Must-haves for Innovation in Missions

by Larry B. Jones

Achieving a culture of creativity in the context of missions brings with it significant leadership challenges, but also holds the promise of greater effectiveness.

 Knowledge and information are growing at rates never before seen in history (The Technium 2008). This explosion of information, and the attendant introduction of new technologies driven by it, has led to a breakneck pace of change in the world around us. Even those of us involved in sharing the eternal and unchanging good news find ourselves in an environment where we either adapt or risk organizational death.

There are no easy guidebooks for adapting to the rapidly-changing world around us. We end up needing to experiment and try things, without knowing if the changes we are making will in fact help us serve God more effectively. Achieving and maintaining a culture of innovation and creativity in the context of missions brings with it significant leadership challenges, but also holds the promise of greater effectiveness as we leverage the changes around us for God’s glory.

Several colleagues were sitting around a conference table discussing a proposed methodology for Bible translation which could potentially revolutionize the effort to get God’s word in an understandable form to every people group needing it. It promised to create natural, accurate translations in a fraction of the time we had been able to achieve at our most aggressive pace.

The claim was ambitious and the prospect was exciting, but I could see the consternation and skepticism on the face of one of our most respected translation consultants. The presentation clearly had not convinced him, yet without his support, I knew the idea would never even get a hearing from those who mattered most on our staff. At one point, another colleague sitting next to this consultant leaned over and asked, “What would you think about just trying this in a single location, as a pilot project, just to see if it will work?” That consultant considered for a moment and replied, “Yes, I think we could let them try it and see what it produces.”

This experience underscored for me the human challenges we face to introduce innovations in ministry. Many ideas which might end up materially improving our service can look irresponsible on the surface, and those whose strength is rooted in our historic ministry can look at such ideas askance, without giving them a chance to prove themselves.

Interestingly, such challenges are not confined to the ministry context. It turns out that any human endeavor, be it scientific research or the invention of new products for sale in the marketplace, confronts many of the same human challenges. I have found that the lessons learned about innovation in these wider contexts have helpfully informed us in The Seed Company to more effectively encourage creativity and innovation in the Bible translation realm. Here are several lessons about innovation developed in the commercial marketplace and the world of science and how they have played out in a ministry context, specifically in the field of Bible translation.

Pilot Projects
One strategy for keeping a mission fresh and encouraging creativity and innovation is the launching of pilot projects. Pilot projects are small-scale, tentative explorations to test new ideas. Successful companies that produce everything from zoom lenses to video games to toothpaste thrive on experimentation. They produce and test prototypes, then refine and retest them until they have a product they are confident they can take to the marketplace.1 In The Seed Company, most of our pilot projects are related to Bible translation methodology or project execution.  

Several years ago, The Seed Company launched a Guest Bible Scholar program. This program was created to address the urgent need to check a growing number of translations of scripture around the world for faithfulness and exegetical accuracy. Historically, the need for checking translations of scripture has been handled by a group of professional Bible translation consultants. However, the rising global interest in scripture translation into lesser-known languages has resulted in a serious shortage of qualified consultants to train translation teams and check their work. The concept was to see if Bible scholars from seminaries and Christian universities could be trained to use their biblical knowledge to supplement the efforts of professional Bible translation consultants to meet this need.

The first batch of Bible scholar candidates was screened carefully to keep the group small and to increase the likelihood of success. This kept our initial financial investment relatively low. The small size of the initial cadre also gave the effort a low profile, which was less threatening to those who might misunderstand. This initial foray produced some positive results, which suggested that we could involve many other Bible scholars in the effort. We also gleaned some key learnings in the process:

• Our capacity to deploy Bible scholars in these roles was entirely dependent upon the readiness of consultants to shepherd these scholars, especially in their initial overseas experience. Some consultants were overwhelmed with work expectations and couldn’t imagine adding the responsibility of mentoring to their load. They also were skeptical of the value these guest scholars could add, which eroded their willingness to mentor.

• The hope that these scholars could render ongoing assistance to translators throughout the year through Internet-based communication never materialized, largely because the translators were not used to the idea of seeking help on the Internet and because their Internet access was spotty.

• The value of the contributions these scholars made grew over time. The benefits of the initial visits mainly accrued to the scholar him or herself, whereas the later visits were beneficial to the translation teams and to the supervising translation consultant.

This example demonstrates some key features of fruitful pilot project innovations—small scope, low cost, and an iterative process whereby early trials are thoroughly evaluated and learnings are used to improve the design of later ones.

