Biased Toward Innovation
by Len Wilson
At Invite, we exist to build a like-hearted community of influencers who are high on Jesus, low on politics, and biased toward innovation. But what does it mean to be “Biased Toward Innovation”?
While Christians today are known for retreat, rule, and self-reliance, historically one of the greatest assets to culture has been the church—the body of believers—who, having heard Christ’s call to go, responds to the needs of the world with brilliant new ideas that save lives. Consider for example that health insurance came from a group of church people. While in challenging times such as we face now, the temptation may be to go backward, God calls us forward.
Christian innovation is about being Spirit-mended and solution-minded.
Christian innovation is in many ways just like secular innovation. In Greater Things, I define innovation using four terms: an instrument, an invention, intuitive, and influential. But we cannot stop here. In addition to these characteristics, Christian innovation is something greater: Christian innovation is how we participate in the emergence of God’s New Creation. Dean of Duke Divinity School Greg Jones describes “Christian social innovation” as activity that helps reveal a transformed creation. But how do we avoid falling into the trap of the social gospel? Let us look at this word new in more depth.
The New Testament contains two Greek words commonly translated into the English as new: neos and kainos. The first is about time; the second is about substance. Neos connotes change: something recently created, not previously known or used. It is closer to our current understanding of innovation as “new and improved.” This has a strong implication of time; it is a comparison of something new to something old. Kainos, however, is more than a question of time. It is a type of new defined by a quality. Both definitions are critical to understanding Christ’s New Creation.
There is the one story in the Gospels in which Jesus uses both definitions. Here it is (I’ve inserted which Greek word for new Jesus uses throughout):
They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.”
Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.”
He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new [neos] garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new [neos] garment, and the patch from the new [neos] will not match the old. And no one pours new [neos] wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new [neos] wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new [neos] wine must be poured into new [kainos] wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new [neos], for they say, ‘The old is better.’ ” (Luke 5:33-39)
The question posed to Jesus compared his disciples to the disciples of his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus declared John to be the greatest prophet. John’s disciples ask Jesus about John’s methods. Shouldn’t people fast and pray, like John did? It would make sense to follow in John’s footsteps, right?
No, Jesus says. John obeyed the rules of the Law, which is the old wine, but Jesus himself is the new wine. (The first public image he uses for himself is wine, at Cana; and the last image he uses for himself is wine, in the Upper Room.) The key is the phrase “new wineskins,” which is the only use of kainos in his parable. The new wineskins are not just newer in age, but a qualitatively different kind of material. Kainos means unprecedented, both fresh and superior to that which came before. In other words, Jesus is not just another teacher in a line of teachers or prophets, including his cousin John. Jesus is new wine; when we believe in him, we become part of a New Creation. While the promised kingdom of God exists in time, it refers not just to the future but points us toward a substantially different, greater reality—one in which we already participate because of our faith. The New Testament refers to this reality as the New Creation.
The New Creation is a qualitatively different reality, happening in our present time.
If Jesus is the new wine, what is the wineskin? Old wineskins are practices and habits, such as fasting, which become ways of thinking and being that made sense to those who once obeyed the Law and waited for the Messiah to come. Now that the Messiah has come, though, those who seek God no longer need those practices; in fact, they may inhibit us from knowing God. When Jesus says new wine must be poured into new wineskins, he means that believing in him introduces an entirely new reality, and with it, entirely different ways of living. If you try to follow Jesus using the practices of the old covenant, everything bursts. Jesus is telling John’s disciples that to follow him means to no longer worry about ascetic living or about the Roman occupation.
Thus, the word kainos is synonymous with innovation: the old religious practices that preceded Jesus are not going to work for following Jesus. Christian and innovation are redundant, according to Jesus. While we seek fresh solutions for the problems we face, as Christian innovators, our best new innovations will not work if they are built into the same old contexts—systems of communication, turns of phrase, ideas and activities—the sum of exchanges that compose the seamless web of our culture.
The New Creation is synonymous with innovation: the old religious practices that preceded Jesus are not going to work for following Jesus. According to Jesus, Christian and innovation are redundant.
To be sure, you can have innovations that are not Christian, and you can have Christian practices that are not innovative. But the work of the new creation - creative work that happens as part of the kainos creation - is by definition innovative.
As all innovators and change agents know, when confronted with the old world, our efforts to create new solutions often burst, atrophy, and encounter rejection. Many creative, talented people have tried to bring fresh thinking to the church, only to give up in frustration at the forces of stasis and resistance that prevent new growth from happening. Lasting innovation needs qualitatively different contexts to thrive. This may happen only with the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit, which introduces the kainos kingdom.
The apostle Paul describes this in my favorite Bible verse when he writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ—new creation! The old has gone, the new is come” (2 Cor 5:17, my translation). The Greek for this verse is tricky and belies simple English translation. A direct, word-for-word translation reveals a present tense emphasis on not just a new person in time but a qualitatively different person. Paul is describing a sense of time that is beyond one tense—to be a kainos creation is both present reality and future hope.
Another way of saying this is that Christian innovation is both rooted in time (neos) and out of time (kainos). Or, to use innovation scholar Clayton Christensen’s term “value”, innovation becomes Christian when new includes both incarnate value and eternal value. Our work is of the Spirit; it is Christian innovation when it includes both these attributes.
Christian innovation includes both incarnate value and eternal value.
What does this mean for the work of Christian innovation? It means our work is relevant to the present and is oriented toward the future.
At Invite, our mission is to leverage innovative methods of publishing and platforming, help authors and influencers share the promise of the New Creation, and invite all people to discover a deeper faith and relationship with Christ. Rather than argue, our preference is to keep Jesus high and focus on the work of the New Creation.
This is excerpted and adapted from Greater Things: The Work of the New Creation. Learn more and buy the book here.