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Andy Crouch: Love and the risk of innovation

Real innovation requires risk, which requires trust, says journalist and author Andy Crouch. And trust, he adds, doesn’t happen without love.

November 23, 2010

Cultural creativity may be the most difficult thing human beings do, because it happens neither alone nor with too many people, Andy Crouch said.

“One of the fascinating things about culture is that nobody makes it by themselves,” Crouch said. “There are no solo cultural creators.”

Instead, innovation and cultural creativity is most often achieved by small groups of people -- generally three to five, no more than can fit in a Mini Cooper -- working together in deep relationships of mutual commitment and trust.

“This doesn’t just happen through networking in some sense of, ‘Oh well, I know so-and-so,’ because innovation requires risk, which requires trust,” Crouch said. “And trust doesn’t happen, ultimately, without love.”

Crouch is the author of “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling,” which won Christianity Today’s 2009 Book Award for Christianity and Culture and was named one of the best books of 2008 by Publishers Weekly, Relevant, Outreach and Leadership.

Crouch is a senior editor at Christianity Today International. From 2005 to 2008, he was editorial director of the Christian Vision Project. Crouch is a classically trained musician and earned his M.Div. from Boston University School of Theology.

In October 2010, Crouch was a lecturer at the Convocation & Pastors’ School at Duke Divinity School (audio recordings of the lectures are available for free download through iTunes U). While at Duke, he spoke with Faith & Leadership about creating cultural change through Christian institutions. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: You’ve said that Christians often lack language to celebrate the glories of institutions like Harvard University. Can you talk some about the ways that institutions make the goods of our lives possible?

I spent 10 years as a campus minister at Harvard, and I found that, as Christians, we often had very thin language for celebrating the good things about Harvard. We had very robust language for critiquing Harvard. We could critique it from an evangelical point of view as a godless place, or from a social scientific point of view as a place of privilege and power. But we had very little language for saying, “Well, sure, it’s a secular place and a place that has concentrated power, but it is also a place of tremendous promise. It’s a place of real gifts for our culture, for our society and, of course, for our students.”

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for critique of an institution like Harvard, but I started to ask myself, “What is the language I have with which to interpret the blessings of an institution like Harvard?” I came to feel that my resources were not robust enough.

Q: What are some ways you’ve thought about for describing those good things once we’ve moved past the critiquing?

I’m increasingly taken with this phrase “human flourishing,” as a way of describing what Christians are about in the world and what we share with our neighbors who don’t share our faith. One of the things Christians are about in the world, of course, is the proclamation of Jesus as Savior and Lord of the world. We don’t share that with our neighbors who are not Christians, but we do share with our neighbors a sense that human beings ought to and can flourish in the world. There’s some common ground to say, “Yes, here is a flourishing instance of humanity, and over here is an example of human beings not flourishing.”

The basic institutional question is, does this institution -- which is, basically, a way of saying a set of patterns extended through time and across generations -- tend to allow human beings to flourish as the people they’re meant to be, or does it constrain human flourishing and cause human diminishing? The basic question to ask about any institution is, are human beings flourishing or diminishing within this set of patterns that have been established?

Q: If a secular institution can be weighed on whether it is helping people to flourish or causing them to diminish, what does “Christian” add to that?

Is there something particular to Christian institutions? I would say that there are two distinctions.

One is that Christian institutions need to keep alive the particular claims that the Christian tradition makes about what a flourishing human being is. That is, we don’t agree with our neighbors about all the dimensions of human flourishing. This is why one of the most controversial things about Christian institutions is often their code of behavior. We have to be very careful, because these can be quite legalistic and pharisaic. On the other hand, a vision of what embodied life is like is essential to a Christian vision of human flourishing. Christian institutions need to ask, “What does our embodied life together look like that’s different from corresponding institutions that don’t have a commitment to our faith?”

Then, of course, the other test is, does this institution keep alive the availability, the plausibility and the attractiveness of the gospel, the proclamation that God has made himself known in Christ? An effective institution is a kind of cultural horizon within which the essential claims of Christianity are seen, first of all, to be available. They’re simply discussed. They’re in the atmosphere in a way they may not be in a secular environment. They’re not just available but they’re plausible. Anyone immersed in this environment for any period of time would say, “You know, that might be true.”

