Christian Social Innovation

The following is a transcript of the talk given by Dr. L Gregory Jones at CFI’s 2020 Fall Executive Forum. Dr. Jones is Dean of Duke Divinity School, A. Morris and Ruth W. Williams Professor of Christian Theology and Ministry, senior fellow at the Fuqua-Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, and senior fellow at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. He is the author or editor of seventeen books, including Christian Social Imagination (Abingdon, 2016).


Greg Dees was a scholar of social entrepreneurship who was for many years my colleague here at Duke in the Fuqua School of Business. One day, Greg and I were having lunch and he said, “Can I ask you a question? What happened to the church?” I said, “Greg, could you be a little more specific? What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, my field wouldn’t exist in business schools if it wasn’t for the loss of interest in social entrepreneurship and innovation in the church.”

When he said that I paused and started to think. I asked him for further clarification. He said, “Well, you know, it’s as if you all”—and now I was representing all Christians—“it’s as if you all had a meeting somewhere around 1970 and decided to quit your interest in entrepreneurship and innovation. For much of American history, anything that was truly innovative, particularly for the social good, was done by people of faith. And so I was wondering what happened over the course of American history that somewhere in the 1970s you all lost interest?”

It was as if he’d hit me between the eyes with a bullseye. I thought to myself, “Well, my own tradition, the Wesleyan movement, was at the forefront of a lot of that social innovation in American history: in education, in healthcare, even in business and food security. In a variety of enterprises, Christians had been at the forefront.” And then Greg raised this question about what happened around 1970. I didn’t have an answer to 1970, but that question of what happened to the church haunted me.

Greg and I continued our conversations and we resurfaced them about ten years later. We started to design a project together. We began to talk about what we would do. And he said to me, “Unless we can get Christians involved again in social innovation, I think it’s going to become a fad.” Here was somebody who co-chaired worldwide initiatives around social entrepreneurship and innovation, who was sometimes interrupted as we would be meeting by a phone call from Muhammad Yunus or Wendy Copper or others—a kind of guru of social innovation. And he wanted to work with me as a Christian because he believed it was important to rediscover the connection between Christian faith and social innovation.

His question haunted me. And I said to him that day, “I wonder what you really mean.” And he said, “Well, we’re going to teach this course next semester and we’ll talk about it.” Two days later, he suffered a stroke from which he never regained consciousness, and he died a few weeks later. So I never got to ask him what he meant by Christians getting back involved in social innovation and what might help prevent that from becoming a fad.

Over the last seven years, I’ve been on a journey of answering that question, of asking what Christian social innovation entails and why it matters so much to the broader interest in innovation and to the broader world. As I reflected on Greg Dees’s question, I realized that indeed for most of the centuries—not just in American history, not just in modernity, not just in the majority world these days where much of the Christian social innovation is occurring, but indeed throughout the history of the church, going back to Easter—Christians have been at the forefront of social innovation. It’s only in recent decades when we’ve lost too much of our imagination. We’ve allowed Christianity and social innovation to get separated; Christians are now more interested in the status quo and secular folks are more interested in social innovation.

As I have begun to work on that question, I’ve been struck by the image of my colleague at Duke Divinity School, Kevin Rowe, who’s working on a project called Christianity’s Surprise. Kevin’s presenting question is, “How is it that there were 5,000 followers of Jesus in the year 50 and roughly 5 million followers two centuries later?” Kevin’s argument is that by the power of the resurrection at Easter, and then the outpouring of the Holy spirit at Pentecost, the early Christians were set into motion because they had this missional sense that was shaped by a vision of the reign of God. This vision compelled them into new patterns of mission and discipleship. They had a vision of what it means to be human in Christ, who was the true human. They had injunctions about caring for widows and orphans and the poor, and that set them into motion to develop new networks of communities: new institutions, new patterns of schooling, the first orphanages, and indeed the first hospitals in the history of the Western world and perhaps the history of the world. These were Christians who were set into motion with a kind of innovation and entrepreneurial mindset that transformed the Greco-Roman world, even to the point where the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate several centuries later said, “These nasty Galileans”—his term for Christians—“are making us Romans look bad. We need to do something like they’re doing if we want to keep up.”

The problem was that for Julian the Apostate, it was a technique. It was trying to mimic what Christians had as a part of an internalized mission. This mission was a set of convictions embodied in practices, and it transformed people’s lives, created institutions, and bore that kind of social innovation that Christians have borne throughout the centuries. We have surprised the world with social innovation. In profound ways, business schools today are taking our playbook because we weren’t using it. So Greg Dees’s question of what happened to the church is a haunting question. And yet it’s one that doesn’t require us to go to school from them. It requires us to discover our own best insights, to rediscover the power of Christianity’s surprise, and to rediscover then the power of Christian social innovation.

