NEED innovation; we NEED Jesus. As a church, we depend on the Spirit of God for our life, power and direction. Now yes, this may lead us into ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ areas of ministry- but this isn’t because we are seeking innovation, it is because we are following the flow the Spirit. This is why I am a little critical sometimes of Fresh Expressions. Sometimes I feel that people try to be creative for creativity sake, instead of as an authentic outworking of where the Spirit is leading a people.

      The reason why innovation is so dangerous is because, to highlight it beyond anything else, makes it sound like the Spirit can’t move us in non-innovative ways. Thus notions of tradition, history, and doctrine become to easily discredited and discarded. Also, what inevitably happens is that WE begin to decide what is innovative or not. Again, we are placed ahead of the Spirit of God For me, the language around needing innovation seems to put our own power of creativity and ingenuity ahead of the basic need to faithfully follow the Spirit’s guidance.

      I guess at a base level, I think it essentially boils down to idolatry.

  11. I agree about the danger. Suppose we say it this way: innovation that becomes a substitute for trusting and obeying Jesus is not only NOT needed but dangerous. On the other hand innovation that IS the work of the Spirit of Jesus in our midst is to be expected, embraced and needed in the sense that we ignore it at our peril. And couldn’t we say the same thing about traditions.
    Perhaps we are tempted into idolatry by both our innovations and our traditions? I have heard it said that what the Spirit has done in the past often becomes the enemy of what the Spirit wants to do in the present.
    It seems if we have forgotten our purpose (the mission of God in Christ) and thus the reasons why filling church buildings might be good, then our ability to fill them (by either innovative or traditional methods) becomes superfluous, redundant and pointless … don’t you think? .

  12. Kyle Norman


    So what we have uncovered is that the issue is not actually an issue of innovation vs. tradition. The issue at heart is is trusting and obeying Jesus and embracing the work of the Spirit. Any manner of ministry is ultimately superfluous (good word) as it is a negation of our basic identity as grace filled and spirit dependant people.

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