9 Fresh Approaches to Innovation That Can Change Everything


So you think of yourself as an innovative leader.

You just wish your church or the organization you’re a part of valued innovation more.

How do you change the innovation game where you work?

I was recently at a two-day event in Silicon Valley that featured speakers from tech companies in Silicon Valley and innovative church leaders. I was fortunate to be invited as one of the speakers, but even more fortunate to be able to take notes for two days.

The conference (hosted by Leadership Network) rocked my thinking on innovation.

If there’s one thing the church needs today, it’s more innovation in our methods. The mission never changes, but frankly, the methods have to.

Here are some ideas on innovation that, stapled together, kind of blew my mind. Maybe that’s no surprise.

As Erwin McManus joked, to be a futurist in the church, you just need to see the present clearly. (You can listen to my fascinating conversation with Erwin here on Episode 163 of my leadership podcast.)

Look, I’m a huge supporter of the church’s mission (as is Erwin), but sometimes the best gift we can give ourselves is an honest assessment of where we’re at.

Sometimes what we think is innovation isn’t. It’s just a slight variation of what we’re already doing.

I hope these 9 ideas around innovation, combined, can shift your thinking about what is truly innovative and what isn’t.

They certainly helped my thinking surge forward.

1. Build your future around a product, not a person

Too often in the church, we build the mission around a person, not a product (our mission).

And before you start slinging stones at well-known megachurch pastors, just know that far more often, small churches are built around the leadership of their pastor who does ‘everything’ (a problem I help churches tackle here).

In small churches, if you remove an effective pastor, things fall apart very quickly. Ironically, the exit of two founding megachurch pastors under trying circumstances at NewSpring and CrossPoint churches didn’t result in the collapse of those churches. While each took a significant hit, they are very much alive and moving forward 18 months later.

It’s tempting to think that innovative tech companies build their future around a person. We just think of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and assume one person created all that success.

While great leadership is essential to a company’s future, to think one person did it all is naive thinking.

Apple has tripled in market capitalization since Steve Jobs died in 2011. It has also released a bevy of new products. You can argue all day long about whether Jobs would have made it better, but the truth is by almost all the numbers, the company is stronger than its ever been.

And while you may be able to name the CEO of Facebook and Apple, can you name the CEO of Lyft?

What about the founder(s) of LinkedIn? Nest? Airbnb? Square or even YouTube?

If you build your future around a product, not a person, you’ll have a stronger future. (I discuss my personal succession plan for our church with my successor in Episode 110 of my leadership podcast.)

If you make yourself more important the mission, you’ve lost the mission.

2. 100x Thinking

Many leaders suffer from incremental thinking.

We ask questions like “What could make this 10% better?”

Craig Groeschel challenged us to embrace 100x thinking… or if that’s too much for you, try 10x thinking.

In other words, if your church reaches 300 people, start asking the question about what it would take to reach 3000 or 30,000.

Will you get there overnight? Of course not.

But it will force you to look at problems through a whole new lens, and you’ll start taking exponential leaps in your approach to everything you tackle.

You may not get 10x growth right away, but you might start to see 30% growth rather than 3% growth.

100x thinking will force you to consider things far beyond what you believe is possible, but then again, we serve a God of the impossible.

Incremental thinking brings incremental results.

You might also take into consideration the fact that Craig leads the largest church in America, with over 90,000 in weekend attendance at 27 locations (soon to be 31).

3. Fly By Instruments

A friend at the event told me that one of the concepts he learned was learning to fly by instruments.

Pilots, apparently, learn to fly by sight. They get up in a Cessna and learn how to navigate take off and landing visually.

But before they get their final certification, they have to learn to learn to fly by instruments. At 30,000 feet with nothing but cloud and fog below you, flying by site doesn’t help much.

Too many leaders lead only by sight: we trust what we can feel, see and experience.

That’s good, but if you really want to grow and scale, you need to learn to trust the data.

Data doesn’t lie like your feelings do.

It will tell you whether you’re gaining ground, losing ground, how well things are (or aren’t going) and help you plot trajectory: your probable destination based on current velocity and direction.

Pay attention to your gut, but just know it’s far too easy to manipulate, ignore or spin data. Leaders committed to progress don’t do that.

There’s no such thing as bad information… it’s just information. If you don’t like it, change course.

4. Crowd Source Ideas

We is always smarter than me.

Yet too many leaders want to call all the shots.

We had a fascinating session at the event by Chris Chan on hackathons and crowd-sourcing ideas. (You can watch his Tedx talk here.)