Then, not only are they available and plausible but they’re attractive. Which is to say, “I know they’re out there. I know they could be true. I actually wish it were true.”

This is different from an institution maintaining a rock-ribbed certainty about every aspect about the Christian truth. The very nature of Christian claims about the world is that they are never something we can be indubitably certain of, it is just too improbable. Yet a healthy Christian institution maintains at the core of its common life this availability, plausibility and attractiveness. For all of us who doubt these things from time to time, when we’re within the life of this institution, we say, “You know, I think it might be really true. I want it to be true, and I want to be the kind of person for whom these truths could come home and come alive.”

Q: Tell us about some specific institutions you admire that do what you’ve described.

I am a product of secular education -- public schools and then a secular university. Coming from that background, I was very suspicious when I started to spend time with evangelical institutions like Wheaton College or Gordon College or Calvin College. I saw them as unnecessarily removed from their secular neighbors. But the more time I spent at these places, without in any way losing my appreciation for the importance of Christian witness and work in secular institutions, I’ve come to appreciate how an explicitly Christian institution keeps alive a vision of the gospel as comprehensively true that is much harder to maintain in other institutional settings. That serves as a counterwitness to the diffusion and immersion of Christians in secular institutions.

I’ve realized that these institutions at their best are not unduly or unnecessarily cut off from the world. When you look at where their students go, it isn’t into narrowly sectarian activities anymore. They’re quite engaged. Their faculty are engaged in ways that they might not have been two generations ago. What’s kept alive is this sense that, “I’m living and moving and being formed into the kind of person who can comprehensively name Christ as Lord.”

Now, that can also happen at a secular institution, but we need whole cultural environments that are trying to sort out, what does this mean in the 21st century to bear witness to this truth. That’s what the best evangelical colleges do.

Q: Many secular places like Harvard and Duke have Christian institutions embedded within them. Do these embedded Christian institutions make things possible in the secular environment that would not be possible otherwise?

Institutions we call “secular” are much richer and more complicated than that term would imply. For example, there are probably more Christian students at Harvard College, the undergraduate part of Harvard University, now than there have been since the 18th century. The faculty is less monolithically secular than it is imagined to be by those who fear these institutions. This, of course, raises the question, if there is no purely secular institution, what is the place of people of faith within these places?

Actually, the most effective presence of Christians within secular institutions happens when Christians find a way to create lasting patterns of presence, which is to say mini-institutions. The least effective way to be Christian in a secular environment is as an individual who passes through and metaphorically hands out little tracts, witnessing, and then is gone.

You have to make a multigenerational commitment to Christian presence. Probably the most encouraging movement in our time is our Christian study centers that operate in parallel with the university, with deep relational connections to the faculty and administration of the university. They are intended to exist for a long time, accompanying the university in its own quests of teaching, research and service, but in a Christian way.

We have one that is quite robust at the University of Virginia. Cornell, my alma mater, has a great one called Chesterton House. These are relatively recent. They come from the return of evangelical Christians to serious engagement with the academy in the last two generations. They’re very hopeful models of institutional interaction that may be more effective over time than chaplaincies have been.

Chaplaincies often have not seriously engaged the intellectual work of the university, at least not as part of their fundamental purpose. They offered worship environments and spiritual-formation environments but not systematically intellectual environments to ask and address the questions that the university is asking. That’s what Christian study centers provide that chaplaincies often have not provided.

Q: What about organizations like World Vision and similar institutions outside higher education? What wisdom might they offer about what a Christian institution looks like?

Some of our best examples of Christian institutions that are flourishing and contributing to a flourishing society are relief and development agencies, partly because they’ve had time to institutionalize. The great wave of evangelical relief and development after World War II has been through several generations of leaders. The largest and most exemplary is World Vision, an organization with substantial international leadership that is deeply Christian and very influential in the world of relief and development. Many on their field staff are not necessarily Christian. Yet it’s an organization that has seriously asked, “How do we remain deeply Christian while also doing excellent and cutting-edge work in our field?”

A more recent example is International Justice Mission, which is only 13 years old but already one of the most significant human rights organizations. It is a deeply committed, prayerful, Christian organization that has modeled a methodological innovation that was desperately needed in the human rights world. Human rights were being done as sort of 30,000-foot advocacy, with lots of letters and airdrops of complaints to government leaders about abuses of human rights. There was a place for that.

