Innovate and Imitate: What’s Cooking at Tiny Church

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Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh

Our kids like to ask us, “Who invented ________?” Some of the answers are easy: Alexander Graham Bell. Thomas Edison. Percy Spencer. (OK, we had to look up the last one—he invented the microwave.)

But inventions are hard to pin down to a single person or moment. Who invented the Internet? You could come up with a single name, but really it’s the product of a lot of discoveries and advances. Even big names like Bell and Edison and Spencer stood on the shoulders of people who came before.

Some months ago I read an article about how creative people are called to innovate and imitate. The article is long gone, but it went something like this: if there’s an approach out there that works, use it, even if competitors are doing the same thing. Imitate without shame the good stuff going on out there. Where you distinguish yourself is in how you innovate—how you make changes and improve on an idea, product or service.

Innovation is vital, but not everything needs to be innovated.

The key is to find the right balance and configuration of imitation and innovation so that you provide something unique, yet don’t wear yourself out reinventing the wheel.

This has played out at Tiny Church in a number of different ways. For example, in worship. I love crafting liturgy—writing prayers, thinking up cool interactive elements, and so forth. I also love preaching and crafting a strong sermon. But I simply don’t have the creative energy to do both.

Over the years I’ve noticed that there’s not much difference in people’s response when I knock myself out writing liturgy v. borrowing stuff. So for liturgy, I imitate. I grab things from the Internet and adapt them. I mine Pinterest and Theresa Cho’s blog. I incorporate prayers from the Feasting on the Word Worship Companion.

But for the sermon, I innovate. That’s the piece of worship that gets my best creative self, because that’s the piece that people respond to. It also happens to be the element of worship I’m most passionate about… and I’m sure those things are related.

I suspect many of you do this as well. I sometimes feel a little guilty, like I should be crafting everything from scratch. (I feel guilt easily, have you noticed that?) The innovate/imitate balance helps me get over myself.

Another element of the imitate/innovate dance comes when you start out imitating and end up innovating. Rocky Supinger wrote about this evolutionary process recently at the NEXT Church website, and we’re in the midst of this dance right now at Tiny. I wrote during Lent about our Journey to Jerusalem, in which we encouraged folks to walk, bike, run, swim, etc. and turn in their miles each week to see if we could make it from Falls Church to Jerusalem by Easter. I stole this idea, blatantly and unimaginatively, from someone at the Presbyterian CREDO Conference. I loved it because it connects the biblical story and our lives as pilgrimages with health and fitness.

Well, a funny thing happened. We got to Jerusalem and the next week people started asking, “I’ve got miles to turn in. Who do I give them to?” So when our transformation team met last week we decided to keep the journey going. We’re going to spend the rest of 2013 wandering around the world, plotting our paths using the big map in our fellowship hall. We have members who have lived all over the world so when we arrive at a place, we will experience something of life in that place. Our first stop will be the Democratic Republic of Congo where one of our members has traveled countless times with her job at USAID. We hope these stops will involve some kind of cultural experience, a learning about how Christians experience life and ministry in that place, and maybe even a mission opportunity that connects to that place. We have a general idea of where we’ll end up but we’re also going to be open to the Spirit.

(This idea came completely from the team and not from me, but I’m realizing now that these pilgrimage stops are akin to Conflict Kitchen, a Pittsburgh restaurant that features food from conflicted countries as a way of educating patrons about these places.)

Imitate… and innovate.

How are you doing this dance in your own context?

3 thoughts on “Innovate and Imitate: What’s Cooking at Tiny Church

  1. Bob Braxton

    I write in a form which I believe is unique in its precise detail and yet widespread when slightly more general: Haiku, for example, also uses a three-line form (which I believe also has roots in Africa via the blues – 16-bar). However, the syllables I pour into this type of “mold” (form) are in effect “found” shiny “objects” which attract my curiosity and whimsy. It takes much more explanation than the actual practice, which I do over and over every day. The repetition provides me with comfort: I am still alive.

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