Greg Atkinson on Innovation from a Biblical Perspective


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greg_atkinsonGreg Atkinson is an author, pastor, blogger and all around great guy! This is his second appearance on the unSeminary podcast and we’re excited to have him today. Today he’s talking about what innovation looks like from a biblical perspective and the role it should play in local church ministry. Listen in for lots of great insights on how to spur innovation at your church!

Episode Highlights

00:30 // Rich welcomes Greg to the show and introduces his book ‘Strange Leadership’.

01:25 // Greg talks about his book and the meaning behind the title.

03:10 // Rich and Greg discuss innovators and why they’re considered strange.

03:50 // Rich talks about the importance of innovation from both a current and biblical perspective.

05:03 // Greg talks about ‘Inquisition’ a chapter in his book.

07:03 // Greg talks about scriptures being foundational to his book.

08:03 // Greg explains his meaning of innovation.

09:04 // Greg talks about how teams are using the discussion guide.

11:20 // Greg talks about his hopes for his book to be used as a textbook and be applicable whenever it’s read.

13:05 // Greg talks about Larry Osborne at North Coast Church and his book ‘Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret’.

16:05 // Greg talks about the subtraction and the concept of ‘do a few things and do them very well’.

19:24 // Rich gives examples of subtraction at his church.

22:50 // Greg encourages people to stick with his book, ‘his favorite chapters are toward the end’.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Instagram

Ministries Following // Transformation Church

Influential Book //The Carpenter” by Jon Gordon and “The Pastor” by Eugene Peterson

Inspiring Leader // Bill Gates

What does he do for fun? // Writing and family

Contact // gregatkinson.com and [email protected] and @gregatkinson

Episode Transcript

Rich – Alright, well hey everybody happy Thursday, I hope you’re having a fantastic week, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. Thanks for tuning in, thanks for putting us in your earbuds today. Super excited to have Greg Atkinson with us today. I think he’s only the second person to ever come on the podcast twice and you’re in for a real treat today. Greg welcome to the show.

Greg – Thanks for having me, I’m thrilled to be back.

Rich – Greg is one of those guys I appreciate, you really should be following Greg online, on his blog, follow him on Twitter. He’s a thoughtful leader, he just has a lot of great things to say and is actually in the middle of a transition; actually starting a new church, or going to a new position which we’ll talk about at some point, but today what we wanted to do was actually talk about a book that Greg’s got coming out. Now normally, and I said this last time when Greg was on the show, normally I’m not the guy that likes to show for other people’s books but I would for Greg.

So he’s got a book coming out, or it’s out, called Strange Leadership. Now why did you call your book Strange Leadership: 40 Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization, why did you call it that?

Greg – Great question, well yes the book is all about innovation and it’s different from a lot of books on innovation in that it’s a biblical study, a biblical view of innovation but it’s actually a book that’s six years in the making.

About four years ago, four or five years ago, I was writing it and working on it and I was in a pastor’s office and innovation basically is the act of introducing something new, so it’s all about new, newness. I was in an office of a pastor friend of mine in Georgia and I said, “Hey do you happen to have a thesaurus handy?” He said, “Sure,” and he grabbed one off the shelf and I looked up the word ‘new’ and one of the synonyms, one of the words for the word ‘new’ in the thesaurus was ‘strange’. I started thinking about how, over the years, when you think of pioneers and inventors and even biblical characters, how when somebody did something new for the first time, something different, something out of the ordinary, they were considered strange.

So I said, “Hey, I’m going to call my book ‘Strange Leadership’. I want to tell people to embrace being a strange leader and if you’re a pioneer, if you’re a trailblazer and you’re doing something for the first time and it’s totally different and out of the box and people are talking about you and calling you strange, maybe it’s not such a bad thing and maybe years from now they’ll ask you how you did it. So it’s all about embracing that strange quality that leaders possess.

Rich – Very cool. I was at an event last month with Seth Godin and he pushed on a similar

issue where he said, Gutenberg’s of the Gutenberg Press, launched the printing press when 96% of the people in Europe were illiterate, which is incredible right? So you think, here was an innovation that no one was asking for, no one was out saying, “Hey we need some way to be able to read,” that wasn’t what people were saying, but that innovation ended up obviously changing the world, literally changing the world, having a huge impact.

Greg – I guarantee he was considered strange.

Rich – Absolutely yeah, very strange and I think innovation in the church is something we should be thinking a lot about and trying to rustle through, as our friends over at Life Church saying, “If you’re going to reach people who nobody else is reaching or do stuff that nobody else is doing.” So that’s why I appreciate your book, I think it’s a great read. The thing I love about it is, it’s broken up into a whole bunch of chapters, there’s 40 chapters, you could easily pick it out and say, “Okay this is a great kind of training tool for our people, let’s talk about this today,” you know, for folks.

