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Why does church innovation = technology? | Part 1

July 19, 2011

I’ve noticed an interesting church leadership trend in the past few years.

Every year there are a few magazines or blogs that put out an annual list of innovative churches (most notably Outreach Magazine). Here are a few examples:

  • has a SecondLife campus.
  • Mars Hill (Grand Rapids) had Noomas (though not technically tied to the church)
  • Granger has great videos and communication gurus.

All of which are great and exciting innovations helping us better achieve the Great Commission. And to be clear, these achievements should be celebrated. But somewhere in the last 10-15 years, “innovation” in churches has, by-and-large, become synonymous with technological innovation or innovating how we deliver The Message via technology.

To “innovate” simply means to develop new things or methods. With the American church shrinking in size and influence, innovation is undoubtedly needed. The stats to support the church’s decline have been well documented. Only 15% of Gen X and only 4 % of Gen Y regularly attend a Sunday service. Moreover, 62% of Americans say they would never go to a church service. Yet most churches are using technological innovation — vehicles like video campuses, podcasting, Facebook microtargeting, etc. — to either draw people to their services or to export the Sunday experience. Most of our innovation revoles around technology meant to draw people to something that is Sunday service-centric.

Yet the innovation that’s required is for new methods to reach the 62% who aren’t likely  candidates for a worship service conversion. A re-imagining is required of how the Church can incarnate in a way that is relevant to that growing segment. So my first challenge for Christian leaders is to think of innovation beyond technological means.

But I also have some specific challenges to the Church’s growing infatuation with technology. They are…

  1. In my experience, Discipleship and Mission can rarely be done well at a distance.
    It’s not often that true mission or discipleship happen outside of real flesh-and-blood relationships. Discipleship is meant to be life on life — day in and day out. Not only is it difficult for those we are discipling to see how we are following Jesus if they don’t have access to our real lives — but it’s also harder to know what they’re struggling as it’s easier for them to hide things in the digital world. It’s also harder to communicate genuine support and challenge without physical proximity or context.
  2. Technology works best when it’s supplementary to existing relationships vs their primary mode of being.
    For example, I love Facebook. I use it all the time. One of the things that I LOVE about Facebook is that I get to follow my son, Sam, who is 1500 miles away at university. I get to look at pictures of him and his fiancee, Taylor (they are getting married this weekend!!!). I get to laugh at his funny status updates. I get to follow him through the week even though I’m half a continent removed from him. The existence of Facebook ADDS to an already rich, pre-existing relationship. It affords things to our relationship that we wouldn’t have without it.
  3. If we’re not careful, reliance on digital media can shape us to disengage from life offline.
    Technological “innovation” can become counter-productive if it shapes people to dis-engage with the mission we’ve been called to. If it becomes a crutch to avoid the flesh, blood and mess of real life — then we have a different problem on our hands. I’m not trying to be a Luddite or an alarmist, but sometimes I really wonder if we are worse at discipleship and mission than we were 15 years ago because we haven’t been thoughtful with how technology is shaping us.

The church needs innovation. We need to set our sights to re-imagining, but we need to do so by getting back to the basics of discipling people and innovating how we do that. If you disciple people the way Jesus did and the way his disciples did, the way the early church did and the way we’ve seen throughout history, you will always get the missional thing.

The problem is that we are pretty awful at discipleship. (How’s that for candid?) As you’ve heard me say before, mission and discipleship are intextricably linked. You can’t be a disciple the way Jesus envisioned a disciple without being missional. So this is what I want to say:

Discipleship is where we need innovation.

Dallas Willard put it this way: Every church needs to be able to answer two questions. First, what is our plan for making disciples? And second, does our plan work? Sadly, most churches have a plan, but their results don’t come close to standing against the types of disciples we see littered throughout scripture. The plans simply aren’t working.

What does all this have to do with the church and technology?