International Justice Mission said, “We need to do casework at the ground level if we’re ever going to see the rule of law work for the poor.” This innovation of casework-based human rights -- while also working at the top levels of government and through diplomatic channels -- gets laws enforced that are already on the books.

It is probably the most significant development in human rights work of the last generation, and it happened through a Christian organization that has its staff pray half an hour every day, silently, at the beginning of the day. They call it “daily stillness.” Then every quarter their staff spends a day on a retreat being guided through modes of prayer. This is an extraordinary commitment to personal spirituality married to technical excellence in human rights advocacy. It is a marvelous model of how to be a Christian organization slowly becoming an institution.

Q: It sounds like the impulse for evangelicals to found institutions and keep faith from generation to generation is still alive, at least in some instances.

We can easily think that the high-water mark of evangelical or Protestant institution building was the 19th century, especially after the Civil War. The received narrative is, “That fell off, and another generation inherited those institutions and presided over their secularization, so where are the Christian institutions now?”

But there is something happening now that is a return to not just the creation of parachurch organizations as in the 1970s and 1980s. Parachurch organizations don’t think about institutionalization. They’re designed to be immediately relevant to a particular area that the church is not addressing, but if they institutionalize, it is almost accidentally.

This other stream -- World Vision or International Justice Mission or the Christian study centers -- are examples where a different kind of leader, often a less charismatic or visible leader, has said, “What could we create that would come alongside significant existing institutions of culture? What could we create that would be of enduring significance in this area?” That’s partly a new phenomenon. It also reflects new resources that are available.

Part of the reason that evangelicals tended to be scattered in their organizational formation was they were operating on a shoestring. They existed alongside very powerful churches on the one hand and secular institutions on the other. We now are entering a stage where evangelical Protestants are, for better and for worse, in the cultural mainstream, which means that they have access to certain kinds of capital that was not available for much of the 20th century. That produces a willingness to make longer investments and bigger bets on creating lasting organizations rather than just a charismatic, founder-driven, personality-driven parachurch effort.

Q: Tell me about the role of social networks as cultural goods. How important are relationships to these kinds of institutions?

One of the fascinating things about culture is that nobody makes it by themselves. There are no solo cultural creators. One of the most celebrated poets in American letters is Emily Dickinson -- certainly celebrated for her reclusiveness, yet we now know that Emily Dickinson would never have kept writing if not for her friendship with this Presbyterian pastor with whom she had a lifelong correspondence. Even Emily Dickinson didn’t create by herself. It’s true of every culture creator of any kind, and this kind of cultural creativity happens through what I call circles of three, 12 and 120.

Most cultural goods are initiated and sustained by an absolutely small group of people, usually three or four, sometimes two, never one, rarely more than five. The number of people you can fit around a table in a restaurant or put in a Mini Cooper is about the right size. Why? Because cultural creativity is perhaps the most difficult thing human beings do. You can’t do it alone, and you also can’t do it with a lot of people.

I compare it to climbing a major peak, like K2. If you try to climb K2 by yourself, you will die. I can pretty much guarantee that. If you try to climb K2 with 20 people, you will also die. Only a small group can climb K2, because only a small group is sufficiently flexible, responsive and able to build deep enough reservoirs of trust that they can actually do something that difficult together. That is true of every serious cultural endeavor.

Of course, a small group of three is not going to be enough. You need the larger circle of about a dozen, and then a wider circle, maybe a hundred people, who get significantly involved. This doesn’t just happen through networking in some sense of, “Oh well, I know so-and-so,” because innovation requires risk, which requires trust. And trust doesn’t happen, ultimately, without love.

The people who create together are people who aren’t in just marriages of convenience or enterprises of convenience. They are in deep relationships of mutual commitment and trust. Not always lovey-dovey. They don’t always even like each other, but they deeply trust each other. That’s the only way you initiate or sustain any lasting cultural change.

Q: Is it the friendship that comes first, or does the activity yield the friendship, or maybe both?

Suppose you’re an institutional leader who wants to encourage innovation. We often tend to think strategically: we pick an issue or a field that needs addressing, and then we try to fill that spot with people. There may be a better way, which is to look at the most energized, effective, engaged people you have and ask them what they care about. It is very hard to strategize your way into cultural influence. There are too many moving parts in almost anything that really matters. It is very hard to plot a strategic plan. What you can do as a leader is identify people who have these deep trusting relationships, and a record of delivering on their bright ideas, and give them room.