The world of innovation is flat, and it’s a meritocracy… the best ideas from a wide variety of backgrounds win.

It’s also the opposite of the way too many leaders lead.

Crowd-sourcing ideas is also a fantastic way to avoid HIPPO syndrome.

What’s HIPPO? It’s the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion syndrome—that phenomenon where, you know, everyone has to bow to the boss’s viewpoint.

If you run a church or organization where your opinion wins all the time, you will stunt your organization’s growth.

Over lunch, Craig Groeschel admitted to a group of leaders that most of the best ideas his organization is known for (from You Version to Church Online to Multi-site) were not his ideas.

Which, of course, makes him an even better leader than if they were.

Personally, I’ve crowd-sourced book titles, course titles, sermon series ideas and subjects in ways that completely changed the course of what I was producing.

If you always have the best ideas in the room, it’s time to get a bigger room.

5. Identify Your Real Competitor

In my keynote on change, we looked, among other things, at the strange case of Kodak.

Kodak actually invented digital photography. You would expect an iconic brand synonymous with photography that invented the digital camera to thrive. Instead, it went bankrupt in 2012.

Case studies show that there was a bitter war inside Kodak between the digital division and the print establishment. The top executives were fixated on getting people to print their digital photos. The digital division said people didn’t care.

There’s more than a little irony in the fact that in 2000, Kodak also launched an early photo upload website, OFoto. But as the Harvard Business Review notes, instead of making it a place to share pictures, they dedicated the site to getting people to print their pictures.

It feels an awful lot like churches who use their social media to drive attendance to a building, doesn’t it? (We’ll say more about the digital disruption happening in and coming to church world in this space in upcoming months.)

So many church leaders still think their ‘competition’ is the mega-church down the road or across town. Nothing could be further from the truth in a post-Christian culture.

What’s killing your church isn’t another church. It’s indifference.

It’s ideas and beliefs that for many, feel more compelling. It’s the lure of bacon, breakfast in bed, yoga classes, ski hills in the winter and the beach in the summer.

And your response is likely to treat the internet like a bulletin board, not a community.

Think about it.

What ultimately killed Kodak wasn’t another camera company. It was Instagram.

6. Create Your Own Opposition Before Someone Else Does

Brian Tome from Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, America’s fastest growing church, has set up a Skunkworks project that has set a group of innovative thinkers free to radically critique and try to destroy Crossroads (in the SWOT analysis sense of ‘destroy’).

It’s a variation of the steel man idea.

Most of us set up a straw man that we knock down when we want to prove a point.

Better thinkers create a steel man—the strongest possible opposing ideas that you have to overcome.

Guess what produces more resilient thinking and organizations? Steel-man thinking. Skunk work projects. The strongest opposing ideas that can lead you to critical breakthroughs.

There’s not nearly enough healthy debate in church world among top leaders who are on mission together.

I’m not talking about toxic opposition and angry people who hate your church.

I mean healthy debate by people who are committed to a common mission and vision but who maybe have drunk too much KoolAid on strategy.

It’s much better idea to kill your own stale ideas before the culture does.

7. Test voraciously

Most churches don’t test ideas and concepts nearly well enough.

Even if we think of ourselves as innovative, we just do something new and leave it there to sink or swim.

Silicon Valley doesn’t do it that way.

One of the fun parts about being alive in the digital era is that A/B split testing has never been more available.

Almost every headline you read in your email inbox from top marketers has been A/B split-tested. Here’s why it matters… what if you could get more people to read what you wrote simply by experimenting with the title?

Here’s a recent sample of two email headlines I split-tested

Find Yourself Banging Your Head Against A Wall? (Some Hope)

Maybe It’s Less Mysterious Than You Think

Guess which one performed better? Prior to split testing, I would have picked the first one.

I was wrong.

Here are the results:

Find Yourself Banging Your Head Against A Wall? (Some Hope) 48% open rate | 3.0% click rate

Maybe It’s Less Mysterious Than You Think 54.5% open rate | 5.6% click rate

That may seem small, but almost twice the number of people clicked and 13.5% more people opened the email based solely on the headline change.

When you’re sending an email out to 38,000 people, that’s a big difference.

I’ve split test so many ideas only to learn that my gut isn’t always right.

Split-testing is a variation of crowd-sourcing, and it can give you much better insight into what’s going to connect with people and what won’t.

If you could reach twice the number of people by split-testing, why wouldn’t you?

8. Rethink Motivation

The art of leadership is in many ways, a study in human motivation. Your job and my job as leaders is to motivate people toward a preferred, common future.