I wonder what would happen if local churches spent ½ of the time they spend on keeping up with technology trends and innovating them and re-allocated it to innovating ways to make disciples who can make disciples in every-day, flesh-on-flesh, real life? Refusing to do it at a distance, but using the digital stuff as supplementary, not as the main thing.

I wonder if we just might have a movement on our hands.

Now don’t hear me wrong. I’m not a luddite who despises technology. Love love my ipad. A three-toed sloth couldn’t rip it from my fingers. 😉 I’m not suggesting a false dichotomy where we should shun innovating technology within the church because only then can we embrace “true” mission and discipleship. I’m saying nothing of the sort. I’m just asking us to take a step back and evaluate how we are allocating out time, energy and resources within “church world.”

What say you, oh blogger world?

(there is a bit of irony, isn’t there, that I’m writing this via an innovation of digital technology!?!)

28 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 2:10 pm

    This issue has been on my radar for the past three days big time. The energy and resource it takes to build high attraction systems and structures is significant, but for the most part still beneficial in many contexts in the U.S. From one vantage point we could say “It’s missional to be attractional” in terms of building Bridges into the non 62%. However, while those same missional church planters/pastors/leaders speak of a priority on discipling, there is often not a corresponding energy and resource given to building systems and structures to be highly missional. Those systems ironically are not anywhere near as financially costly as the high attraction systems , but they are more costly on the leaders time, priorities and ultimately doing the hard work of forging their own character in the fires of the Word and Spirit. While we desire to make disciples, will we prioritize doing the hard, SLOWER work of investing our lives personally through a vehicle that will allow those we’re pouring into ongoing access into our lives? We’re seeing some great breakthrough currently as our third generation huddles start to pop up more and more. While it’s been a slower journey, doing the painful hard work of building structures for high mission (discipling huddles and missional communities) it’s been really delicious fruit. Love this post Mike, thanks!

  2. July 19, 2011 3:02 pm

    As a person who spends his time consulting with churches about technology I greatly appreciate this post.
    I view technology as an amplification of the systems and processes that already exist. When a pastor expects that technology will be an end vs a means they become addicted to the latest/greatest buzz. “Maybe Google+ will finally save our church”
    Both extremes are unhealthy – technology nihilism & technology hedonism. Yet with a clear understanding that it is people, not data, that matters I’ve found technology to allow a community of believers to increase their impact.

    • July 19, 2011 3:13 pm

      Great thoughts here. Love the descriptions of nihilism and hedonism you used for technology! Refreshing to heart kind that sentiment coming from someone who does this kind of stuff for a living.

  3. outofashestv permalink
    July 19, 2011 3:12 pm

    Great article!

  4. July 19, 2011 4:05 pm

    I’d never thought about that before. God gave me an innovative idea few years ago: stop working for the Church and seek work supporting young people who wont go to church. I really struggled with this (am i forsaking my ‘calling’ etc.) but I connect with young people who wont attend a church but who will talk about faith, God and Jesus with me. I am now also leading a missional community connected with and am released to do what God has called me to rather than lots of meetings about things I have no heart or calling to. Vocational change has exponentially increased opportunities for me to make disciples within and outwith the Church community. Sometimes the innovative changes are the ones that dont make sense and require a degree of risk to step into the unknown.

  5. July 19, 2011 6:41 pm

    I plan to offer my own post on this sometime soon, but wanted to interject that I think the central reason that churches don’t/won’t place their emphasis on innovative approaches to discipleship is because it just doesn’t make sense to do that based on their understanding of the gospel or salvation. As long as the gospel remains something that we primarily need to “believe” in the cognitive sense, then it actually makes perfect sense to spend the bulk of your time and energy on innovating technologically because the bottom line is reaching as many people as possible. Discipleship, in this vision, is optional, auxiliary to what it means to “be saved.” My sense is that it is only when people begin embrace the reality of the gospel as an invitation into a way of life (the Kingdom of God), and salvation as a way of describing the nature of life in the Kingdom, that they begin to understand the “biblical logic” that leads to the shaping of an ecclesiology in which discipleship and innovative approaches to discipleship will begin to be of primary importance.