You can’t just authorize every wild idea, but I would start with the passions of your people rather than the perceived strategic need. If you see a strategic area that just has to be filled, then go find a person who is passionate about it. Without passion and trust, you’re very unlikely to see real innovation. You’ll just see caretaking and administration.

Q: Can you give us some examples of Christians in the arts whose work came about at least in part through networks of trust and mutual passion?

In the arts or arts and entertainment, the best example of Christian cultural creativity at a high level is not a company that is in any way Christian. It is the movie studio Pixar. Pixar has consistently created critically acclaimed, commercially successful works of popular art. It is the only film studio today that has a significant number of professing, serious Christians in senior leadership, though not all Pixar’s senior leadership are believers by any means. One of their executives told me that in her 10 years at Pixar, the topic of faith had never come up, though she is a person of faith. Andrew Stanton, the writer-director of “WALL-E,” is a person of faith. Pete Docter, writer and director of “Up,” is a person of faith.

It is not that they are engaging in Christian agitprop under the guise of Pixar. It is that they are working in an environment that fosters the kind of human flourishing that Christians should aspire to be part of and to lead. What differentiates Pixar’s creative process from its competitors’ is the amount of time and trust they invest in their creative teams. Directors are given half a year to a year just to work on their idea with a close group of associates. Writers are given years to write the scripts. They allow so much time, which, of course, requires tremendous amounts of resources. They build enough trust into the process that they are completely ready at any point to fail -- to say, “This is not working,” to cut off, as they famously did with “Toy Story,” halfway into production and start all over; to say, “We don’t have the right story yet; we need to do it again.”

It is not a Christian company, and yet it is a company where Christians have had the right kind of influence, which is to say, “Let’s create great culture, and let’s do it the best way we know how, with the best quality of relationships we know how.” They’ve ended up being runaway commercial successes time after time. It is an extraordinary, encouraging story.

Q: I’m curious about how you view the relationship between your work as a journalist and your work as a theologian and writer.

The job of a journalist is a little difficult to explain. When I’m on a plane and someone asks what I do, but maybe I am feeling shy and don’t want to talk, I say, “I pay attention.” Usually that ends the conversation, but that is what I do as a journalist. I try to pay attention to people. What are they saying? What are they really saying? What are they not saying that they wish they could say? Why are they saying what they’re saying?

I try to pay attention to our culture. Why is our culture valuing what it values? Why is it neglecting what it neglects? What’s the history of how we got here? I try to do this in a way that’s intelligent, by which I don’t mean using big words or having read every possible book, but I define intelligence as knowing where you are and where you’ve come from.

So, to use a big word, there’s a synchronic aspect to intelligence, knowing where you’re situated in the present moment. Then there’s a diachronic aspect, knowing how you got to the moment. Strangely, many Americans don’t know where they came from or why they believe the things they believe about the world, why they believe the things about themselves that they believe, often don’t even know where they fit in the story of the world the way it is right now.

My job as a journalist is to pay attention long enough that I’m able to reflect back something true about the world that situates us, that names where we’re at. Paying attention is really all there is to the job, and yet it is a job that’s never done well enough, because human beings deserve ultimate attention, and human culture rewards ultimate attention. It’s a marvelous job to have.

Q: How do institutional leaders who want to lead more faithfully, effectively and joyfully cultivate the skill of paying attention?

The most influential six words I maybe have ever heard are, “We either contemplate or we exploit.” We either contemplate or we exploit. This applies to people. If I am leading a group of people, and I do not pause in my leadership event to contemplate them -- that is, to pay attention to them, to make room for them to be whoever they are -- and I just jump to the agenda of, “What do we have to get done today?,” then I’m probably going to end up exploiting them. It applies also, obviously, to the way human beings relate to the natural world, the creative world.

If we pass over contemplation of the world and all its givenness and beauty and complexity, as well as tragedy and terror, and just ask, “What good is this? What’s it good for?” we will exploit the world. So, real leadership has to begin with contemplation.

Now, the problem is, most real leaders are not very contemplative. So this is never going to be the sort of dominant-hand -- you know, if you’re right-handed, your right hand -- strength. It’s never going to be the main thing you’re good at, and that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be the thing you’re best at. There’s this wonderful song about this dad writing about loving his daughter, and he says, “Loving my daughter may not be the thing I do best, but it’s the best thing that I do.”