I want to suggest that that’s even more critical in the midst of these times we’re living in now. We’re facing multiple pandemics. Unfortunately, we’re doing this conference via zoom because of COVID-19. We’re also dealing with the pandemics of systemic racism, of the economic disruption and the loss of jobs, many of which will never come back. And more recently, I’ve begun to talk about the pandemic of mental illness and mental health issues that are afflicting us too. In the midst of these overlapping pandemics, it’s easy to find ourselves in a reactive mode, kind of on our heels.

For some time, I was trying to figure out a new adjective. I’d been using, “These are turbulent times.” “These are tumultuous times.” “These are chaotic times.” I even got to the point of saying, “These are surreal times, unprecedented times.” I was talking to a friend of mine, a fellow Christian leader. I said, “You got any new adjectives for me? I’m kind of running out.” And he said, “Well, I’ve started to think of it as our time.” What he meant by that is our time as Christians. What a powerful insight.

It’s been in times of pandemics, of chaos, of turbulence, of disruption, that Christians have often been at the forefront. Think of Jeremiah when Jerusalem was under siege. It would have been easy to hunker down in a reactive mode. And yet Jeremiah hears a word from the Lord that says, “Go buy a plot of land,” and he does. In the second century during the Antonine Plagues, as Romans were fleeing the plagues, Christians were moving in to care for those who were suffering. Down through the centuries, Christians have been at the forefront of dealing with crises, of bearing witness to God in powerful ways through innovation. This should be our time to engage in social innovation that would draw attention and perhaps lead other Julian the Apostates of today to say, “Who are these Christians? And what are they doing that looks so surprising?”

Well, surely there are lots of stories that we could tell from American history, all the way down to people who are doing innovative things for the common good, that are reaching new people, that are helping improve conditions, that are helping communities thrive and flourish, that are doing extraordinary work together. That’s at the heart of Christian social innovation. It’s part of our DNA. We’ve just lost too much of that imagination.

Christian social innovation has been part of Christian life when it’s lived to its fullest. It’s been part of what has made us surprising and made our witness so powerful. And yet too often, we’ve settled into a maintenance mode. We’ve accepted a kind of mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness, and too often, we’ve separated the world of the church from the world of the entrepreneur or the innovator.

A brief note on terminology: I tend to use the term social innovation. I also like entrepreneurship. I use the term innovation because it’s a broader term. Entrepreneurship is a subset within innovation. That is, entrepreneurship is when we’re starting new things. An entrepreneurial mindset can be part of the work we do in innovating existing organizations. We live in a time when Christian social innovation needs that entrepreneurial mindset. We need entrepreneurs starting new businesses and new ventures. The business model really is optional, whether it’s non-profit, for-profit, some kind of B Corp or other hybrid approach. The real question is: are we engaged in innovative approaches to building the kinds of networks and institutions that will enable people to flourish in fresh ways? This is indeed our time.

Yuval Levin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, published a book in January 2020 called A Time to Build. His point was that we’ve been trading off older institutions for too long. If we think of institutions at all, we tend to think of them as platforms for celebrity, rather than the true purpose of institutions, which should be, as Levin puts it, “molds of character.” It’s time to build new institutions and it’s a time to innovate and renovate existing institutions. For that, we need a Christian vision of social innovation.

What’s at stake as we talk about a Christian vision of social innovation? At its heart is the belief that God is acting in the world and that we bear witness to God’s action by beginning with the end—the end, that is, of God’s reign. Because God raised Jesus from the dead on Easter and poured out God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we’re called to be a people of Easter hope and Pentecostal power. We’re called to be focused on what God is doing in the world, and what God can do through new institutions and business models. That’s the power that makes Christianity surprising. It summons us beyond ourselves in powerful ways. We begin with the end because we begin with God.

I had a foundation executive spend some time with our faculty a year and a half ago. He was talking about funding they had done with some rural congregations in North Carolina, and the difference that some congregations were able to make in terms of Christian social innovation, and others that weren’t. One of the faculty members said to him, “Could you give us an example of what the difference is between the congregations that were doing so well and those that weren’t?” And he said, “The congregations that are centered in God seem to be doing impressive work. The congregations focused on themselves are not.” When he said that, my first inclination was to say, “That’s fairly straightforward and simple, but not deep enough.” Then I paused and I thought, “Actually, that goes really deep.” Because those congregations that were centered in God saw themselves summoned beyond themselves, both personally and institutionally, to engage in new ministries in the community. For example, these congregations started transformational literacy programs that led the State Department of Education to come and say, “Could we partner more with congregations? Because your results on literacy programs are much stronger than ours.”

