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James K.A. Smith: Tradition for innovation

We cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing the church, says a Calvin College philosophy professor. The hard work of innovation requires grounding in a tradition.

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June 14, 2012

Editor's note: James KA Smith will deliver two lectures during Renewing the Church, Duke Divinity School's 2013 Convocation & Pastors' School, Oct. 14-15. Register online.

 Evangelicalism in North America today is a vibrant and lively affair, abuzz with innovation and activity. Across the United States and Canada, evangelicals are stepping forward as never before to help restore a broken world.

At the same time, in keeping with their historic entrepreneurial spirit, evangelicals are constantly creating and spinning off new and different ways of doing church.

Often overlapping, these two trends at first glance might seem to emerge from the same innovative spirit, two complementary and intertwined developments, working together for the good of the church.

In fact, however, these are not complementary trends but competing trajectories, at odds with one another. However unintended it might be, the latter works inevitably to undermine the former. In short, we cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing the church; the hard work of innovation requires grounding in a tradition.

Before I explain, just consider the signs of these trends that are all around us.

Across the continent, a growing number of evangelicals today are capturing a vision for what Andy Crouch calls “culture making.” Freed from a historic focus on escapist eschatologies, they are eagerly engaged in cultural production in ways that aim for shalom and contribute to the common good.

As Gabe Lyons documents in “The Next Christians,” these evangelicals are bringing an activist piety to fields ranging from politics and technology to fashion and art. Young evangelicals are energetic social entrepreneurs interested in creativity, invention and innovation far beyond the narrow sphere of the church.

They are also intensely interested in addressing matters of justice, oppression and societal disorder. They want to “restore” a broken world; they want to both make the world anew and put the world to rights. (I expect many mainline Christians will be encouraged to see them finally getting on the bandwagon.)

Meanwhile, evangelicalism continues to be a hotbed of almost unfettered religious innovation, remarkably agile and competitive in the shifting “marketplace” of contemporary spirituality (a religious market that is as old as the American colonies).

The entrepreneurial independence of evangelical spirituality leaves room for all kinds of congregational startups that require little if any institutional support. Catering to increasingly specialized “niche” audiences, these startups are not beholden to liturgical forms or institutional legacies. Indeed, many proudly announce their desire to “reinvent church.”

Clearly, the cultural labor of restoration requires imaginative innovation. Good culture making requires that we imagine the world other than as it is -- which means seeing through the status-quo stories we have been told and instead envisioning kingdom come. Yes, we need new energy, new strategies, new initiatives, new organizations, even new institutions.

But if we hope to put the world to rights, we need to think differently and act differently and build institutions that foster such action.

If our cultural work is going to be restorative -- if it is going to put the world to rights -- then we need imaginations that have been shaped by a vision for how things ought to be. Our innovation and invention and creativity will need to be bathed in an eschatological vision of what the world is made for, what it’s called to be -- what the prophets often described as shalom. Innovation for justice and shalom requires that we be regularly immersed in the story of God reconciling all things to himself.

That immersion happens most powerfully in worship -- in intentional, historic, liturgical forms that “carry” the Christian story in ways that sink into our bones and become part of us. This is why the unfettered, undisciplined “reinvention” of the church actually undercuts our ability to carry out innovative, restorative culture making. The story cannot shape us, cannot become part of us, in a church that is constantly reinventing itself.

In his essay “The Science of Design,” Herbert Simon, one of the icons of design theory, wrote: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” If Simon is correct, then the gospel, I would argue, is a “design” project, and Christian worship, a design studio.

The church’s mission, to borrow from Simon, is to send out innovators and designers whose actions are “aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” To do that work, innovators, restorers, makers and designers need the church to be an imagination station, a space where we can re-habituate into our imagination the “true story of the whole world.” Our imaginations need to be restored, recalibrated and realigned by being immersed in the story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

That is what intentional, historic Christian worship does. It is in worship that we learn what God “prefers” for the world, giving direction to our design. We need pastors and priests and worship leaders who understand and appreciate that Christian worship is an imagination station, a place where the norms of the Christian story are carried and embedded in our worship.

This is why form matters. This is why the way we worship makes all the difference. The Christian liturgical tradition is a resource to foster cultural innovation.

If the church is going to send out “restorers” who engage culture for the common good, we need to recover and remember the rich imaginative practices of historic Christian worship that carry the unique story of the gospel.

Consider just a few of the many ways in which the liturgical tradition nurtures and replenishes the imagination:

• Kneeling in confession and voicing “the things we have done and the things we have left undone …” tangibly and viscerally impresses upon us the brokenness of our world and humbles our own pretensions;

• Pledging allegiance in the Creed is a political act -- a reminder that we are citizens of a coming kingdom, curtailing our temptation to overidentify with any configuration of the earthly city;

• The rite of baptism, where the congregation vows to help raise a child alongside the parents, is just the liturgical formation we need to be a people who can support those raising children with intellectual disabilities or other special needs;

• Sitting at the Lord’s Table with the risen King, where all are invited to eat, is a tactile reminder of the just, abundant world that God longs for.

In these and countless other ways, the liturgical tradition orients our imagination to kingdom come, priming us for the innovative, restorative work of culture making. In order to foster a Christian imagination, we don’t need to invent; we need to remember.

We cannot hope to re-create the world if we are constantly reinventing “church.” Instead, we will reinvent ourselves right out of the story. Liturgical tradition is the platform for imaginative innovation.