Sam Walton started Walmart in 1962 but through the years, he was a master of innovation. In the 1990s, Walmart went into rural areas while Kmart, for example, stayed in the suburbs.
It took Kmart 15 years to plant stores in rural areas.
As I was walking in the Chicago Loop last week, I noticed that Walmart has adapted once again. Among the sweeping skyscrapers, a Walmart Neighborhood Market stood out on a busy corner. Also within the city are a Walmart Express and even a Walmart Superstore. Urban Walmart stores have been around for several years now. By 2020, Walmart projects that there will be so many stores in the District of Columbia that 64% of the population will live within 2 miles of a Walmart.
So what can we learn as spiritual communities? Most of our congregations have not brought innovation to our church kitchens much less to our worship practices, our mission priorities or our organizational structures. Why is that?
- We tend to confuse “traditions” with “customs.” We don’t want to mess with “tradition” which (we think) means that we don’t want to change the way we do the Christmas pageant. Actually Advent is a church tradition. The Christmas pageant is a church custom. We can change customs to our hearts content. (Advent, on the other hand, will always be the four Sundays before Christmas and the days in between.)
- We fear making mistakes. If our congregation shames people who make mistakes we will never try anything new. Failure is immeasurably educational, though, and we need to do it more often.
- We institutionalize customs. We have a great chili dinner one year and somebody says, “We should do this every year.” Before you know it, we’ve had a chili dinner for 17 years and nobody likes it much anymore but “we have to do it. It’s what we do on the last weekend in October.“
- We innovate as as last ditch effort. (And then it’s too late.) We could have easily restructured our educational program or our leadership model years ago when we had the capacity to make effective change. But – for whatever reason – we didn’t do it. Maybe we were complacent or we didn’t want to offend somebody in power or we didn’t see change coming. But we missed our window and now our educational program or our leadership pool are so depleted that we can’t recover.
Last weekend, I visited a congregation of lively members who were clearly happy to be together, happy to work together, happy to serve. One member joyfully said, “We never know what’s going to happen around here!”
Exactly. Innovation is part of their culture.
And innovation is not important for innovation’s sake. It’s important because the world is changing, our contexts are changing, our populations are changing. Waiting to change the way we are the church doesn’t serve the God who has called us.