The question is how.

Yu-kai Chou is a leading global expert on gamification theory, and he shared eight motivations that drive all human behavior.

You can access the framework here and watch his TEDx talk here.

While Chou’s theory is too complex to explain in this blog post, the take away is this: most of us appeal to one or two core human motivations, not all eight.

For example, I naturally appeal to meaning, accomplishment, and ownership. All of these are noble, but they tend to produce long-term committed followers.

I naturally avoid the motivators of scarcity, avoidance, and unpredictability. Interestingly enough, these are the motivations that produce viral growth and massive scale.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

It also raises this question: Why should Instagram, Minecraft and Star Wars have greater momentum than the church?

The point is that if you understand the nuances of human motivation, you can motivate a group of people to take massive action. (The scripture, by the way, uses all eight.)

9. Embrace failure

Ultimately there’s no success without failure. Why? Because experimentation always involves failure.

Too many churches try something, conclude it didn’t work and back off.

Ever played Angry Birds? Rovio, the company that created it, had 51 failed projects, was almost bankrupt and had shrunk down to 12 employees before it released Angry Birds, which went on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars.

Life Church failed in its first video venue. It failed in its early ventures into multisite, having to close locations because they didn’t work at all.

The point is: neither Rovio or Life Church gave up.

As mentioned above, Life Church now at 27 locations in 2018 will add four more. And it will likely see attendance pushing 100,000 people a weekend in the near future.

YouVersion, a free Bible app developed by the team at Life Church, also failed in its first iteration. They launched it as a website that almost nobody visited.

Shortly thereafter, they relaunched it as an app. It’s now been installed almost 300 million times around the world.

Success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

No Time To Innovate? Here’s How to Make Time.

Posts like this can be fun to read, but think you think, who even has time to implement this? Nobody. 

Think again.

There’s a proven system that has helped thousands of leaders get far more productive at work AND spend more time at home with their family.

The High Impact Leader course, is my online, on-demand course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year.

Maybe you’re suspicious and think “there’s no way I’d recover 1000 productive hours”.  Well, let’s say you got 3 hours a week back, not 3 hours a day.

Well, that’s 156 hours a year, which works out to almost a month of work weeks. Which is kind of like giving yourself four extra weeks of vacation.

All of that can happen and has happened through the High Impact Leader.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – First Priority, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Carey’s course was the perfect way for our team to prepare for the new year. Our team, both collectively and individually, took a fresh look at maximizing our time and leadership gifts for the year ahead. I highly recommend this leadership development resource for you and your team.” Jeff Henderson, Gwinnett Church, Atlanta Georgia

“A lot of books and programs make big promises and cannot deliver but this is not one of them. I have read so many books and watched videos on productivity but the way you approach it and teach is helpful and has changed my work week in ministry in amazing ways.” Chris Sloan, Tanglewood Church, Kingston, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell, Invitation Church, Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game changer.” Pam Perkins, Red Rock Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado

If you want to start leveraging time, energy and priorities to help you lead better at work and at home, visit www.TheHighImpactLeader.com to learn more.

I don’t know where you’re at, but my heart is for every leader to get out of the trap of being busy but not productive, of working long hours but producing less than hoped for.

That’s what the High Impact Leader Course is all about: it’s about getting time, energy and priorities working in your favour. It’s about getting your life and leadership back.

Oh, and there’s a 30-day money back no-questions-asked guarantee. Nothing to lose. Everything to gain.

Click here to learn more or get instant access.


Although this is anything but a short post, I hope this summary and study will help you and your team process change and broker innovation at your church.

I’d love to know what you’re learning.

Scroll down and leave a comment!

9 Fresh Approaches to Innovation That Can Change Everything


  1. Abdullah Birdsong on June 7, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    Great post Carey. I’m right in the middle of the fray. As a tech leader of a large health system (+3 billion in rev) and pastor of a small church (-100 members) I definitely see the need for disruption in the way we approach ministry and mission. In order for our churches and organizations to grow, we can’t be afraid of failure. I believe in failing fast and failing forward. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. SrAnna on July 24, 2018 at 11:10 am

    Glad that you wrote in the subject of your email, “one of my personal top 5 fave posts I’ve ever written”. I would have probably missed this post. Thanks for the keys. Blessings.