Rigorous, Honest Evaluation
A number of years ago, before my time in The Seed Company, I supported the launch of a project to translate exegetical resources from English into a major East Asian language. The idea was to equip speakers of minority languages in East Asia to understand the text of the Bible and thus translate more accurately in their languages. The proposal called for hiring translators from the East Asian Christian diaspora to do the translation work. Most of the translators were pastors or seminary professors. Although the project was expensive, it resonated with giving partners in North America and was generously supported in prayers and finances for several years.

At some point along the way, the translated exegetical resources were reviewed by minority language translators in East Asia who were translating the Bible into their own languages. To my horror, the translators found that the texts which were intended to help them were nearly unusable due to poor application of translation principles and the sophisticated level of language used. Attempts to adjust the level of language to match the target audience proved ineffective. In the end, with profuse apologies to our financial partners, and to the consternation of some of the field partners in the project, I terminated our participation.

This anecdote illustrates the need for honest, regular evaluation of innovations as they are being developed. Testing and evaluation of the translated exegetical resources should have been conducted sooner. This could have led to an improvement of project design and significantly reduced the losses we incurred pursuing the flawed proposal. On the other hand, the fact that an evaluation was eventually done exposed the flaws and stopped the unwise spending, better late than never. It also illustrates that there are no guarantees in innovation. There are always financial risks associated with being innovative, and not every idea turns out to be a fruitful one.

When significant funding has been invested in an innovative project, it can develop a momentum and constituency of its own. The mission leader needs to have courage to conduct a fair evaluation of the project’s merits and to make a decision which may disappoint some along the way. He or she also needs to be prepared to explain the decision to partners and financial supporters.

The Role of the Champion
Recently, TI [Texas Instruments] conducted a fascinating survey, reviewing its last fifty or so successful and unsuccessful new-product introductions, and found that one factor marked every failure: “Without exception we found we hadn’t had a volunteer champion. There was someone we cajoled into taking on the task.” (Peters and Waterman 1982, 203).

While our experience in The Seed Company is not quite as striking as this example from Texas Instruments, I also have observed the profound difference a champion makes in seeing an innovation through to fruition. Various times in my leadership journey, I have had what seemed to me to be a great idea, but I did not have time or capacity to pursue it. When I assigned someone to pursue the idea, or tried to persuade another to pick it up, it usually went nowhere. But when we have had someone who had his or her own vision for an innovation, his or her personal passion and commitment carried it to scale with profound impact.

In 1999, CRU’s Jesus Film Project approached The Seed Company about partnering together to translate Gospels of Luke into the thirty largest remaining languages without a Jesus Film. SIL International seconded Katy Barnwell to The Seed Company to give leadership to an effort to develop a highly efficient, focused approach to the translation of Luke’s Gospel and the production of a Jesus Film script. The strategy brought teams of translators from a cluster of languages together in a series of workshops over a three-year period to receive training together, exchange ideas, and work on their translations. An increase of productivity achieved by the synergy of working together, valuable consultant time used most efficiently in the workshop setting, and maximum leveraging of the intuitive knowledge of speakers of the languages combined to significantly accelerate the translation process.

Thus was born what has become known as the Luke Partnership, an effort that has seen the Gospel of Luke and a Jesus Film produced in almost two hundred languages, blessing millions of people. This innovation could not have been taken to scale apart from the persistent, tireless efforts of its champion, Dr. Barnwell.

Innovations can be initiated and pursued without a passionate, visionary champion, but I have found that having a champion is a corporate treasure when pushing innovations forward. The singular focus of a champion can mean that other systems in the organization need to be adjusted to give space for the champion to run. Rules and guidelines which apply generally to our operations may occasionally need to be bent to accommodate the efficient pursuit of an innovative goal.

This kind of flexibility can create anomalies and inconvenience requiring leadership courage driven by a commitment to fostering an environment of innovation.2 In Barnwell’s case, we both adjusted expectations for the management of some of the details of the Luke Partnership projects, and we assigned extra staff to give the initiative key administrative support.

Unexpected Benefits
Supporting a culture of innovation often leads to the discovery of benefits which were not in view when an experiment was initiated. A well-known example in the business world is the discovery of the adhesive for Post-it notes. While attempting to invent a new strong adhesive in 1970, 3M researcher Spencer Silver ended up creating a very weak, apparently useless adhesive. Four years later, his 3M colleague Arthur Fry thought of a use for the weak adhesive as a movable bookmark that would stay put but not damage pages. Thus the genesis of Post-it notes, which appeared in the global marketplace in 1980 (The Great Idea Finder 2006).

Being alert to the possibility and strategic merit of unintended benefits is crucial to maintaining a fruitful culture of innovation in mission. In 2011, The Seed Company tested two new methodologies for Bible translation in India, both of which surprised us with unexpected benefits.

