Innovation and Invention

By Rick Chromey

Few innovations and inventions have altered a civilized cultural landscape like the Internet. Just as Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized our world and introduced a new concept of mass production, the World Wide Web has globally transformed social institutions from business to education to media.

In the March 2008 edition of Fast Company—an issue dedicated to the “world’s 50 most innovative companies”—the three giants standing at the summit were Google, Apple, and Facebook (in that order).1 Compiling the list involved studying hundreds of companies over several months, noting both fresh perspectives and historical commitments to reinvention.

Consequently, it was no surprise to find old-timers like General Electric (ranked No. 4), Procter & Gamble (11), Disney (14) and Corning (38) still pioneering their fields. Nor was it odd that Web upstarts who reengineered the book business like Amazon (9) or news like News Corp. (12) or computers like Microsoft (41) made the list.

Nevertheless, the influence of Google (which now, by the way, is also a bona fide verb), Apple, and Facebook upon civilized Web culture is difficult to overstate. These three companies are towering examples to the spirit of innovation.

Oddly enough, few churches recognize the power of googling or social networking. And while many have discovered the value of podcasting sermons at iTunes, the advantage of digital media for leadership training, discipleship, and even worship is often overlooked. The church might be wise to consider the inspirational stories and success of innovative companies. Not because the church is a business (though it sometimes incorporates natural business strategies), but because these organizations have effectively tapped into wider culture to make a difference and communicate their message.

So what can we learn from Google, Apple, and Facebook? And what do they mean for the church?

FEARLESSNESS AND COMMUNITY

Most people think of Google as a search engine. While that’s true, there’s much more to it. Google views all “information as a natural resource, one that should be mined and refined and sorted and universally distributed.”2 A google of the word google produced more than 1.8 billion Web pages (in less than 0.14 seconds)! That’s a ton of content and a daunting task to sift.

So Google organizes it for you: images, news, shopping, groups, maps, mail. In the near future, Google intends to become an online global library, providing access to millions of books (sorted by topic down to the page!).

The spirit of Google’s decade-long reign lies in its ability to “instill a sense of creative fearlessness and ambition” within everyone it hires. Google recognizes as its most valuable resource the energetic, innovative thinkers on the team. It harvests ingenuity and ideas like any crop.

But Google is also a community that shares similar values. To Google workers, work is play, walls are barriers, and life is making a difference.

Unfortunately, the church is often out of touch and marginalized by our culture because we tend to ignore the creativity and community for which people hunger. I’m not saying church needs to be an entertainment zone, but if your congregation largely leaves the building within 15 minutes of services ending, you’re losing opportunity.

In future church, the foyer will be the most important space for connection and community. Imagine complimentary meals (à la “fellowship dinners”) in the foyer, with booths for free medical, financial, and legal advice. Imagine a physical and spiritual health center where you can work your abs and spend an hour in a prayer experience. Imagine a place where people love to come and hate to leave.

Even the smallest of churches can be “creatively fearless” by making its foyer feel like a living room with flat-screen televisions for announcements, directions, and inspirational music videos. Or add mirrors, bookshelves, comfortable couches, and an aquarium. Create a free Wi-Fi hotspot for your community to surf the Web and enjoy a free cup of coffee.

Google creates community and pursues creativity. It doesn’t think outside the box, it operates as if the boxes don’t exist. We can too. And it’s fun!

BE DIFFERENT AND BEAUTIFUL

In 1997, Apple Computer Inc. was on the brink of bankruptcy. Steve Jobs ignored an e-mail from fellow computer designer Michael Dell to “shut [Apple] down” and reassumed the reins of the dying company.3 A decade ago, Apple was seemingly lost in a Microsoft universe, managing only 4 percent of all computer sales.4

The problem for Apple wasn’t making better computers (most tech geeks knew the power of a Macintosh) nor producing more machines. Apple needed a new course. Consequently, Jobs challenged his Apple leaders to “Think Different”—a slogan the company adopted in 1997—for it seemed “people had forgotten about what Apple stood for, including the employees.”5

In October 2001, betting a hunch that MP3s (digital audio players) were the next big thing, Apple released an aesthetically pleasing MP3 player known as the iPod (followed months later by the online music store iTunes). The iPod was a thing of beauty. Flat. Functional. Fun. Soon the trademark white headphones became the status symbol for the culturally hip.

In just five years, more than 58 million iPods were sold, and currently Apple controls more than 87 percent of the digital download market. The irony is it’s also selling more computers (and don’t forget the iPhone!).

It’s all because Apple decided to “think different” (and be beautiful).