Can you imagine a state government turning to the church because of its innovative approach? I suspect it was because that congregation was centered on God. They weren’t just doing the reading. They were surrounding these kids with communities of love, providing healthy snacks, and doing things outside of the formal program. They were innovative for the common good, reaching kids from under-resourced communities in need of opportunities. Congregations centered in God are ones that begin with the end and focus on God’s reign, and so are inspired to ask larger questions. So the heart of Christian social innovation is that it is focused on God’s call and expectant for God’s surprises to call us beyond ourselves, dreaming bigger dreams than we might otherwise ever have dreamed. That’s the heart of Christian social innovation.

Second, we’re also a people that doesn’t just make stuff up, because we’re drawing repeatedly on a scriptural imagination, that story of God, from creation to new creation, Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. That scriptural imagination embeds us in a story and a tradition that enables innovation to come to life. Too often when we think about innovation and entrepreneurship, we really are just thinking about making stuff up. But that’s not real innovation. That’s like a middle school band concert, and not even the parents want to go to that. True innovation is like a Miles Davis jazz combo, where you rely on the talent and the practice and the rehearsals, on the traditioning of all the musicians, on listening to each other so you can make beautiful music. Innovation that is life giving is far more like improvisation than it is just making stuff up, which is an insight that even Steve Jobs and the most innovative technology gurus would acknowledge. We are people of traditioned innovation, who use our scriptural imagination.

When I asked a friend of mine, Kevin Rowe, what came to mind when he heard me use the term traditioned innovation, he said, “The Book of Acts.” I thought, “That’s encouraging.” Then he said, “Actually, the Gospels and Acts.” And I thought, “That’s even better.” Then he said, “You know, you could think of traditioned innovation as a biblical way of thinking.” As we talked about it, we realized only God does pure innovation. Only God creates out of nothing. The rest of us are always creating in light of what’s gone before us.

Now, let’s distinguish between tradition and traditionalism. As Jaroslav Peliken distinguishes in his book The Vindication of Tradition, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, but tradition is the living faith of the dead. The best innovation borrows from tradition, whether it’s in new business innovations, or how often we’ve been at the forefront of innovative beer-making and winemaking down through the centuries (something that I, as a Christian raised by a teetotaling father, was surprised to discover), or in agricultural tools, healthcare, or education. Christians have often been at the forefront of education by learning from what has gone before us and recombining it in creative ways to practice traditioned innovation. It’s a biblical way of thinking.

It’s also what generates beautiful music. If you want to see an example of traditioned innovation, go on YouTube and just type in, “John Coltrane, My Favorite Things.” It’s a wonderful video of a great musician, playing variations on that song from “The Sound of Music.” When it starts, you hear those familiar tunes, and then he takes you on riffs, and you’re going, “Wow, where are we going?” And then he brings you back to the familiar, and then he goes down another riff. It’s traditioned innovation at its best.

Christian social innovation is also about the formation of Christian character. To my mind, Christian social innovation ought to combine the creativity of Harvard’s iLabs or IDEO’s design thinking with the rigor of a monastery and the creativity, adaptability, and formation of Navy SEALs. When you put all those together, you get part of the genius of Christian social innovation, because it’s about forming a character that’s oriented toward an entrepreneurial mindset. That character has at its heart virtues like humility—the humility that’s rooted in who God is and what it means to become intimate with God. Throughout Scripture, the notion of humility is not a false self-deprecation, nor is it humiliation. Rather, it’s a sense of our appropriate dignity in relation to God. So the best entrepreneurs are people who have a personal humility linked to an audacious vision and imagination.

I have a friend who’s a really creative entrepreneur, a Christian born and raised in Malaysia, and now living in England. He’s doing all sorts of interesting projects around the world that he’s invested in and funded. When he talks about the people that he recruits to work with him on the projects and to manage his projects around the world, he says the first and most important thing he looks is humility. Because if they are focused on the project, the people, and the good that can be accomplished, they’ll stay focused and centered on what matters most. Some of these projects make enormous amounts of money. Others are more break-even kinds of propositions. The key, he suggests, is humility. It’s that sense of a Christian character that’s rooted in who God is.

