The Innovation Dilemma in the Church

by Ted Esler August 4, 2021

A problem we face as leaders is that the original mission is almost always overtaken by the way that mission is delivered. In 2005, the late Clayton Christensen wrote the book The Innovator’s Dilemma. He observed what happened inside businesses when they successfully developed a service or product and brought it to market. The dynamics hold true for ministries as well.

As a business has success with a new product, increased demand requires more organization. The delivery process is refined. There may be investment in the system that produces the service or product. People within the organization become convinced that their service or product – what they see as “The Best Way” – is the best or right solution to getting the mission done. Bureaucracy grows around its delivery and a self-perpetuating loop reinforces the value of The Best Way. New people join the team. Some are specialized and only participate in one aspect of the system that has developed. They do not have the perspectives of the whole, but they are very good at doing what they know how to do.

In the business world, the innovator’s dilemma reaches its peak when a new competitor enters the market. There is often an innovative improvement, and the incumbent organization, focused on delivering The Best Way, cannot adapt. They are experts at doing what they do best, not this new and novel solution. Their success has doomed them because they have become so good at what they do. The organizational culture affords no other means of delivery.

Do ministries suffer from the innovator’s dilemma? Yes, they do. It is hard for us in leadership to see it, though, because often we are living inside the system that is suffering from it. Another reason it is difficult to identify is that our competitors are different. We are competing against worldview and cultural change. We may have developed culturally relevant ministries, but rapid change has now made our Best Way, whatever it might be, irrelevant because the people it was designed to serve are growing old, the next generation is always different from the former generation, and culture has changed.

The classic example from business is Seagate, a company that once dominated the hard disk industry. As customers moved from larger drives to smaller ones, they squeezed more and more profit from the factories creating hard drives. They got really good at creating 5.25-inch hard drives. Then the industry shifted to smaller drives using different materials. Seagate could not innovate fast enough. Smaller players, not invested in the same production facilities, took over and Seagate faded.

Local churches also face the innovator’s dilemma. When you visit different churches, you begin to realize the extent to which our church models are copied from one another. Smiling door greeters, a couple songs, a warm greeting in which there is great effort to be sincere, announcements (or something like announcements that really are just announcements), a sermon with a specific application challenge, and a final song. The similarities between churches leads me to believe that this system, developed and used primarily by boomer church planters, is not keeping up with generational changes. It is a Best Way in need of a complete overhaul. COVID-19 presented the church with a huge opportunity to innovate the worship service for a twenty-first-century audience. From my perspective, very few churches took advantage of these opportunities. Going online with the same format is not innovative.

Henry Cloud wrote a whole book on why some things need to end called Necessary Endings. Sometimes our ministries need to end. A few years ago, the organization I worked for took over a failing ministry that had been in its prime two decades earlier. Its approach felt old, its champions had retired, and the time had come for a necessary ending. We counseled some staff to move on, asked a few others onto our team, and shut it down. We held a final goodbye celebration, inviting past stakeholders, staff, donors, and those who had been served by the ministry. We remembered the former days and gave thanks. People cried, mourning the lost past as it formally ended. It was a healthy goodbye and freed up all involved to move on to new and more relevant ministries. Necessary endings can thoughtfully bless those involved.

One more example might be helpful. I was invited into a discussion about missionary deployment that was led by a significant leader in global missions. He had started a major missions organization. The topic of our discussion was the length of time that missionaries serve on the field. In the past few years, that number has dropped. When this leader started out, missionaries would go out for years. Today, this is rare. The question on the table was, “What can missionary agencies and churches do to send people for longer periods of time?” This question is also one which countless mission pastors have asked me.

I value long-serving missionaries. But I also know that nobody in our culture today takes a job that they plan to have for their entire life. Most people change careers multiple times, let alone stick with one job for a lifetime. Imagine an interviewer at a major company asking a potential recruit, “So, you are twenty-five years old. Are you ready to work for us the rest of your life?” It is not how we look at employment.

I suggested that this is the new reality of work, not just missionary work. After being scolded, kindly, I was lectured about the nature of missionary work. One must relocate to a new geographic area. There might be years of language and culture study before the work can begin. Finally, evangelism, disciple-making, and church-planting take many years. The work requires long-serving missionaries, I was told.

That is probably true in some places and cultures. The question on the table, though, should be, “What is the mission?” Is the mission to send missionaries for lifelong careers, or is the mission to see the church planted in all cultures? What if these leaders asked, “How can we re-envision the missionary’s job in order to take advantage of shorter deployment windows?” When I suggested this, the group reacted with deep groans. Did I not understand the missionary task? I reminded them that Paul did not linger long anywhere he went. After much discussion, I realized that the innovator’s dilemma was in full force. Nothing I said could dissuade them from a model in which the missionary would live on the field for decades before being fruitful. The largest potential missionary force lays outside the US and Canada; it is ripe for partnership and in need of funding. Yet, these leaders remain convinced that the solution that worked in 1970 is the best solution for today. It is a solution for some, of course. But it will not meet the need we face. Yes, there will be some pioneering missionaries that will go for a lifetime. We should encourage that. We should also see the potential for midterm missionaries who can bless thousands through indigenous partners. The goal remains the same; the means need innovation.


Excerpted from The Innovation Crisis: Creating Disruptive Influence in the Ministry You Lead by Ted Esler (© 2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.