Bridge building and traditioned innovation

Learning traditioned innovation requires exploring deeply and acting improvisationally within a tradition, not just borrowing whichever one comes around.

To teach L. Gregory Jones’ concept of “traditioned innovation” in-depth for the first time, we had the participants build a bridge in order to have an embodied experience that would drive home the learning. Our friends at Duke Corporate Education introduced us to a company that leads groups through the process of building a bridge. On a sunny fall day, 20 participants in Foundations of Christian Leadership successfully built and walked across a bridge.

The bridge was well constructed. However, in terms of learning about traditioned innovation, it was a disaster.

Traditioned innovation is a way of thinking and being that holds the past and future in tension, not in opposition. For Jones, this is a biblical way of leading that integrates the transformative work of Christ into our ongoing identity as the people of God rooted in biblical Israel’s calling. The problem with the bridge was that it was not rooted in the past – in tradition.

Instead, the exercise was rooted in corporate team-building. We had done some research into the history of bridge building, but no one involved in the exercise had even talked to a bridge builder about the art of such work.

Thus, we treated the tradition as an excuse to conduct an activity towards an entirely different end. It worked to bond the participants as a tema, but that wasn’t our intended goal – we wanted to teach a theological concept. But we unintentionally had made traditioned innovation into a game.

The last three weeks, I have been blogging about disruptive innovation and arguing for its importance in renewing Christian institutions. Yet if such innovation is not rooted in the Christian tradition it is also in danger of becoming a game.

As a preacher, I frequently tell a story from political history or sports to illustrate a point. I am borrowing from some other field to make my point. However, when I invite a politician or athlete to share about how his or her faith works its way out in the life of politics and sports, the person gives a testimony. Learning to do traditioned innovation is learning to give testimony.

Random illustrations and team building exercises have their appropriate place. But in circumstances when resources of time and money are scarce, it is important for the purpose of an activity to be of the highest possible value.

No more bridges built by team builders for us. Our current facilitators of Foundations of Christian Leadership are gifted writers/editors and actors/directors. We use their gifts when we invite participants into the arts of crafting narratives and drama, and teach innovation out of those traditions. The previous facilitator of Foundations was a music lover and we taught out of the traditions of jazz and the blues. The program is offered by Duke University, so we explore the traditions of the school and some of the innovations throughout its history.

We do all of these things in a way that is faithful to the respective traditions, builds community and invites joyful participation.

On that fall day, in the middle of building the bridge, I realized that we had turned an honorable tradition into a game for our own purposes. My heart sank as I realized how much money and time we had invested in the process. Learning traditioned innovation requires exploring deeply and acting improvisationally within a tradition, not just borrowing the next one that comes around.