But we know something more beautiful—the bride of Christ, the church. It’s a collective community of saints and sinners from every ethnic type and stripe. Unfortunately, many view the church as ugly or worse, as negative when, in fact, no organization, club, or religious movement has been more dynamic and, in most cases, a more positive societal influence. Nevertheless, some factions of Christianity don’t help our cause. A few of us have made the rest of us look bad.

So maybe it’s time for the church to think different and act beautiful. I mean, really think different and really be gorgeous!

Of course, we’ll have to lose our love for masks. Sometimes we act like it’s Halloween on Sunday by opting for anonymity, pretense, and facade. And yet, our culture is highly attracted to authenticity. Less is more. Baring your soul is welcome. Got a secret? Post it!6

Consequently, for the church to recapture beauty it’ll have to rethink authentic community. Most churches are pits of passivity where being known is discouraged. What if we stopped midsermon or midservice and guided connective experiences for people to hear one another’s stories? What if the Lord’s Supper really was? What if we encouraged people to bring instruments (providing chords and notes) and let everyone play in the band? What if the sermon were collective thoughts from various Bible teachers, implementing different formats from song to video to drama?

Now that would be different . . . and probably beautiful, too.

OPEN AND AVAILABLE

If you don’t have a Facebook account, you’re missing out. Facebook is the social utility that’s forging new frontiers for friendship. Its CEO is a 23-year-old college kid-turned-millionaire who single-handedly created a user-friendly, fun, and connective place for people to hang out online. In 2007, Facebook was valued at over $15 billion with more than 65 million active users and more than a quarter million new “faces” daily!7

Facebook is all about relationships. Finding them. Growing them. Enjoying them.

Facebook does more than connect. It’s like a global party for friends. Daily you can read (in a newsfeed) what your buddies are doing. You’ll receive birthday reminders, cyber gifts, or invites to special groups. You can upload blogs, photos, and YouTube videos, and share favorite books, movies, and music. Through special applications you can tell where you’ve been, your affection for particular sports teams, and play countless games with other Facebook friends. You can even share your local church.

The best part is it’s available 24-7-365.

Of course, one of the criticisms with Facebook (and other social networking sites) is its tendency toward overt transparency. Some people post too much personal information. Some kids (and adults) upload risqué photos. Some join groups with vulgar names. It’s like any other social event. You’ve got class and crass, clowns and clones.

It sounds almost like the church, doesn’t it?

Actually Facebook could teach the church some lessons about assimilating people into the body. First of all, the rules are relatively few. If you’ve got a friend, you’ve got community happening. You don’t have to agree, look alike, share the same interests, believe the same ideology, or accept every lifestyle. Friendship is framed on a common, mutual respect and basic awareness. I know you. You know me. Let’s share more and see where this leads.

Too many churches have unwritten, nonbiblical rules to “get in” or “stay in.” If you “agree,” you’re welcome. If you “dress right,” you’re OK.

In the first-century church, and until the Reformation, there was only one ritual that connected everyone together: baptism. The church was soaked by this connective act to profess acceptance of the message (Acts 2:41), a new relationship with God (Colossians 2:11, 12), and partnership with a body (1 Corinthians 12:13). Beyond baptism, no other rule existed. It was the marker event, the wedding vows, and the induction ceremony all in one. It’s where Jesus accepted your “friendship” invitation.

Facebook is also always open, and so is the church. The body is continually growing, changing, moving, and acting. It doesn’t have posted hours of operation.

If you want a vision of the church in the future, this might be it. Always meeting up and occasionally actually congregating in person at a comfortable location.

SHIFTING GEARS . . .

In a culture traveling at the speed of life, the church must change gears. Shift down. Turbocharge. Often at the same time. The future is now.

As Leonard Sweet proposes: “carpe manana!” Seize tomorrow because if you pause to ponder the moment, tomorrow will be in your rearview mirror before you know it.

That’s the secret Google, Apple, and Facebook have really learned.

And, hopefully, so will the church.

________

1“The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies,” Fast Company, March 2008. The magazine said it “canvassed the experts, analyzed the products, and crunched the numbers . . . from visionary upstarts to storied stalwarts” in an attempt to compile a list that confirms “beyond a doubt how business is a force for change.”

2Ibid., 76.

3Steven Levy, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 81.

4Ibid., 92.

5Ibid., 118.

6A good example of this is Post-Secret, an online community for individuals to upload their most painful and intimate secrets. Check it out: www.postsecret.com.

7For more interesting statistics, visit the Facebook Press Room at www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics.




Rick Chromey is an author, consultant, and leader in children’s, youth, and emergent ministry who lives in Meridian, Idaho.

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