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s book, he’s the guy that wrote that book ‘Steve Jobs’ and this is kind of his follow-up, it’s called ‘The Innovators’. What it was looking at was, really about a 130 year period for the invention of the personal computer and the internet, or really the information revolution, even broader than the internet and the thing that struck me through that was, there’s a lot we can learn from those leaders. Then to read your book at the same time, was an interesting kind of back and forth, from a biblical perspective about what innovation looks like.

But let’s jump in, there’s a chapter called ‘Inquisition’. Inquisition, what is that all about, what does that have to do with innovation?

Greg – Inquisition is at the very beginning of the book, near the beginning and it’s a chapter on prayer and it’s really the heart and soul of the book. It’s about, if you want to do something new, if you want to be innovative… and when I say innovative, I cover this in the introduction, I’m talking about following the leading of the Holy Spirit. If you want that, inquisition is about asking God in prayer and there’s a great quote that I included in the book. I was at a conference one time at Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama with Pastor Chris Hodges and he said, “You can’t delegate prayer,” and it just stuck with me. Everywhere that I’ve taught on innovation over the last six years, all over North America, I’ve said, “There is no short cut to innovation, you cannot bypass prayer.”

So Inquisition is a key chapter about the posture in which we approach God, how we come to God. I share a story of a coworker, many years ago, it was nearly 15 years ago that I worked with a coworker, a small group leader named Beth and I was used to praying, “God show us, God lead us, God guide us, God give us,” you know and telling God what to do and we were in a team prayer and she said, “God how can we..?” and she asked God a question, as if she expected him to answer, like it’s a conversation and a dialog. So it changed my view of prayer, when she just simply asked, “How can we..?” and I was just stunned and I thought, I’d never

heard anybody just ask God a question and wait for his answer.

So that’s basically what innovation is about. There’s a lot of scriptures I share up front in the book that are foundational to strange leadership. When we talk about the act of introducing something new, I talk about God being the chief innovator and I reference Isaiah 43:19 where God says, “I’m about to do something brand new, can you not see it as bursting out?” and I talk about God doing new things.

Then there’s some great scriptures, a great scripture in the message, which I love checking out things in the message, it just really refreshes me, but Ephesians 5:1 is, “Watch what God does and then you do it,” and the reason that that scripture is foundational to the book is as I say early on, in the introduction, that 20 years ago, nearly 20 years ago, I was heavily influencing my own Christian journey by Henry Blackaby’s book, ‘Experiencing God’.

Rich – Yeah definitely.

Greg – Blackaby talks about joining God where He’s at work. So Ephesians 5:1, “Watch what God does and then you do it, join God where He’s at work,” that’s what I mean by being innovative. People sometimes think that when they see a book on innovation it’s about being cool or trendy or the next big thing and if you take time to read the introduction, you’ll see that my heart is, “Let’s just follow the Spirit of God and see where He leads.”

Rich – I love at the beginning of your introduction, or it might have been the foreword, no I guess it would be in the introduction, because you wrote the introduction, not the foreword. Right off you say like, “Hey there’s a lot of scripture in this book, I’m just letting you know, right up front, because that’s what it’s based on.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that right from the beginning is, “Just letting you know, there’s a lot of bible in this,” it’s fantastic.

So now has there been anything, kind of as the book’s out there now, in the wild, any kind of interesting stories that’s come back from people that have read the book or an impact it’s had on them?

Greg – Yeah there’s a ton of people still reading it because it is a long book. This is probably the longest book I will ever write.

Rich – It’s true, I have it on my Kindle and it’s heavy.

Greg – Yeah I always tell people I’ve got a lot of books in me and I’m writing a book right now, but they won’t always be this long. This book was over 101 thousand words, a 388 page book. It took me a full year to sit down and write it and it was a six year journey, but this is just very close and dear to my heart, but it won’t always be like that. There are some troupers that have taken it, maybe a chapter a day, or a chapter a week and have gone through since its release and have read it and left some great reviews, but what I’m hearing is how people are using it with their teams, with their leadership teams or with their staff.

If you go to the book’s website, strangeleadership.com there’s a free team discussion guide download and that’s an idea I stole from Andy Stanley. When he released ‘Deep and Wide’ which is a great book, he had a free team discussion guide and I thought that was a great idea.

So on the book’s website, strangeleadership.com you can download a free team discussion guide. I had somebody else write it, because I wanted another person’s perspective. So somebody else read the book and then wrote discussion questions after each chapter. So there are teams that are doing, just a chapter a week, they’re reading chapter one, they’re discussing chapter one, then they read chapter two, then they discuss chapter two and they’re using the team discussion guide. I look forward to, when they finish going through that as a team, hearing more stories come in.

