I was watching a Ted talk by Adam Grant a few weeks back. Mainly it is an excellent look at "Originals" or those who are good at coming up with new ideas and then executing on them. His research has lead him to believe that procrastination is a key component in developing new ideas. I have found this to be very true. My best ideas and most creative moves have always come in the final high pressure stages of completing tasks that could probably have been done earlier if I had planned and scheduled things better previously. You can watch the talk here.
My sense is that the church needs more "Originals". We need people who can find ways to dream up new things and connect these new things to things they are already doing. I read three articles on youth worker sites this week all of which were by big names in youth ministry with old news. Most of the stuff I see online tells me things we already know then tells me to work harder, find more passion, and really re-dedicate myself to the gospel. This is usually followed by a pitch for their brand or product. Barf. It's like a bad sermon. It is rare that I find something out there that actually proposes an innovative experiment in youth ministry or that I find someone risking their own capital to do something great for the Kingdom of God. Mostly youth ministry writers tend to critique the past and point the readers to an ethereal future that the author hasn't had the guts to move into with everything on the line.
However, the most remarkable part of the Ted Talk is what Grant omits. He cites these moments of great inspiration that tend to come for originals where new ideas seem to wedge themselves into what they are working on at the last minute. Read this section where he mentions MLK.
" But when I came back to it, I had all sorts of new ideas. As Aaron Sorkin put it,"You call it procrastinating. I call it thinking." And along the way I discovered that a lot of great originals in history were procrastinators. Take Leonardo da Vinci. He toiled on and off for 16 years on the Mona Lisa.He felt like a failure. He wrote as much in his journal. But some of the diversions he took in opticstransformed the way that he modeled light and made him into a much better painter. What about Martin Luther King, Jr.? The night before the biggest speech of his life, the March on Washington, he was up past 3am, rewriting it. He's sitting in the audience waiting for his turn to go onstage, and he is still scribbling notes and crossing out lines. When he gets onstage, 11 minutes in, he leaves his prepared remarks to utter four words that changed the course of history: "I have a dream." That was not in the script. By delaying the task of finalizing the speech until the very last minute, he left himself open to the widest range of possible ideas. And because the text wasn't set in stone, he had freedom to improvise."
What I see here is the work of the Holy Spirit. I can't imagine Dr. King citing anyone else as his inspiration. I think somewhere in between the procrastinators and the "precrastinators" as Grant calls them is the work of the Spirit. In order to generate ideas we need to exercise and cultivate in our leaders some degree of openness to impulse and divergence. When King staggered into the phrase, "I have a dream" it was a moment of Revelation. We often speak in the church about thin places where the divine and the ordinary seem to touch. Or we might speak of liminal spaces where we are away from what we know and are not yet onto finding what we don't know. I think these kinds of spaces embody the shape and movements of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit seems to seek out these open gaps in our thinking and action and then flows into those spaces. The margins of Dr. King's speech notes might be considered such a space. Simply by leaving space on the outer edge of his paper and having a pencil in hand, King created open range for the Spirit to move into.
As we seek to promote innovation in the church and in youth ministry we need to figure out as individuals and institutions how to help people cultivate spaces in their lives for the work of the Spirit. For some folks that will mean learning to let go of some control and planning. For others, it might mean learning to focus enough on one God given task that they are working on long enough so that divergent thinking might emerge. As Grant mentions in his talk there is kind of a sweet spot. Creative thinking needs SOME structure. It has to play with an object or an idea long enough that something distinct can emerge. Complete lack of structure seems to be just as stifling as over management.
I think that there are some key ingredients that we need to cultivate as the church if we are going to encourage entrepreneurial and innovative thinking. Let's look first though at Grant's 6 stages of Originals' thinking. He states that Originals go through 6 stages of thinking about their innovation.
1. This is Awesome (The Holy Spirit strikes, we sense the electricity, and begin to move!)
2. This is Tricky (The realities of what we are doing and the complexities of execution set in.)
3. This is Crap (That other voice tells us this thing will NEVER work. We can't do it or we are just tired of talking/thinking about the idea altogether.)
4. I am Crap (This is the other voice we hear that is not the Lord's.)
5. This might be okay. (We make an intentional choice to trust despite what we can see.)
6. This is awesome. (We move forward again in faith and action.)
As I look at this list, all I can see is a host of Bible stories and the overarching narrative of Christian faith. It would seem to me that if we want to help cultivate original and divergent thinking in our churches that we need to cultivate several theological truths and some theological practices in our students and our leaders.
1. Perseverance- We need to help folks recognize that failure and risk are central to the gospel. Theologically we might need to shed our tendency toward triumphalism as we look at the gospel and instead teach folks about how to overcome defeats. Defeath and Triumph are present in equal measure in the Jesus story. No matter what we do, we are eventually going to face some pretty daunting realities/setbacks. Holy Spirit powered perseverance will allow us to push through these walls.
2. The Image of God- We will need to continue to emphasize that we are image bearers of God and that no failure can defeat that ultimate reality. Grant emphasizes that Originals tend to be folks who skip stage 4 above altogether. My hope is that we can teach our leaders and students that same stubborn refusal to believe "I am crap."
3. Trust- We need to continue to cultivate the notion that Christianity is not primarily about belief but rather about trust that leads to right action. Trust is critical in stages 5 and 6 above. Originals are not defined by total assurance that what they are doing is right or good. In fact, quite the opposite. They have anything but a kind of static certitude that they are headed in the right direction. It's all about trust. Even when the Spirit is moving we tend to hedge our bets.
4. Reflective Prayer- You might say that all prayer is reflective, but I think that isn't quite true. Some prayer looks more like an apathetic Black Friday shopping grab. We need prayer that is heavily steeped in holy listening so that we create some liminal spaces into which the Holy Spirit might move. One might think of prayer as a healthy form of procrastination. After all, by the standards of our culture, prayer is a waste of time. It is impractical on its surface. And yet, it is often in my prayers of repentance and desperation related to my procrastination that new ideas have sprung up!
My hope is that God will bless you with the right kinds of procrastination spaces as you execute in your current ministries and callings. Perhaps in those wasteful spaces the Spirit will emerge explosively and something new will come up!?