Creating space for good ideas

In the March issue of Wired, Jonah Lehrer recounts that statistician David Banks once wrote a paper on what he called the “problem of excess genius.”

Banks noted that the people who generate new ideas that radically change the world are not scattered evenly across time and space, but are clumped together in roughly the same times and places. Between 440 and 380 BCE, Athens produced Plato, Socrates, Herodotus, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. In Florance, between 1440 and 1490 CE, we were treated to Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, and Donatello.

Lehrer contends that, while this clumping of genius is a mystery, it’s not a total mystery. He says that the result of a flourishing in creative ideas is actually the result of the presence of “meta-ideas”: ideas that make is possible for other ideas to be born and spread.

As I travel around the country speaking to various groups, one thing I like to say is that there are a lot of people out there with good ideas about where the church can go. The problem is that there aren’t enough of those ideas. Having recently transitioned from “front line” ministry in a congregation to a level of my denomination that seeks to support these front line folks, this notion of meta-ideas is very important to me.

First, Lehrer raises the importance of “human mixing.” As he writes

Research indicates that in the overall population, a 1 percent increase in the number of immigrants with college degrees leads to a 9 to 18 percent rise in patent production. Open immigration policies are a feature, not a bug.

That is a serious stat, and it makes me think about my Presbyterian Church where we are around 95% white. If only a 1% increase in input changes the output by 9-18% we are stupid for not finding ways to encourage/invited/bribe persons who are not-Anglo to join our ranks.

As I wrote in Open Source Church, “diversity” is the number one criteria we should seek to fulfill if we are to become a wise crowd. Our denominations must develop and implement a comprehensive strategy for increasing the number of non-white persons in our ranks and particularly in our leadership.

The second meta-idea Lehrer notes is that each of the periods where geniuses were clumped were cultures who pioneered new forms of teaching and learning. Florence developed the master-apprentice model. Elizabethan England concentrated on educating its middle class, which resulted in a glover’s son being able to write Romeo and Juliet.

If we are going to produce a culture where genius can thrive we have to take seriously that our forms of theological education must be revolutionized. We have to take seriously the “witness” of the Khan Academy and other models of online education.

I know, I know: you don’t think that community and pastoral identity can be formed online. I challenge you to say that to all of us on Twitter who were devastated when Gideon committed suicide, or who have walked with each other through death of loved ones, death of marriages, and death of dreams.

Lastly, genius arises in cultures where there are institutions that encourage risk taking. Historically this meta-idea has taken the form of a protected patronage: Shakespeare got it; the Medicis gave it. Who will be the patrons of today? How will we create this culture of risk taking?


I would like to be a part of a church that has an excess of genius, wouldn’t you? That would be the classic “good problem to have.” So, I ask, what are the steps we take to get there?

4 thoughts on “Creating space for good ideas

  1. I’ve been thinking about think tanks lately. So this makes me think, how would we put together a virtual think tank about a given issue / set of issues that capture the interest of a group of thinkers? It’s like the #chsocm…. or like UNCO but not irl.Great minds connected virtually with a given purpose….

  2. Are there any blogs out there that are centered around a topic, rather than a given author? What if a blog or a Facebook group was generated as a think tank location, with a compelling open question as its purpose, and it became the development space for ideas and minds and hearts and thinkers to work on it?

  3. I think one of the steps is for the church to let people really be themselves and stop alienating those of us who have great capacity for change and growth. If the church would stop supporting the status quo out of fear and start really listening to its faithful people who want to spread the word, then the “geniuses” could all get together and do something. My experience is that our denominational bodies and even congregations function out of fear of loss rather than allowing risks to be taken and supporting those risk-takers.

  4. What you say makes sense for a denomination as a whole, or for an urban congregation. I live in a rural area. The county I live in is something like 96% white. For the state, it has the highest per capita of concealed carry permits, and the lowest per capita of home invasion crime. I go to this church for two reasons, both very important to me: 1) relevant preaching, worship, community involvement, small groups, and 2) it is the closest church to my house (2.2 miles away). There are probably “better” or more exciting churches 20 miles away, but I’d be going to a church where I couldn’t be part of the community. When I lived in St. Paul, MN, I visited a megachurch. Loads of good stuff about that church. But the time I visited the pastor bragged about a member who drove 50 miles to go to that church as part of speaking about how well-regarded the church is, and I about wanted to cry.

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