    To add an additional dimension to this line of thought, I would suggest that even if we can convince people to give greater attention to discipleship and innovation in that area, but do so merely for pragmatic reasons (reaching the 62% that say they will never attend a church service), all we have really done is traded one strategy for effectiveness for another one (albeit one that certainly coheres more w/ the pattern of Jesus’ life). The problem isn’t the method, discipleship absolutely should be the method of church life. The problem is the aim. What does it do to our understanding and practice of discipleship when the aim is effectiveness rather than faithfulness? I am left wondering what happens to those churches and leaders who adopt this as a “better ecclesial strategy” w/o it stemming from a renewed vision of the gospel and salvation if and when it doesn’t produce the typically sought after results? I know you have some good thoughts along these lines. I’d love to hear how they contribute to this discussion!

    • July 21, 2011 1:33 pm

      hi JR,

      love the post. congrats on the baby girl too. How can i find out about you writing more about this?

      • July 21, 2011 2:42 pm

        Hey Laurence. Thanks for the congratulations. Our first – so some major acclimating going on around our home!

        I’ve been working on a draft on the topic of my comment for a week or so. Keep your eyes peeled over at Hope to have something up by this weekend.

      • August 9, 2011 3:00 pm

        Laurence, just wanted to let you know that I got the post I had in mind up on my blog a couple weeks ago. You can check it out here:

  6. Denise Cox permalink
    July 20, 2011 12:05 pm

    Whole-hearted agreement here. You are spot on!
    People need real people, real hugs, real relationships! Yes, it’s messy and it takes time – it’s many times not convenient or cheap, but people are priceless. They’re everything! They’re whom Jesus came and gave His life for! If He gave up His life for people, how can we do any less?

  7. July 20, 2011 12:51 pm

    Great thought provoking post. The key Mike is supplement. In the nutrition world we take them to help what is lacking, but ideally if we come to depend on supplement then we become second class to the real thing. Our first taste of supplemental Christianity was radio, then tv and now it is the internet. For the shuts ins of the world it is a blessing, but if a real person could walk in the room with the gospel I’m sure the shut ins of the world would gladly turn off the supplement for flesh on flesh. I know I would. Love your thinking. Thanks.

  8. July 20, 2011 3:49 pm

    Great Article Mike ! Mission and Discipleship Can Be both Hi-tec and Hi-touch but if One needs to decrease to sustain a Movement it must be the Technology that goes !! Can I have a Hug ?!! Blessings Steve B.

  9. July 20, 2011 5:11 pm


    You write…
    “The problem is that we are pretty awful at discipleship.”
    “Discipleship is where we need innovation.”

    Maybe some of the reasons why we are so awful at discipleship is…

    Discipleship and discipling is NOT found in the Bible.
    Neither are the words “The Great Commission” or todays understanding of…

    Mat 28:19:20 NKJV
    Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,
    baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
    **teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you**

    Seems NOT many today – teach believers to “observe” in them
    those things that Jesus taught “His Disciples” to do.

    IMO – Most teach – Commandments of men, Doctrines of men,
    philosophies of men, Precepts of men, Precepts of denominations, that become
    “Traditions of men” which nullify “The Word of God.” Mark 7:13.

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall “hear My voice; “
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  10. July 20, 2011 7:40 pm

    Before anything else, I want to thank the author for a great writing and acknowledge all of the thoughtful comments posted thus far.

    Yes, there are many churches who have made technology an end, in and of itself, rather than a means to an end. For example, the congregation that has created, and now manages accounts across all of the popular social media platforms, (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) with little or no thought as to how they intend[ed] to leverage these tools to extend their purposes as followers of Christ Jesus. It seems that the issue here is a lack of strategy and ongoing effective use of technology. Both of these issues inevitably fail to produce a favorable outcome that substantiates the investment of church resources. However, what if this were to look different? What if there was a strategy that balanced online and offline interactions between disciple-makers and their apprentices? What would happen if we began to live our lives on mission in both the offline and online world? What are the ways in which we can use technology to amplify and empower our interactions and relationships with people locally and perhaps even globally?