Christian social innovation is also about hope. Hope is different than optimism. Sure, there’s some sense in which you want that kind of optimism that an entrepreneur needs to persevere, but hope is profoundly different. It’s focused on who God is. It’s focused on the reign of God. Positive psychology, positive organizational behavior, and other movements in psychology have been suggesting that optimism is a key to success in sales, politics, and all sorts of other arenas. Martin Seligman is known as the father of positive psychology. In his book Learned Optimism, though, he notes that pessimists have one advantage over optimists: they have a more accurate understanding of reality. Oh, well, there’s that. The Christian virtue of hope combines that accurate understanding of reality, which recognizes the sense of brokenness and sin—whether personal, systemic, organizational, original—and the brokenness of the world in which we live. And yet it’s also linked to the power of Christ’s redemption and the Holy Spirit who is making all things new. So the Christian virtue of hope that Christian social innovation cultivates is one that’s oriented toward the end, that practices traditioned innovation, that brings together that sense of humility with that audacious vision of what God is doing by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Because of that link to hope and humility, I also want to suggest that Christian character oriented toward Christian social innovation is cruciform. It’s patterned in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It depends on teamwork, on recognizing the diversity of gifts that St. Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians. That cruciform patterning is what creates the kind of teamwork where everybody becomes better. It’s a myth that entrepreneurship or innovation is a solo enterprise. The image of Bill Gates or somebody alone in a garage is misleading; all the best research on entrepreneurship and innovation suggests it’s a team sport, needing a diversity of gifts. We’re better to learn that in Paul’s letters, about the power of teamwork patterned in Christ. In Philippians 2:5, right before the famous Christ hymn, we have a phrase that says, “If anyone has this mind that was in Christ Jesus…” The word mind there is actually the word from the Greek phronen. The word there is not really just about a mind; it’s about a way of life that patterns our thinking, our feeling, our perceiving, and our living. Have this mind among you. Have this phronen. Have this pattern of thinking and feeling and perceiving and living be among you that was in Christ Jesus. It’s about a cruciform character that is oriented toward teamwork, toward the community of the Church.

When Christian witness has been at its most powerful, entrepreneurs have found other people of faith to create teams and churches. Christian communities have been catalysts and conveners and curators of social innovation that produces significant wealth, brings people out of poverty, and accomplishes surpluses of social good. As Greg Dees suggested, it has inspired lots of Christians in American history. It’s also animated Christians through the centuries beginning with those early centuries of what Kevin Rowe calls Christianity’s surprise.

So Christian social innovation is about the end. It’s about tradition to innovation. It’s about character. And it’s always social.

That is to say that even when we’re focused on entrepreneurship, even when we’re focused on technology or the sciences, we are also always to be asking, how are these innovations? How is this entrepreneurship? How is this wealth going to benefit more than me? Christian innovation that’s oriented toward the end is going to focus on the common good. And so in some deep sense to say Christian is already to say social. But unfortunately, in our present time that’s increasingly oriented toward individualism, we need to be reminded that our innovation and entrepreneurship are also to include the wellbeing of the communities in which those businesses are located and the flourishing of its employees.

Yes, there can be a concern for providing great returns on investment. But if you look at Johnson & Johnson, one of the great companies of the 20th and 21st centuries, in their credo that goes back to the 1930s, providing a fair return to investors was the third criteria. First was providing quality employment to their doctors and nurses and others. Second was to provide appropriate care for all those who were entrusted to them through the kinds of products that they develop. So it’s always social.

Christian social innovation goes deeper and is richer. That’s why I think Greg Dees was saying that if social innovation is to have a long-term future, it needs to reengage with people of faith. And so things like this Fall Executive Forum and the Wheaton Center for Faith & Innovation are really critical, not just for our own life personally. It’s critical to the human flourishing and the flourishing of communities near and far.

One of my heroines in the world of Christian social innovation is a woman named Maggy Barankitse, from Burundi. She’s won lots of recognition and awards, including the Aurora Humanitarian Award. In the wake of a civil war and brutal massacre in her home village of Ruyigi, she decided to rebuild the community. She called it Maison Shalom. It’s an incredible social enterprise rooted in her faith, and it’s led her to educate thousands of children. Maison Shalom built hospitals and healthcare organizations in their rural area of Burundi, one of the poorest areas in one of the poorest countries in the world. She built a swimming pool over the site of a massacre, and she used images of baptism—a scriptural imagination—to imagine the children’s eyes being cleansed as they swam, like the waters of baptism, so they could have hope for the future. She created micro-businesses. She created educational innovation. She never had children of her own, but a number of the kids she’s educated and formed through the years have come back to work for her. It’s an incredible social world she has created.

If you ask Maggy Barankitse how she was able to do it, her eyes will brighten and she’ll say, “Love made me an inventor.” It’s a great phrase that gets at the heart of Greg Dees’s question, at the calling we all have for Christian social innovation. It’s not the love of Valentine’s Day or Hallmark. It’s the love of the Gospel. The love from God’s creation of the world, to the redemption, to the hope of Easter and the power of Pentecost. It’s the vision of the new creation. My hope for you and for all of us is that love will make us inventors, even in these turbulent, chaotic, surreal times. This is our time as people of faith to be inventors and innovators. Thanks be to God.

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