And I would say it is that way with contemplation. It is never going to be the thing you do best. If you’re the kind of person who has the drive and energy to be a leader, it will also feel a little odd, and you’ll never feel like you’re very good at it, and you’re probably used to feeling like you’re good at the things you do, but it is the best thing you’ll do.

This is why Sabbath matters so much for leaders, because Sabbath is a day of contemplation. It is why sabbaticals matter for leaders. It is why quiet matters for leaders. Because those are the moments in which we are not just exploiting, not just sort of wringing out of the world what we need to get from it that day, but just saying, “How is this world? What is it really like? What are these people who are entrusted to me really like?” And all leadership has to have that moment of contemplation so that when we then lead, we aren’t exploiting. We’re actually releasing and enabling and equipping people to be who they’re created to be.

Q: You’ve mentioned that you used to admire talent in leaders, but now you admire the ability to continue learning. Is that connected to the ability to pay attention? And could you give an example of a leader who does that well?

We naturally admire people who are talented, but the older I get and the more people I work with and get to observe, the less I’m impressed by talent. For one thing, it is very arbitrarily and capriciously distributed. It rarely goes intrinsically along with character. What I’ve come to be impressed by is people -- whatever their levels of initial talent -- who are lifelong serious learners. They never feel like they’ve arrived and are now coasting on their reservoir of ability or privilege. They’re always pushing ahead to learn.

Two people strike me this way. One is Steve Hayner, who has been a leader in public positions for a long time. He was the president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, now president of Columbia Theological Seminary. Steve is the most inveterate learner. He has this childlike delight in ideas, in people, in places, in new movements in the church. He betrays no jadedness about anything, and it seems to me that’s one of the secrets to his longevity and productivity and leadership.

Another is Gabe Lyons, who founded the conference called “Q” and has books out called “Unchristian” and “The Next Christians.” Gabe is quite a celebrity, and he’s kind of got the celebrity look. He’s got cool hair and clothes and all these things that sort of signal pop relevance. Yet what has most struck me about Gabe is how deeply committed he is to learning, not to just exploit his past success or his incredible network of friends to maintain a position of visibility, but how willing he is to become invisible for long periods of time in order to apprentice himself to people who know something he doesn’t know. That’s an extraordinary quality. It is very rare and not correlated necessarily with talent, but in the long run, it is what builds great leaders.

Q: What are you most anxious about as you view Christians and the church and our desire to witness to Christ in the larger culture, and what gives you hope?

The great gift and the great curse of my current vocation is how much I travel. I don’t just mean that in terms of time on airplanes and so forth. The gift and the curse is that I see a very broad cross section of what it is to be a Christian in North America. The curse part of this is how much anxiety it provokes in me for the future of the church. The tremendous amount of foolishness that goes by the name of Christian, many different species of foolishness, all characterized by an unseriousness about our history, an unseriousness about the challenges of the present moment, a disturbing dependence on philosophical, rhetorical, cultural categories that are imported from outside. This is a real weakness that I see in too many places.

At the same time, everywhere I go, I encounter people and churches and organizations that fill me with confidence that the gates of hell have not yet prevailed against Jesus’ church. There are people who, against the tide of silliness and foolishness, including its Christian versions, are deeply committed, are in the work they’re doing for the long haul, are pursuing excellence, are pursuing the spiritual disciplines and the cultural disciplines that make us truly relevant rather than just fleetingly relevant. Everywhere I go I meet people like this.

I feel tremendously hopeful, most of all because my hope is not in any ordinary human being but in the Word made flesh. I also am hopeful because he has called out of this crazy thing called North American Christianity some beautiful, deeply committed people who are faithful to him and who are faithful to the times, faithful to our culture, and are being creative and being cultivators in the midst of this world.

Q: I wonder if the opposite of “unseriousness” is not “seriousness” but rather “delight.”

The opposite of unseriousness is not dourness or boring sobriety. The opposite of unseriousness is discipline in the best sense of the word. That is, the practices over time, like I had to do as a kid playing scales that ultimately equipped me to do something with the piano that I couldn’t otherwise do. The opposite of being unserious is to take up a practice so seriously, so intently, that we take joy in it. We can then use our music or our art or our organizational leadership to create good things in the world.