  4. Francis on July 16, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Very insightful piece on innovation, there are always more grounds to take. Blessings

  5. Paul Noblin on July 16, 2018 at 1:02 am

    The Key to the Universe;
    Revelation One Nineteen
    Write down a brief account of your day, your problems that day, and a list of tasks to do the next day.
    ©1985 Paul Noblin

    Read Rev.1:19 (KJV).
    “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;”
    Write down the past, present, and future.
    Align your inside mind with the outside world (reality including Christ), and you will be one with All.
    Telepath Love & Perfection.
    The past is not fixed. The past is in flux and is constantly changing.
    You can bend reality.
    You are the center of your own Universe.
    Reprogram yourself.

    Warm Regards… Paul.

  6. Roxanne Smith on July 16, 2018 at 12:15 am

    Loved this article. It applies in so many different arenas in my life… Thanks for sharing!

  7. Lori Harris on July 15, 2018 at 4:36 pm

    No Ted talk link for Yukai but here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5Qjuegtiyc

  8. Carl on June 14, 2018 at 3:44 am

    That’s really interesting ideas!

  9. Polly Adams on November 22, 2017 at 10:08 am

    Just a heads-up regarding split-testing: If you check to see who opens your emails – the headline is always the attraction for me –
    I hadn’t been due to time plus wondered what I had apparently subscribed to as I didn’t recognize your name! Out of curiousity I opened my first one this morning; then another and another. I’m hooked and anxious to continue reading all the back issues you’ve sent.

    So far I’m finding every issue is down-right awesome! You either confirm my thoughts or give suggestions to possible answers I’ve been looking for: both give me more encouragement. Thank you for sending your posts.

  10. Martha Stein on November 20, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    This article is so practical and full of truth. Thank you for giving us more tools to be effective for the Kingdom. Thank you also for the Webinar-How to make Christmas your Best Outreach of the Year. So many great ideas that are easy to do and cost little or nothing to do. Thank you for sharing all the wins that you have experienced and even the failures so that we can learn and apply what works.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 30, 2017 at 6:32 am

      Thanks Martha. Glad it helps!

  11. Craig Walker on November 18, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    This is too good to write a review. My list of “good things” is as long as the article. Well done!! Thank you for sharing, Carey.

  12. Scott Townsend on November 18, 2017 at 7:54 am

    I just ran across this article about how #StrangerThings2 has sprinkled Easter eggs and obscure pop culture references all throughout the show. So now I feel compelled to watch the series again and find the hidden treasures.

    I wish churches understood how to use Easter eggs to make the church experience more immersive and entice people to dig for more and find hidden treasure.

    Pixar hides stuff all the time.

    What does this do? It encourages people go back and watch again to find the hidden references and get insider information. This builds in stickiness.

    LOST was another TV show that understood how to play with Easter eggs in their show and push the story across platforms.

    So how would a church use Easter eggs to give a church service legs and extend past Sunday morning?

    If the speaker references a book used to research the points in a sermon, post a picture of the book on Instagram the following day with the Amazon link in the bio.

    Put the Amazon link on the church’s website and do an affiliate program, earn a little extra cash.

    If the speaker tells a story about their life or situation, take more time and elaborate on the point in a YouTube video that comes out on Tuesday.

    If you mentioned a trip to Disneyland your family took, post a pic on Facebook with the caption, “Remeber me talking last Sunday about that goofy picture my family took at Disneyland. Well here it. Now you know why I mentioned it.”

    And if there is a point that time did not allow to to be fleshed out to its fullest, post a podcast or recording of someone interviewing the speaker and let him get down into the meaty part of the point that was touched on during the sermon.

    Maybe there are qr codes hidden around the lobby with clues as to what’s going to be taught during the service or questions you can expect answers to.

    The Sermon doesn’t need to be locked down to one day a week. I agree. Make learning and doing fun by coming up with innovative ways to to enhance the church member’s experience.


    Scott Townsend

    Ps. Enjoyed your talk at SEEDS conference this year.

  13. Linda Stanley - VP @ Leadership Network on November 15, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Thank you for coming to the 400 Gathering in Silicon Valley and speaking during our event. Your workshop was well worth the time spent, as evidenced by the packed room of folks eager to hear what you had to share. Bold new thinking and bold new approaches are what’s required for churches to make a difference in today’s world. The message does not change but our methods must change to keep up with an ever-changing world. Carey – your thoughts and ideas were spot on and much appreciated.
    Thanks again.

  14. Paul Wilkes on November 15, 2017 at 8:50 am

    Where is God ?
    This to me is a secular post. All of our efforts?