It’s also a Long Tail book, I didn’t write this hoping just that a few people would buy it right away, I wanted this to be… The reason the focus is a biblical view of innovation, is I wanted you to be able to pick this up five or ten years from now and it would still be relevant.

Rich – Right.

Greg – I was teaching at a conference recently on innovation and I asked, “What do you think of when you think of innovation?” and somebody said, “Technology,” and I say in the book that innovation and technology are not synonymous. Out of the 40 chapters, only two even mention technology, there’s 38 chapters that have nothing to do with technology. There was a reason behind that, because again I want you, ten years from now, to pick this up and read it and for it to be founded on biblical, bedrock, scripture principles and be applicable to you whenever you read it.

So my hope and dream for this, pray with me, is that it becomes a textbook and is used in Bible Colleges and Seminaries. I’m actually teaching on it in January at Nebraska Christian College. I’m teaching a week long intensive class on Innovative Leadership and I’m using my book as a textbook and I’m using Larry Osborne’s ‘Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret’, as a textbook and those two together because they complement each other well. His is very practical, “Here’s how we do it at my church,” and mine is, “Here’s some biblical examples and models and principles.” So I’m going to use those together to teach and I hope the stories keep coming in but God is using it and I’m thrilled.

Rich – Very cool. Is there a church or kind of a cluster of churches that you refer to time and time again throughout the book, you’re like, “Wow these guys just seem to have it right from an innovation point of view,” is there someone you come back to time and time again?

Greg – I interviewed several church leaders four years ago that I quote. Pete Wilson at Cross Point in Nashville, I share some of their story and quote him but the one I quote the most, strangely enough was Larry Osborne. Back when I was writing this four years ago, he hadn’t

written his book on innovation yet, so he sent me his answers to my questions and I put it in the book. Then I read his book and it’s very similar because he was obviously marinating and chewing on it and thinking about what he was going to write.

Larry Osborne is a hero of mine and somebody I really look up to and so I talk about North Coast a lot. They have a strategic prayerful but yet fearless approach to innovation and they are not afraid to try something.

Just today on Facebook I saw Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit post a quote by Brené Brown that says, “Without failure there can be no innovation,” and I wholeheartedly agree. I have chapters where I talk about failure and exploration and experimentation and trying things out, but Larry Osborn is a champion of that and somebody I really look up to. I highly recommend that people check out his book, ‘Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret’.

They talk about and I talk about it in the book, they talk about every year they go away on a zero-based planning retreat and this is where their leadership team gets away and they say, “If we were starting from scratch, if we started completely over as a church plant, what would we do and what would not make it, what would we not do?” They choose to kill or cut things based on that planning retreat; “If we were starting over we wouldn’t do this, so let’s not do it.”

As you know, there’s a chapter that’s very close to my heart in the book on ‘Subtraction’ and being willing to kill a ministry.

Rich – Part of what I loved in that chapter, that chapter particularly, you said, “A lot of times we think about innovation and what we mean is we mean we’re adding things to what we’re doing.” It was a great insight, you were kind of pivoting off of, I believe it was Andy Stanley, who was saying, “Hey you know, when people get up on a Sunday and talk about, ‘we’re going to do something new, we’re going to make an innovation,’ everybody’s excited and if you’re really good you might even get a clap about it. But what won’t happen is when you talked a little (unclear 00:15:55) or whatever, when you were going to cut her program, that’s when it starts to fall apart for people.

Subtraction is hard but why do you think subtraction is so hard for churches today?

Greg – Man that is the million dollar question. I teach at conferences, I’ve spoke eight years, eight different times at the Moody Bible Pastors’ Conference and I’ve taught pastors from all over the world and this is the point of most tension. There is something, when I talk about… sometimes I’ll say something just to throw it out there and stir the waters, but I’ll say, “Hey if you’re a church that has 300 in worship on Sunday morning, and only 30 come back on Sunday night, it might be time to kill your Sunday night service.” That’s hard for churches.

You know, when you look at a lot of vibrant, healthy, booming, growing churches, Craig Rochelle who I quote throughout the book talks about this a lot in his book, they are very streamlined, they are very focused. Andy Stanley covered this in the ‘Seven Effective Practices

of Church Ministry’ in his book. Andy Stanley talks about narrowing the focus and churches that are thriving do a few things and do them very well. I talk about this whole concept which was engrained in me through the book, ‘Simple Church’. I’m going to keep plugging other people’s books, but ‘Simple Church’ is like next to the Bible in my house. Basically they talk about you can accomplish more by doing less. A lot of churches that I see that cannot get over the 100 hump or the 200 barrier, they are busy every night of the week.

Rich – Right they’re just doing too much.

