Tradition Prefers Failure to Innovation

IDEOI remember the first time I heard of IDEO – a famous firm that seemingly few have heard about – a company that helps others innovate. It was at a company meeting with Fellowship Technologies where CEO Jeff Hook was inspiring us to help innovate in the church market. I was surprised at the number of products that we use today were actually birthed at IDEO on behalf of the company that gets all the credit. Notable examples are Apple’s first mouse, Microsoft’s second mouse, and the Palm V PDA. Major clients have included Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Microsoft, Eli Lilly, Ford, and Steelcase.

What struck me most about them was that they’re not an invention firm, but an innovation firm.

I think innovation is the art and science of taking something that exists and improving on it in a significant way. This, of course, has huge implications for local churches, who have the timeless message that never changes but innumerable methods for applying that message to culture. Where I think churches trip up along this journey is when traditions become more important than the teachings from the text.

Traditions begin as personal preferences. I made this simple statement in a blog a couple of weeks ago:

I have preferences. We all do. Some of these preferences have meaning to us, so we create a consistent pattern around them. Before you know it, we’ve told others how to operate within our preferences. One step removed from us, what was once a preference is now a tradition. I think traditions are a lot like money: they’re neither good nor bad – it’s all about how you approach it. If a tradition gets in the way of loving people, it’s a clear sign that the tradition has to change or go.”

It is my personal experience and opinion that the main reason mainline churches are failing and dying is because they’re holding onto denominational or local traditions at the expense of connecting culturally with their communities. Further, they hardly ever bother to acknowledge the other Christian denominations (or non-denominational churches) in any of their community efforts. Even in (perhaps especially in?) small town, rural settings, the row of various churches along main street fight to keep their own and avoid being associated with – much less collaborating with – these other faithful flocks. Even Jesus himself said “if they’re not against us, they’re for us”.

Traditions are powerful and can be helpful – as long as they follow the heart of the Father and not merely the letter of the law. I do not believe traditions are inherently bad, but the very nature of perpetuating traditions eschews innovation. We live in a time when change is constant and communication is real-time. At what point can a tradition offer itself on the altar and die to facilitate needed innovation?

Our culture is moving on. Perhaps for the sake of the Gospel we can move on and innovate, too.

QUESTION: Is tradition really in the way of innovation? What say you?



  1. I love your use of IDEO as inspiration for innovation. Jim Sachs was one of the founding principles of IDEO and I've gotten the pleasure of knowing his brother, Chris. Chris has recanted stories of how he and Jim approached innovation and design and I think there is applicability on many levels for the local church.

    Drawing on your Apple Mouse example above, mouse "traditions" at that point in time were that it was only a little device that simply sat on a table and had buttons to push. It didn't move, didn't scroll, just sat there and let you click button A or B. Jim Sachs (IDEO) met with Steve Jobs and they looked at this mouse technology that Xerox had invented (the "tradition") and saw that it should be something different, something more functional and with greater impact to the future of computing. Thus the notion of physically moving the mouse on a table and having a courser on the screen follow your movements was invented. And even to today, most every mouse on the market includes patents they created on the simple idea of a mouse that tracks movement on a surface.

    Sure, that's a great folklore-ish story to tell for geeks, but I see the applicability exactly as you described in every small town with rows of churches fighting for their own. For example, what if instead of letting tradition dictate each church having it's own food pantry that has a limited reach, the "tradition", instead let innovation drive the conversation around "each church has food, how can we feed our community?". Or with the "tradition" of benevolence funds, "each church has small resources to help fight poverty, how can we together help raise our community up?".

    So while reading this Anthony, I remembered the mouse. The mouse could still be a simple selecting device, but instead it has become a basic functionary part of how we use computers and how entire operating systems are designed. I would love to fast forward thirty years and see entire communities designed around basic community services provided by the local church. Just as looked at the printed Bible and said "how can we get this in the hands of millions?" and built the YouVersion App. What if every small town looked at each other and said "instead of competing to serve our community, how can we eradicate poverty here" and let innovation drive that, we'd see a dynamic shift in the future DNA of communities everywhere.

    • Steve – those are just great thoughts! Thank you for adding to this dialogue. Yep – the mouse is a great example and you’ve clearly got the vision to challenge tradition for the sake of innovation!


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