Melissa Wiginton: Making change happen

You don’t need to be an innovation guru like Steve Jobs to lead the church in times of social and institutional change.

“We need a Steve Jobs of religion,” Eric Weiner writes in his recent op-ed in the Sunday New York Times:

“Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”

His “Nones” sound an awful lot like the “spiritual but not religious” descriptor receiving a fair amount of recent social commentary in the religious media. The Nones are the roughly 12% of Americans who, when asked for their religious affiliation as part of the U.S. census, checked the box next to “none.” At least a quarter of young people are Nones. While some Nones don’t believe in God (only 7% of Americans claim to be flat-out atheists), most do. They just don’t have a religious identity.

Perhaps they are waiting for a new offering. It reminds me of my young daughter’s question when a movie's plot slows or it gets too talky: “Mommy, when is something going to happen?”

I can’t speak for other faiths, but as Christians, we know that no Steve Jobs will save the church. But we can name people (mostly men) who have been religious game changers. This is why we need religious leaders who know church history, theology and Bible. We have precedence for a person inciting major change in our religious operating systems. The way our story of the past 2000+ years is told, God appears to move through people who step up when religious systems become dysfunctional. We can certainly see that more clearly through hundreds of years of historical distance than we can in the thickets of the present.

Steve Jobs may have been brilliant, but also he was pulled to full stretch because the environment was ready and the time was ripe for his innovations. For Christian churches, this moment is primed for leaders with breakthrough capacities. No other institution in our culture is facing changes at the same rate.

Weiner claims we need an operating system that is straightforward, unencumbered, highly intuitive, interactive, with room for doubt and experimentation. What human longing is being expressed in his description? How can we draw from the rich well of our faith to meet that longing in its 21st century form? Answering those questions may be a good place to get something happening. And if you don’t have any ideas of your own, go out and find someone who you think does and invest in them with prayer, presence, emotional and financial support.

You don’t have to be Steve Jobs to do that.

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.