Greg – They’ve got the Monday night visitation, the Wednesday night prayer meeting, the Sunday morning service, the Sunday night service and that pastor is preparing three different messages.

Rich – Right.

Greg – A Sunday morning message, a Sunday night message and a Wednesday night message. I talk about this principle that I’ve had for years; you’ve only got 100%, you can divide that up however you want but it’s still going to equal 100%. Why not give 100% to that Sunday morning message that most ears are going to hear, instead of taking a piece out of that pie and working on a second sermon or a third sermon.

So it’s a struggle for a lot of people, it’s something I love teaching on and that’s why I’m excited to teach this to college students in 2015. If you can learn early on and when I first heard this was many years ago, at the Catalyst Conference. Andy Stanley taught a message called ‘The Blessedness of Subtraction’ and he said, “No ministry has a forever shelf life,” and that stuck with me. No ministry has a forever shelf life and it’s a chapter that I refer back to often in the book. I’ll be talking about something totally different and then I’ll throw in, “For some of you, you need to go back and re-read the subtraction chapter,” but it’s a tough one.

Rich – Absolutely, at our church we’ve just gone through this. As we were kind of evaluating this year and looking at the next year, there were two events that are, I would say have high emotional value for us, that we’ve cancelled for next year. One, we do a… and I’ve actually blogged about it, I’ve had a bunch of people talk about it. We do this 5K, we’ve done this 5K that raises money for clean drinking water. In fact the organization that most of the resources from that have gone towards, they came to it last year and they said, “This is the largest single sports’ event like this that supports our ministry,” they’re like a 25 million dollar organization.

We decided to cancel it for next year, we’re not doing it, because we’ve found this year, we still had good turnout but it just took a lot more effort to get people to come to. We were having to manufacture energy for it, we were jumping up and down saying, “Come to this, come to this, come to this,” and we realized that’s a good sign for us to say, “We need to turn the corner, we need to find something else, we need a brand new wineskin to put that same passion into, which is a passion for helping people get clean drinking water, but we need something new. Which for us was a risk, because it’s positive, people like it and it raises us a bunch of money

every year. So next year we’re going to have to do something different and we’re working on what that could be.

The other part of it was we do this summer camp, which was a great program, a lot of fun, it kind of is a little bit of the feather in our kids’ ministry cap. Every year they finish off their year really with that, they love it and they put a lot of energy into it but you know, we’ve said, “This doesn’t help us reach people who are from outside of our church.” Fundamentally there’s a few but the majority of it is really just serving our own kids, so we don’t really want to do that. So that one, although we’re not public on that one yet, actually on both of these we’re not public on yet. So I don’t know if any people from our church listen, they’re going to hear that, but I expect, particularly on that second one, I think there’s going to be some pain on that, we’re going to have some leaders say… Because people for years have been giving up a week of their family vacation, they’ve been saying, “Hey I’m not going to go on whatever, I’m going to take a week off work and come and work for you guys,” but again we’re trying to cut that, which is hard. Those are hard decisions to come to.

Greg – You touched on something key. My last church, we cut something that the church had been doing for years. I know the pain you’re talking about, what that’s like and I’ve actually cut several things throughout the years, but you said something that I learned from Chris Hodges. I got to spend a lot of time with him back when I used to coach church planters with ARC and go to a lot of the ARC training. You mentioned and you said in passing, “We were having to manufacture energy for something.”

Rich – Yeah.

Greg – Chris Hodges says that at Church of the Highlands, they never prop-up any ministry. He says, “If it needs an announcement from the pulpit it gets cut. If we have to stand up and beg people, ‘please come to this ministry’, it’s gone.” That’s a key indicator, if you’re having to manufacture energy for it, that’s huge.

Rich – Absolutely, well anything you’d love to share with folks before we jump into… obviously we want people to get out and get the book, we’ll provide links in the show notes, but anything else before we jump into the lightning round for today’s episode?

Greg – I would just say that I saved the best chapters for the end of the book, the last five chapters are my favorite. So even though it’s a long book, stick with it, the chapters build upon each other and I reference each throughout the book, but keep on trucking it, even if there’s a chapter a week. I know a pastor that did this; took 40 weeks to read the book, just go a chapter a week and read your way through it and the team discuss guide is there for you to go through with your leadership team, but my favorite chapters are towards the end. I hope you’ll be blessed by it.

Rich – Absolutely it seems like the book gains momentum, in the end those last five were ‘Execution’, ‘Situation’, ‘Vacation’, ‘Frustration’, ‘Desperation’ and then obviously there’s the

conclusion of the book. It’s fantastic.



  1. Rich, your quote about “manufacturing energy” for programs that have reached the end of their shelf-life is laser-focused on how to know it’s time to retire a program. Thanks for focusing that laser for us!!

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.