The Art of Innovation

Sistene Chapel2

Guest Post by Casey Parnell

Years ago I went to Rome with some of my greatest friends in the world. Rome is an incredible place and, in case you happen upon this city, I want to make sure you plan for multiple days there. We were there for only one spectacular day and it wasn’t enough. We barely scratched the surface of its history and majesty, visiting the Pantheon, the Vatican, and the Colosseum all in one day’s time. Tucked away inside our brief hours in the city, we “attended” mass in St. Peter’s square led by Pope Benedict XVI. Catholics sure can draw a crowd. There was a casual 10,000 people in the square on a Friday morning and we listened as the Pope led the crowd in a hymn of worship. I will never forget the weight and power of that moment.

Before mass we had the opportunity to walk through the Sistine Chapel; what I would say was one of the highlights our two-week trip to Europe. The brilliant and controversial Michelangelo spent years of his life painting in this space. While working on the ceiling, (taking almost 4 years to complete) they say he nearly went blind from paint dropping into his eyes. This chapel is still where new Pope’s are elected, a rise of smoke to signify someone has been chosen. Photography is also not allowed, although there is an astonishing amount of photographs that surface from a search on Google (apparently people don’t care that God is watching them or security or something).

The Sistine chapel was recently brought to mind again in one of the creative meetings at our church. We were discussing how the concept of innovation has changed the world for better or worse. If it is, in fact, the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods, then we see it all around us everyday. It’s found on our computers through Spotify and in our homes through our refrigerator. It’s a significant word. With it empires rise and without it they crumble.

The Chapel is a stand-alone masterpiece but is also only a speck of artwork at the Vatican. Entire wings, hallways, corridors, and courtyards are covered with masterworks from many centuries.

Why does the Sistine Chapel even exist? Why was the ceiling painted or “The Last Judgement” on the chapel wall or other tapestry’s labored over? Did previous Popes not have television and required paintings everywhere to alleviate their boredom? More accurately and less sarcastically (which is also an excellent life motto), a good answer is found in the early 1500’s, while Michelangelo painted, the vast majority of the world was illiterate. Paintings, stained glass, maps, carvings, sculptures, and murals showed the masses the story of God. A pretty brilliant idea for education. The Egyptians also had been telling their story for centuries in similar fashion.

I asked the team why the concept of innovation is an important one. They responded that the power of innovation could be used for good and for evil, but generally people innovate to be more effective at what they do.

Like fire, the introduction of new ideas can do one of two things; it can build up through warmth or break down through destruction. The Sistine Chapel is an example of innovation building up the broad base of Catholic attenders. The Chapel is actually a minute example of how High Renaissance Art throughout Europe told the story of God.  When people cannot read, they need pictures. (Thank you, magazines!) When we get stuck in situations we can’t bear, lack of profit in a startup business, a basketball team that keeps losing, or a church that isn’t growing, we must innovate to spark a change.

Innovation has also led to the demise of many organizations, but we don’t have time to talk about failed car companies or Blockbuster.

The vast majority of organizations already have the “it”; that core value, that flagship product, that central thing that holds the whole thing together. In the church it is the Gospel of Jesus. This obviously does not change, but the circles around it, the way it’s put on display, must. To use a popular Christian term, “The message doesn’t change, but the method does.” To be more effective as leaders, we MUST innovate. We must at times step out of our own ordinary and reach further to take ground.

Some close friends of mine were visiting new churches a while back. They drove across town and ended up in a smaller non-denominational congregation, this Sunday, as they would come to find out, was also the last Sunday the church was going to exist. The pastor explained to the 20 or so sitting in the pews that this would be their last gathering and they were closing up shop. Any marketing person before giving up would say, “What could innovating teach us here?” Are the services too long? Do the neighbors know they are welcome to attend? Many churches find themselves so entrenched in “how they do things” they can’t see another possible way to look at the whole picture.

Jesus, Himself, came and innovated. He changed the way we saw God, and He was VERY good at this. Where people used to think God was a rule-creating, vengeful, silent, great and fearful distant entity, Jesus came and explained it differently using words like “Father” for God and telling stories about runaway kids finding their way home. His approach made many people angry, but those that were healed in heart and body were overjoyed.  In the same way the Sistine Chapel connected people back to the story of God, Jesus was the original storyteller and His thesis was love.

Where religious leadership was motivated by rules and consequences, power and influence, Jesus came with a different motivation and this selfless love was proved over and over again until we killed him for it. His present, risen life is still showing us what love is today.

As God innovated through Jesus, reshaping our view of Himself, this same spirit of innovation exists in our hearts today; the soul of creativity, the spark of imagination, the mind that thinks anything is possible. It breaks us out of our boxes into new roads, new lands, and new thoughts. I don’t think anything we do in this life should be done without asking why. The why leads us to conversations, plans, and places we never thought were possible. Asking why forces us to innovate in our own world. Jesus was always asking questions. He never left people out of the equation, but guided them to the next place.

I want to invite you to join us to continue the discussion of innovation and leadership at The Well Conference, May 8-9, 2014 in scenic Bend, Oregon. This time with speakers Erwin Raphael McManus, Bo Stern, and Ken Wystma, as well as inspiring music and workshops, is sure to lead you onward as you change the world around you.

Register Today! The Well Conference

Casey Parnell

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