Preparing to Innovate

In the 1987 movie The Untouchables, Eliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner, is tasked with bringing Al Capone to justice. When traditional methods fail, Ness gets advice from the wily Chicago police veteran, Jim Malone, played by Sean Connery. The scene takes place in a church of all places, and while it holds no spiritual value whatsoever, the advice is on target for what it means to innovate.

Malone begins the scene by asking Ness, “Do you really want to get Capone? Do you see what I’m saying? What are you prepared to do?”

Stammering for a response, Ness responds, “Everything within the law” to which Malone immediately retorts, “AND THEN what are you prepared to do?”

I’m certainly not advocating for illegal activity, but I like how Malone was pressing Ness on his paradigm. Malone was essentially asking, “If your way isn’t working, are you prepared to learn a new way?” As leaders—allowing for scriptural, ethical and moral boundaries—we need to be asking ourselves and allowing trusted people in our lives to ask us the same question:

“What are you prepared to do?”  

Forests & Deserts

Houston is a tale of two cities. For a city of its diversity, Houston still struggles with racial and economic segregation. There are very real questions being asked about educational disparity and access to affordable housing. As the church, we must guard against the same tendencies of favoring certain sides or pockets of the city if we are truly focused on gospel saturation.

I would liken it to forests and deserts: if we were really serious about seeing deserts become gardens, we wouldn’t plant trees in the middle of a mature forest, even if it was simply easier because we had ready access to forests and we couldn’t figure out how to overcome the massive hurdles to desert transformation. That’s essentially ignoring the problem, which is tantamount to contributing to the problem.

That brings us back to the mission of gospel saturation. There will inevitably come a time when we have exhausted every avenue for gospel expansion currently available to us through our time-tested models. That’s not news. Methods change over time.

Churches in older communities must be able to change methods to relate and minister to new residents of the community, or those churches will cease to exist.
Should enough churches fail, church deserts will develop.

Watch the Cycle

What hasn’t changed over time is the target audience: new or growing communities. We assume that new or growing communities don’t have churches—which is usually true—and are populated with people of means—also usually true. Churches are planted or multisites are started to reach these new communities, and the Great Commission goes forth, right?

Yes and no.

Allow me to draw out a scenario: Without getting too far into urban sociology, new or growing communities are rarely carved out of the deserts. Gentrified communities are frequently located on the edges of thriving communities which provide the impetus for gentrification. Gentrification also displaces the original residents of that community. New developments such as subdivisions and planned communities tend to be suburban or exurban, an extension of the city in an outward direction away from the urban core and lower economic areas.

Assuming everyone stays in their original location and that new developments are filled with new residents to the city, the missiology of targeting new developments holds just fine. But communities are always changing because people are moving, especially in a fairly transient county like Harris, where an estimated 11.6% of people moved within the county and another 6% moved in from outside the county.  

As new communities with higher economic barriers of entry are developed, people of means from outside and within the city seek them out. That leaves behind communities with lower barriers to entry. Churches in the older communities must be able to change their methods in order to relate and minister to the new residents of the community, or those churches will eventually cease to exist. Should enough churches fail to relate to their community, church deserts develop.

In economically depressed areas, starting a new church or multisite based on suburban economic models is unsustainable, especially compared to targeting the newest exurban planned development.

In economically depressed areas, starting a new church or multisite based on suburban economic models is unsustainable, especially compared to targeting the newest exurban planned development. And thus far, I have ignored the myriad other demographic and psychographic factors—such as language barriers—related to how communities change, but the end of the scenario is the same. Church deserts expand, while the forest seeks out other pockets of grass in which to plant.

So, what are we prepared to do?

Preparing for the Unknown

I’ve been in the meetings, and I’ve seen the faces of pastors when faced with this reality. I’ve heard them say, “We’ll keep doing our model of church, because it works. After all, there’s plenty of lost people to go around.”

That’s true.

But those statements disguise the feeling of helplessness that every leader feels when faced with a need to innovate in order to accomplish the mission. It’s almost a plea for someone else, anyone else, to figure out what to do for the sake of everyone so that the mission everyone believes in can be accomplished without the anguish of starting anew.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “Someone should figure that out!” That someone might be you. And take comfort, because if it was easy, it would already be done. But since when is easy stuff the fun stuff?


First, let’s own the problem together.

If we’re serious about gospel saturation, let’s take back the deserts. There are churches there that need our help. There are people there that have answers, let’s listen to them. There are good things being done that with the right resources, could be great things.

Second, let’s commit to tackling the unknown.

Adopting our best learning to unengaged people and communities is hard work and will involve shaping and reshaping some of our basic methodological paradigms. But in moments when I have been called to lead into the unknown, I have taken great comfort from the words of President Kennedy as he was casting a vision for the fledgling space program from the football field at Rice University on September 12, 1962:

“We choose to go to the moon.
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

The president said “and do the other things” because he really didn’t know what they were; in fact, many at NASA didn’t either.

What everyone knew was that the task was great, it was worthy of being done, and that it needed to be figured out.

By following God’s lead, so may it be with the Great Commission in Houston. #BetterTogether

Josh Ellis is Executive Director of Union Baptist Association. He has a PhD in Leadership Studies and has served on the UBA staff since 2005. With both practical and scholarly knowledge, he leads the association into innovative collaboration for the sake of strategic gospel advancement.