The Video Audio Strategy for Translation (VAST) was developed as an accelerated methodology for crafting the script of the Jesus Film without dependence upon reading and writing skills. The Seed Company launched a pilot project in one language of southern India to see if a Jesus Film script produced in this fashion could be used as the basis for an accelerated translation of the complete Gospel of Luke.

However, after completing the translation of the Jesus Film using the VAST methodology, the language translators felt so empowered and enthusiastic about their new skill that they rushed ahead and drafted the entire Gospel of Luke in audio form in less than two months. They listened to an audio recording of the Gospel in their state language as a source text, then translated, checked, and revised it in an audio recording in their own language. Although the resulting translation needed much revision, the essential skill of translating in an audio medium was transferred in a way which immediately empowered the translation team. That fact changed the design of the experiment midstream.

During the same period we also tested an application of Internet-based crowd-sourcing to Bible translation in a language of northern India. We wanted to see if using a web-based platform allowing hundreds of people to participate together in a Bible translation process could yield results comparable in quality (accuracy and naturalness) to those obtained by employing highly-trained translators.

Well over one thousand speakers of the language, of all ages, participated in drafting several chapters of Luke in their language. In the end, we found the resulting translation still needed significant revision by trained translators to be usable. However, in the course of evaluating the process we discovered that pastors of the small church-plants in the area reported significantly increased church attendance as a result of people participating in translating scripture into their language. That unintended benefit, alongside our evaluation of the quality of the translation, led us to modify our goals and method for applying crowd-sourcing as a translation tool.

Innovation is a winding path with many blind corners. Noticing and capitalizing on the unexpected benefits is key to the process.

Parallel Innovations
The history of science and industry is filled with examples of simultaneous, parallel inventions. The light bulb, telephone, atomic energy, and the airplane (to name just a few) were all concepts worked on feverishly at the same time by multiple parties who were competing to be the first to achieve success and commercial viability. There is something about the general growth of knowledge in the global community which seems to push certain innovative ideas to prominence, giving them time in the conceptual limelight, and generating human energy to bring them to practical fruition (see The Technium 2009).

The phenomenon of parallel invention can be seen in Christian ministry also. For example:

•  Crowd-sourced translation is an idea whose time has come and is being actively explored by many parties both inside the Bible translation community and in the larger business world (Kelly 2012).

•  In the mid-twentieth century, the notion of Christian radio broadcasting as a missionary endeavor led to the founding of HCJB (1931), Far East Broadcasting Company (1945), and Trans-World Radio (1954).

•  Today, the digital distribution of scripture in audio and written form has exploded, with the Youversion Bible app and the program from Faith Comes by Hearing being just two of many web platforms making scripture accessible via the web.

•  Oral Bible storytelling has come of age as a missionary strategy for many different agencies in recent years.

•  In the Bible translation scene, the concept of clustering, in which translation teams working in different languages collaborate in various ways to achieve economies of scale, is being applied by a number of different ministries around the world.

•  Many Christian foundations and ministries are investigating how to measure the spiritual impact of their work.
As we think about parallel invention as it applies to missions, a few lessons stand out, lessons which contrast with behaviors in the wider business world. Our eyes need to be open to others outside the mission context who may be applying the same idea in ways we can use.

Unlike inventors who race to get the credit for being first, our focus needs to stay on the interests of the kingdom. We need to be more concerned about what is being done for God’s glory and less concerned about what group gets credit (Mark 9:39-40). A spirit of comparison and competition doesn’t come from God. This should lead us to share information freely and be open to the possibility of collaboration in innovation. Good ideas eventually need to be taken to scale and shared widely. That process in particular calls for humility in sharing and also in receiving good ideas. Being generous and meticulous to give credit when building on the work of others develops trust and facilitates collaboration.

Any time a leader wants to encourage a culture of creativity in an organization, he or she must be willing to accept a certain amount of risk. This risk can come in various forms, the most obvious being the risk of failure. When you are trying something new, you can’t be sure it will work. As a result, you have to be willing to accept the possibility that it will not work, and you will lose your investment in time and finances. This is a cost of innovation in any enterprise.3

The case of the translation resources for East Asian translators cited above is an example of a failed experiment. Let me share another one. Over the last few years, The Seed Company has engaged three different consulting groups to help us formulate an instrument for assessing the impact of the Bible translation projects we sponsor.
The reason we engaged three different groups is that the first two did not succeed in devising the tool we were looking for. From one perspective, these earlier two attempts could be seen as expensive failures. However, they do represent the cost of innovation in a domain of vital importance to us. Here are some lessons we learned:

•  In order to maintain a culture of innovation, there has to also be a culture of grace, with permission to fail.4  

•  The greater the innovation, the higher the risk of failure. In these cases, insisting on a lean initial investment is wise.