  11. July 21, 2011 4:25 pm

    When we talk about discipleship, I get worried. To me discipleship is more than bible study, more than relationships. It involves how to engage with God in the workplace, how to be an activist for the diadvantaged, how to live in community with each other, how to share the gospel of the Kingdom of God, how to identify ones ministry and vocation as well as learning to serve in the difficult places and with difficult people. And at the base of all this is learning how to apply the Scriptures in all that for which we do need training as there isn’t any to do all that!

  12. July 21, 2011 5:20 pm

    Thanks for your post! I am new to this discussion of innovation + church but it is one that I wrestle as my job works with many churches in my area and across the country. In addition, I am current MBA student at Regent University here in Virginia Beach, VA and we are studying innovation and technology right now. Your Luddite comment is timely to our reading this week. My current professor is a believer and an expert on the subject of innovation. If you are interested, he just wrote a book called “The Light Prize” dealing with Christian Innovation that just came out.

    I feel torn between churches who need to come into this century and begin to use technology in reaching people and those who need to practice as you say more “flesh-on-flesh” discipleship. Your explanation of using it as a tool to be relevant to the times but not using it as a mainstay is helpful. Thanks so much for the post. I really enjoyed it!

  13. July 22, 2011 1:23 am

    Wow, I used to be that guy who used tech to get people in the door. This is very convicting. I have since began my journey into personal discipleship. I have just starting reading your thoughts, but they seem very similar to what I am seeing.

    Great post!

  14. July 23, 2011 9:04 pm

    Mike – As a person who used to be an internet pastor for a large church in Atlanta, I can resonate with your thoughts. I celebrate that churches are using technology to amplify the gospel like water did beneath the feet of Jesus, but we have to consider the limits.

    The mode of communication cannot become the extent of the message.

    You say, “Discipleship is where we need innovation.” I hope you are going to unpack this further in your posts to come as it relates to technology!

  15. July 25, 2011 3:35 pm

    Mike Breen has posted some excellent thoughts regarding the use of technology as a supplement to discipleship. blessings…

  16. July 27, 2011 11:37 am

    Great post Mike, good to see you talking about this. I have been working in the tech, digital media for sometime, and been asking the hard questions around making disciples and now can MC develop online, how can it be a mixture and enhancement.

    “What is our plan for making disciples? And second, does our plan work?” I have spend this month with one of the most innovative technology/media/web ministries in the world who see 2000+ a day converted online needing discipleship – been discussing this very question to get them thinking differently.

    Our conversation has lead the development of mobile app – but not education based with devotions etc but tech/app etc should lead to discipleship, and assist the discipler/leader to work with disciples in accountability and process the learning circle.


  17. July 27, 2011 5:11 pm

    Danny – (and anyone else wanting the resource) – our organization published a free e-book on the topic “Leveraging Technology to Make Disciples” it is available for download at

  18. August 4, 2011 5:12 pm

    A lot of the issue that you bring up has to do with what I would call the conflicting natures of technology and Discipleship.
    If technology’s role in our lives is to make things more convenient and faster and more efficient and sometimes more comfortable. And Discipleship is at its core following Jesus and seeking to become like Him – which entails sharing in His suffering and doing the hard work of loving others.
    The problem can show itself when we try to bring the role we have placed technology in and try to apply it to the discipline of Disciple-making. It seems that they would be at odds with one another. Almost diametrically opposed.

  19. Okey permalink
    March 2, 2012 6:43 pm

    Great post.u’re blessed


  1. The Church, Change, and Adapting |
  2. Why does church innovation = technology? | Part 2 «
  3. Why We Don’t Make Disciples — Ben Sternke
  4. Why We Don’t Make Disciples « pueblodedioslutheranchurch
  5. Why does church innovation = technology? | Part 2 | Mike Breen

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