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A formative experience in the life of Hudson Taylor was triggered by a question posed to him by a Chinese man who asked, “Why do you have buttons on the back of your coat?”

To his Chinese observer a button that served no purpose was foolish. And the question produced an epiphany for Hudson Taylor: western style dress is creating an unnecessary barrier to the gospel. Reflecting on that experience he decided to “go native” and abandoned his western dress, believing foreign elements of mission work “seriously hindered the rapid dissemination of truth among the Chinese.”

In spite of Hudson Taylor’s commitment to “full Chinese dress” this new methodology was met with a combination of mockery and outrage. Some believed China Inland Mission workers were adorning the clothes of the enemy. Others insisted Western style dress offered both protection and prestige. But to Hudson Taylor Chinese dress was part of a broader commitment to a truly indigenous church and evidence of his willingness to embrace controversial methodology in the pursuit of this worthy goal.

Why Innovation Matters

Missionary methodology is inseparably linked with creativity. Creativity is an essential component of innovation. We would like to believe if the right idea came along we would recognize it immediately and implement it promptly. The facts of history suggest otherwise. In reality, the more innovative the idea the less likely it will be readily accepted or adopted.

On Saturday, February 17, 1739, George Whitefield preached in the open air for the very first time to 200 coal miners outside Bristol, England. Knowing how controversial this methodology would be, he penned the following words in his journal: “Blessed be God that the ice is now broke, and I have now taken the field! Some may censure me, but is there not a cause? Pulpits are denied, and the poor miners ready to perish for lack of knowledge.” 47

Mature, godly leaders throughout England opposed Whitefield, believing his open air preaching was a disgrace to the high calling of pulpit ministry. Genuine spirituality is not by itself a failsafe against the misjudgment of breakthrough methodology. Tradition can produce blinds spots, even among the faithful.

The Innovation Lifecycle

Sociologist Everett Rogers published his seminal text, The Diffusion of Innovations, in 1962, and laid the foundation for our understanding of how new ideas spread within a social system. His work is most recognized by the bell curve that traces the process from innovators, to early adopters on one side of the curve to laggards on the other. I believe his model helps us understand the lifecycle of innovation within a discipline, industry or field of study. While it may be easier to observe the seeds of innovation in grassroots examples like Hudson Taylor or George Whitefield, what I refer to as the Innovation Lifecycle is most helpful when applied to the macro context of how organizations in a similar field respond over time to new methodologies.

Stage 1: Innovation – The lifecycle begins with a visionary, like Hudson Taylor, who sees what others do not, where a new idea becomes imaginable, at least for a few. Often new ideas are birthed at the fringe of the enterprise where outliers are more comfortable and questions can be posed that would otherwise be dismissed by the confidence of insider experts.

Stage 2: Adoption – If a new idea and the methodology it spawns produces results it will eventually become acceptable and adopted by others. John Wesley was just as skeptical as anyone about Whitefield’s open air preaching until he saw for himself the common folk of Bristol and the surrounding communities respond sincerely to a message they would have otherwise not even heard.

Wesley not only embraced the controversial method of open air preaching for himself, he eventually trained many others who would follow in his steps. By the time Methodist circuit riders ministered on the frontiers of the westward settlements of America open air ministry was commonplace.

Stage 3: Routinization – At some point in the adoption phase the new idea reaches a tipping point and is not merely acceptable, it is preferable. There is enough of a track record for processes to be refined and systems to be routinized. At this point in the lifecycle the methodology is no longer perceived as innovative and could be better described as mainstream. Benchmarking becomes possible and best practices emerge that level the playing field, enabling the laggards of Rogers’ bell curve to get up to speed more quickly.

Stage 4: Tradition – When widely held assumptions about how we do something go unchallenged for more than one generation of leadership they become traditions.48 This is true regardless of how radical or innovative the idea was in stage one. The problem with traditions is not inherently a lack of effectiveness, it is the blind spots they produce in leaders that make underlying assumptions invisible and thereby unchallenged.

The mainstream of the Great Commission community of North America is entrenched in traditional methodology that has been largely unchallenged for more than one generation of leadership. We have well established and highly routinized approaches for how we mobilize, train, fund and care for workers serving in cross-cultural ministry around the world.

The problem with traditional methods is not initially a lack of effectiveness. It is just the opposite. Traditional methods with efficient systems and incremental improvements often remain productive enough to justify their continued use well beyond the emergence of changes in the macro context that suggest innovation is needed to remain effective in the future.

Stage 5: Disruption – Economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase creative destruction to describe how the old is replaced by the new through innovation.49 This is most readily observed in the technology sector but creative destruction can also be observed in business process innovation.

Breakthrough innovation is fundamentally disruptive because it challenges underlying assumptions, the governing variables within which our existing methodologies operate. The more traditional the methodology, the more highly routinized the systems and the less visible the underlying assumptions. Invisible assumptions operate beneath the layer of conscious thought, much like the normalized behaviors of culture and worldview.

The Innovation Lifecycle moves through the first four stages rather predictably, from innovation to adoption, to routinization and tradition. Stage five, disruption, is somewhat predictable in terms of where it will come from (the fringe) but much less so with regard to when. Nearly every mission leader I speak with acknowledges our current models for funding the Great Commission will not take us into the future. Socio-cultural changes suggest the next generation of North American missionaries will not follow the same path as those who have gone before them. Traditional methodologies are in various stages of residual effectiveness and disruptive innovation is the need of the hour.

My greatest fear is not if paradigm pioneers will emerge with breakthrough ideas but rather how will the vanguards of tradition respond?

Four Challenges of Disruptive Innovation

Embracing disruptive innovation seems illogical to mainstream organizations for four reasons. First, it requires them to identify and question widely held assumptions about the status quo. Second, it requires them to dismantle highly routinized systems created to support traditional methods before those methods have completely outlived their usefulness. Third, it will be clear to everyone that the new methodology is unproven and great risk is involved with developing the organizational competencies required to embrace the new approach. Fourth, the initial results of the innovative methodology will almost always be less than what the traditional method is producing in the short run.

So here are a few questions worth exploring. Highly routinized and well refined systems are good for efficiency but can undermine creativity. How are you managing that tension? If methods become traditional when they go unchallenged for more than one generation of leadership, how traditional is your organization? More importantly, what is your process for exposing and challenging the underlying assumptions that drive traditional methodology?

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