Dr. Gregory House, that cranky medical diagnostician from TV Land once said:

“Ideas aren’t soda cans. Recycling sucks. Take an old idea. Shine it up. And, add something new.”

When he said this, House was in a meeting with his brilliant and ever-patient staff. He was criticizing them once again for not living up to his medical diagnostic standards. Their brainstorming in the case of a rapidly deteriorating patient was failing to capture his imagination. (If you haven’t seen the show, this is the predicament for every episode). So, House suggests a method that works not only in diagnostic medicine, but also in art, science, business, and any situation requiring a unique solution.

He wasn’t really knocking recycling. He was hawking innovation.

Now, innovation is one of those terms that we in worship-arts circles throw around almost as haphazardly as “missional”, “emerging” and “postmodern”. It has been diluted by overuse and has lost its zing. It has come to improperly double as a word for creation. It has also evolved into a reference to something that is generally, really great. (“Boy, that was a really innovative service!”). But, are these correct uses of the word? I am inclined to quote another profound philosopher from the world of TV and movies, Inigo Montoya:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So, what is innovation and how is it relevant to worship?

Innovation is not creation ex nihilo. It is a blending of two or more existing elements to yield something unique. Innovation can also be taking a single existing element and tweaking it somehow to yield a fresh version.

The word innovate comes from the Latin innovare, which literally means “to make new”. This always makes me think of one of my favorite Jesus quotes: “See, I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5). Evidently, Jesus was an innovator since he was (and is) in the process of renewing creation.

You might say that humans never create in the strictest sense. We only take parts of what God has already provided in Creation and combine them or tweak them to reveal a new manifestation. It is often taught that part of the Imago Dei in us is evidenced through our creativity. Perhaps, we might more properly say that we display God’s image with our innovativity. (Someone needs to tweak the old idea of a manger scene just so we can say the words “nativity innovativity”).

What should be our motivation to make things new?

Humans innovate to make life easier. We also innovate to be more efficient – though this doesn’t always work out the way we envision it. We may innovate simply to have more fun. Scientists innovate for progress. Business leaders innovate for the bottom-line. Artists innovate for beauty’s sake. Why do (or should) church and worship leaders innovate? To what end? The answer is: So that God may be worshiped well. We innovate so that all we practice when we gather ultimately points to God and reminds us who he is, affording us the opportunity to respond authentically.

Aside from the desire for your church to worship well, why else should you innovate? Maybe your feel your worship is boring. Maybe changes in culture – both global and local – are necessitating an innovative approach in your worship (George Barna’s “Revolution” is an excellent, concise discussion on these changes). Maybe some other aspect of your church has undergone innovation and this requires worship innovation in response.

Once you understand innovation and you determine the need to innovate, it can seem overwhelming, even impossible to begin. Let me share with you two practical approaches to worship innovation: curating and renovating.

We start with curating. In the art world today, a curator acquires objects appropriate to a given collection. They research, collect, and organize the various pieces to make a cohesive whole. Curating, when applied to worship can function a number of different ways. In the case of innovation, curation means renewing your collections of rituals (worship services) by finding existing rituals to use in place of your old ones. Practically speaking, this could be as simple as finding and choosing a fitting song you’ve never used before. For instance, say you are creating a service on God’s guidance. You might find the old Celtic hymn “Be Thou My Vision” and choose to insert it into your worship service. This is worship innovation in the simplest sense.

One of the beauties of curation innovation is that you do not have to be a skilled creator. You do, however, need to make wise decisions about what kind of rituals are needed and appropriate for your context, and have an idea where to locate them. This is a good place to start.

Though simply curating rituals can work fine in almost any situation, many pre-existing rituals are better with a little contextual tweaking. I call this tweaking, “renovating”.

When you renovate a kitchen, you bring it up to date. You replace old appliances – stove tops, ovens, refrigerators – with new technology, discovered since your original kitchen was built. You change the cracked and scuffed linoleum to more durable stone tile (if you have the money!). You alter the color scheme from mustard yellow and brown to a light blue or taupe to bring your cooking environment out of the 1970’s and into the present day.

When we renovate a found historical form or ritual, we do similar activities. Our renovation might include updating archaic language in written prayers. It may include editing out portions of text or video that are too long or not focused enough for our immediate context. This kind of innovation might also include changing the musical arrangement or feel of a song to make it more relevant for those who will be singing it.

Taking our song example “Be Thou My Vision”, we might decide that doing the old hymn as it appears in the hymnal does not suit our context. Renovating it could mean altering the length of each phrase so that this song – which has no refrain – is extended to a more comfortable length. It might also mean choosing not to do verses with gender specific language, such as “Thy my great Father, and I Thy true son”. It may even mean altering the melody just enough to add a little pop sensibility.

Renovating means examining carefully our selected ritual to locate anything that may need changing, in order that communication may be improved – so that people may connect with the Spirit of God.

Where are you and your church in the innovation scheme? Are you mostly curating toward liturgical innovation? Have you done any renovating of existing forms for your unique cultural context?

It’s time to move beyond innovatory novitiate toward becoming a nouveau initiator of innovation action. Say that ten times fast.

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