•  We learned and improved our management of the experimental model on the basis of our experience in the first two attempts. Thomas Edison quipped about his many trials to find a usable filament for a light bulb: “I have discovered hundreds of materials that won’t work…”

Another risk of innovation is pushback. Attempting to accomplish something in a new way in any enterprise will often threaten people who are comfortable in or committed to the status quo. This phenomenon is well-documented and any leader who has sought to change the status quo has run into it.5

The anecdote with which I began this article is an example of mild pushback to innovation in a mission context. For a leader, part of managing innovative experiments is a commitment to shield them from being squelched too early by those uneasy with change. In a Christian ministry context, we strive to honor and respect the wisdom of these senior, experienced teammates without allowing their understandable hesitations to stifle creativity and innovation.

Another dimension of leadership in an innovative environment is recruiting new staff who are flexible and braced for the tumult of change. The Seed Company’s People and Organizational Development team has been deliberate in seeking qualified staff who can manage and, in some cases, welcome the exciting stresses associated with innovation and change.

Timing and messaging are also crucial to the introduction of new innovations. Fumbling in these areas can create additional pushback against an innovation.6 New ideas can be exciting. Some of them hold the prospect of greatly improving effectiveness in ministry. Sometimes people can get so enamored with the bright prospects that they can project a hoped-for-potential to be a reality.  We found this to be the case in our exploratory applications of crowd-source technology to the Bible translation task. Early on, the approach seemed so cutting-edge and exciting that some advocates were tempted to overstate the case, painting a picture of success and potential that goes beyond what we could honestly document from our research.  This led some partners to oppose the idea early on, before we had had the chance to test and refine it. That opposition created additional, time-consuming leadership challenges for us, and it could have been avoided or at least decreased by proactive management of the messaging.

Christian ministries are not insulated from the hyper-speed of change in the twenty-first century.

Many of the changes around us represent threats to our future. Others are God-given opportunities, opening new doors and providing new avenues for effectiveness in mission. In this context, creating and supporting a culture of innovation in ministry is becoming a non-negotiable for all of us. May God give us grace and wisdom as we lead with vision and faith!

1. Peters and Waterman (1982, 134ff) make a strong case that a predilection for experimentation is defining characteristic of companies with an excellent performance.

2. Peters and Waterman (1982, 211-212) discuss the vital role that leadership support plays in enabling innovation champions to succeed.

3. Peters and Waterman (1982, 209) refer to this as a “numbers game.” Companies that experiment with many different innovations see a lot fail, but the few that succeed do well enough to more than cover the inherent costs of the innovative environment.

4. Peters and Waterman (1982, 231) describe the innovation process at 3M: “‘The odds on any one idea making it through to commercial fruition are approximately zero…There is no limit to raw ideas.’ So the champions are all over the place experimenting, spending a little. Mostly they fail….a few go all the way.”

5. Resistance to change is a well-documented phenomenon. Dr. Spencer Johnson wrote the best-selling Who Moved My Cheese (1998) to encourage people to embrace and adapt to change. Kuhn (1996, 159) describes the introduction of new scientific paradigms as a gradual process of individual “conversions” to a new explanation of data. He also documents the dim prospect that some of those committed to the earlier paradigm never move to the newer one, despite mounting evidence and the movement  of the preponderance of their professional colleagues. Peters and Waterman (1982, 211) refer to the champions of a new invention as pioneers and comment “pioneers get shot at…”

6. Townsend (1970, 37) takes a perceptive, albeit a little jaundiced, view of the dangers of public communication about innovations at too early a stage.

The Great Idea Finder. 2006. “Post it Note History—Invention of Post-it Notes.” Accessed July 27, 2012, from

Johnson, Spencer. 1998. Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Kelly, Nataly. 2012. “Clearing Up the Top Ten Myths about Translation.” Accessed August 1, 2012, from

Kuhn, Thomas. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman. 1982. In Search of Excellence, Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. New York: Harper and Row.

The Technium. 2008. “The Expansion of Ignorance.” Accessed January 11, 2013, from

_____. 2009. “Progression of the Inevitable.” Accessed July 27, 2012, from

Townsend, Robert. 1970. Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, Inc.


Larry Jones and his wife, Linda, served as Wycliffe members in Asia from 1980 to 2007 in Bible translation and administrative leadership roles. He is currently The Seed Company’s senior vice president of Bible translation.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 194-203. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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