    • Lena on November 16, 2017 at 12:42 pm

      God is right there in the innovation, in the thinking processes because God is the Creator. His creativity works through us and along side us. Just because the author doesn’t mention God, doesn’t mean that God isn’t in this!

      Watch this: https://youtu.be/PoLVIHtfzUw

    • Gary Whittaker on November 18, 2017 at 10:58 am

      Paul, Read more closely. The message and the mission don’t change, but the methods must. Like a bible in our own language instead of teaching everyone Greek. The devil is competing for souls, the church must stay ahead of him.

  15. Roxanne on November 15, 2017 at 6:04 am

    I find much of your teachings informative and helpful. Thank you for your insight.

  16. Tom Pelt on November 14, 2017 at 8:56 am

    Solid insights! There are easier ways to lead, but not easier ways to lead well, especially in the church. Thanks for constantly challenging the church and it’s leader to be better. – tom

  17. Walt Wellborn on November 14, 2017 at 7:27 am

    Inspiring Carey! So many of us live in a world that sees analytics as either evil or deceptive; where churches see no value in moving out of the comfort zone. I appreciate your insight and your ability to dissect this material and feed it back to us in a way that allows us to reflect, relate and move forward. Thanks so very much

  18. Frank Hopkins on November 14, 2017 at 5:46 am


    This is a wow post. Putting someone on the team to find why an idea won’t work is great. Testing voraciously is fantastic. I sent out too many ideas with out the split testing process.

    Allowing failure to be ok and learn from it is big. This is a gold mine post!

    Happy Tuesday! Frank

  19. Anne Thompson on November 14, 2017 at 5:42 am

    Having just returned from a seminar on social media, this is great reading. I know I need to pay more attention to social media and being a church on line. I am also realizing, that we need to be more bold and take more risks as a church, if we want to reach more people. Which I definitely want to be a part of! Thank you for these encouraging pointers!

  20. PR. KABOGGOZA FRANCIS NELSON on November 14, 2017 at 3:37 am

    This has made my day. Carey thanks for sharing. This has greatly challenged me

  21. Tyler shinnick on November 14, 2017 at 12:27 am

    Could you elaborate a bit about the “skunkworks” project from Brian Tome? That seems like an interesting concept. I’d love to learn more about how to implement it.

  22. Gerry Gould on November 14, 2017 at 12:09 am

    I was riveted to my screen as I read this. I will send this to more than just my Elders and Staff — I want most of the Church to be thinking about these nine approaches. Too good to keep to a tight circle. My hope is that we will look back with joy and worship on the effects resulting of our change in thinking.

  23. donna jensen on November 13, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    Hey Carey,
    I always love your work but this post really is the most important thing you’re written all year! I have just sent it to my whole team and hopefully our next strat meeting will explode with innovative ideas.
    #We is always smarter than me.

  24. Jimmy on November 13, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    Such a great post. Every point made me stop and think – and left me excited to continue thinking about new ideas. I am a faithful reader and love your practical, insightful advice. This article makes my top 5 Carey posts, though!

  25. Hazel Behrens on November 13, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for encouraging post. Worth every paragraph to read. “Success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” You brought my enthusiasm up a notch, so here is a cheer for another go.

  26. Kathy Houret on November 13, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

  27. Lee Kricher on November 13, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    This is so provocative, Carey. God really uses you to identify and communicate best practices and great ideas.

  28. Greg Ligon on November 13, 2017 at 2:39 pm


    Thank for being an important part of the dialogue last week. It was a great time. And thanks for the shoutout to Leadership Network. For your tribe that wants more, check out 2 important new offerings – lab.leadnet.org and leadnet.org/accelerators.

    Greg Ligon

  29. Charlie Moulton on November 13, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Excellent post

  30. Jeff Fuson on November 13, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    Carey, this is so challenging. Exciting and yet daunting to consider 100x thinking but if Craig Groeschel promotes it then I’m gonna attempt it. Can’t wait to see what predictions you have related to how we can take advantage of technology better to accomplish our mission. And by the way, the opening rif about mission as our product is a great reminder. Thanks.

    • Heartspeak on November 14, 2017 at 8:38 am

      Ummmm, JESUS promoted it (mebbe that’s where Craig got it from???) Matthew 13:23

  31. Leonard Edloe on November 13, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks. I am doing postgraduate study on the rural black church and many of the methods that need to be changed today were outlined in publications in the 50’s and 60’s. As a rural black pastor for over 20 years, I hope this encourages many of my brothers and sisters in ministry. Too many of our churches have died or are near death.

  32. Ted Belden on November 13, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Very Helpful ideas.

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