4 Types of Ministry Innovation

Navigating the Complex Challenges of Ministry

March 23, 2023

What do the wheel, compass, printing press, lightbulb, automobile, computer, internet, and smartphone all have in common? They were all breakthrough innovations that radically reshaped our world. Innovation is fundamental to solving the world’s greatest problems. It’s also necessary for survival. The influential business consultant Peter Drucker once famously quipped, “Innovate or die.”1

To innovate, according to Webster’s dictionary, is “to introduce something new” and comes from the Latin word novus or “new.”

In the hierarchy of challenges facing our world, there is no greater problem than sin and no greater solution than the redeeming work of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 we read, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come” (ESV). Romans 6:4 promises “new life,” or as the King James Version calls it, “newness of life.” I like that word: Newness!

To innovate, according to Webster’s dictionary, is “to introduce something new” and comes from the Latin word novus or “new.”

God makes all things new. He is the God of innovation.

The Spirit of Innovation

In Isaiah 43:19 the Lord declares, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (ESV). It’s happening. God is doing a new thing! I made a pilgrimage to Asbury College a few weeks ago where thousands have experienced a fresh awakening from the Holy Spirit. God is innovating once again, and when the Spirit moves, he always sparks something new in the human heart.

This work of the Spirit is the first and greatest innovation needed in ministry. We desperately need his transforming power to face the unprecedented challenges of our world.

The work of the Spirit is the first and greatest innovation needed in ministry.

A new culture is emerging in the West, and Christianity has lost its central place in the story. Nothing has shaken the foundations of the Church more than the collapse of Christendom, and today North America is being described as post-Christian or even anti-Christian. These challenges have been magnified with COVID-19, social media, the digital revolution, shifting demographics, and more. The solutions of the past are no longer working the way they once did. Old ministry models aren’t bearing the same fruit. New technologies are reshaping society, and old innovations no longer apply.

The harvest remains ripe, but our harvesting methods must change.

We desperately need the Spirit of innovation to bring new life into our homes, churches, and communities. He is the only one who can bring lasting change and there are often four types of innovation that help amplify the Spirit’s work.

Categories of Innovation

In his book Mapping Innovation, Greg Satell outlines four categories for thinking about innovation.2 These can provide a helpful framework for listening to the Spirit and discerning his direction. Determining the type of innovation that is needed often begins by asking two important questions.

  1. How well can we define the problem?
  2. How well can we define the skills needed to solve it?

The answers to these questions form an innovation matrix that help determine the right type of innovation for whatever problems you are facing in ministry. Let me share a brief summary of these four types.

Sustaining Innovation

When a problem is well-defined and the skills needed to solve it are also well-defined, then we simply need to sustain innovation by getting better at something we are already doing. This requires building on best practices and upgrading existing solutions. Smartphone companies sustain innovation by releasing better versions of the same product.

In ministry, sustaining innovation might mean upgrading your weekend worship services with new technology, improving your facilities, streamlining your children’s check-in process, or a host of other improvements. In this case, the problems you are facing might simply require an upgrade to the current ministry model and process.

Breakthrough Innovation

However, there are times when the problem is well defined, but the skills required to solve it are not. In this case, breakthrough innovation is needed to explore unconventional methods and approaches to ministry. Breakthrough innovation occurs when leaders begin to think outside of the box and within the paradigm of an adjacent domain. 

The iPhone was a breakthrough innovation that solved the problems of access and portability by combining a computer, digital camera, and mobile technology into one device with a touchscreen interface. New skills and consulting new domains will be required to solve the problem of a growing number of people who will never step foot inside a brick-and-mortar church. This is only one of many emerging problems that will require breakthrough innovation.

Breakthrough innovation occurs when leaders begin to think outside of the box and within the paradigm of an adjacent domain. 

Disruptive Innovation

There are other times when the skills are well-defined, but the problems are not. Disruptive innovation occurs when a new initiative is launched that reveals a problem nobody knew existed. There are times in ministry when we aren’t sure of the problems we are facing and use innovative ideas to then uncover disruption.

In the history of car making, the Model T provides a good example. Designed to provide affordable transportation to lower-income customers, it eventually disrupted the entire automobile industry. Tesla is a modern example attempting to do the same. The Spirit of innovation often disrupts and reveals problems we never knew existed. COVID-19 introduced several new digital technologies that are beginning to reveal problems in ministry we didn’t even know existed.

Research Innovation

Finally, basic research is required when we aren’t sure of the problem, or the innovations required. Pathbreaking innovations never arrive fully formed and typically begin with the discovery of something new. Google invites about 30 top researchers annually to spend a sabbatical year at the company and funds 250 academic projects annually. They are always researching and always learning.

Consider building a diverse portfolio of these five types of innovation for tackling the problems facing your church and community. There is rarely one right answer. In an issue of Outreach magazine, Ed Stetzer once commented on different innovations in church structure by saying, “Remember, God used the megachurch to reach Korea and the house church to reach China.”3  

The Future Church

Researching innovative best practices is part of our role at Leadership Network. We want to help you uncover the solutions to the problems you are facing by providing research and tangible examples of what might be NEXT for the church. From NEXT Ventures to Learning Communities to specific ministry content, we hope to share Spirit-led examples of sustaining, breakthrough, and disruptive innovation.

We are keeping an eye out for what is NEXT for the local church knowing there will always be new problems to solve and new ministries to pioneer. We serve an innovative God who has given us the Spirit of innovation. In Revelation 21:5 we are given a glimpse into heaven. “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things NEW.’” John was then admonished, “Write this down for these words are trustworthy and true” (ESV).

God will one day make all things new. As we move forward in this next season of life and ministry, may God grant us wisdom to know when and how to innovate. Creating a culture of innovation for the future church will be vital.


1. PeterDrucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practices and Principles (New York: Harper Collins, 1985).

2. Greg Satell, Mapping Innovation (New York: McGraw Hill, 2017).

3. Toni Ridgaway, “Outreach 100: Largest and Fastest-Growing Churches Studied,” ChurchLeaders.com, October 10, 2014, https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/176680-outreach-100-largest-and-fastest-growing-churches-studied.html.




Jon Wiest

Jon Wiest

Jon Wiest (“West”) is the Co-Founder of Mobilize the Church, a global ministry mobilizing a growing wave of disciple makers, pioneer leaders, and church planters. He previously planted churches in Dallas, TX and Des Moines, IA and is the author of Banding Together and Pioneers. Jon has degrees from Wheaton College, Wesley Seminary, and a D.Min. in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is a rabid San Francisco 49ers fan, loves traveling, sports, and history, and currently lives in the Indianapolis, IN area with his wife and four daughters.
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