Inside look: How and why Brian Jones launched Innové Studios

Below, Brian Jones, executive director of Innové Studios, talks with Made to Flourish Contributor Amy Sherman about his desire to help churches seek the common good of their communities through successful social ventures. Prior to working at Innové Studios, Jones served as minister of mission at Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. There he oversaw The Innové Project, a social enterprise competition for adults under 35. In 2010, Colonial sold a portion of  its land and invested $250,000 of the proceeds to the common good of the city. Altogether, Innové has helped launch 11 active social ventures. Through Innové Studios, Jones now helps other churches envision how they can influence their communities for good.

ALS: What was the genesis or spark that the Innové Project eventually came from?

BJ: Our senior pastor, Daniel Harrell, actually pitched the idea in a rough form just before I transitioned from the youth minister position to the mission role. He basically said “Wouldn’t it be great if we could sponsor a sort of ‘American Idol’ type competition, only it would be for social entrepreneurs pitching their ideas of ventures to do to serve the city?’” And honestly it didn’t get any traction at first. I think people just didn’t get it. They had a hard time seeing it. I thought there was something there, though, and told him that. So we began to try to flesh out the concept more.

ALS: I know from an earlier conversation with you that one of the neat aspects about the project was that it allowed congregants to serve using their professional skills.

BJ: We looked out in the pews and saw all these incredibly talented people. We had lawyers and accountants and business people — it was like a mountain of human resource potential. And through Innové we had the chance to integrate the experience of these people with the energy and enthusiasm of Millennial entrepreneurs. We had congregants who served as “navigators.” These individuals were matched up with the entrepreneurs who had made it through the first cut. They  invested a lot of time getting to know these young adults, helping them get organized and connected to resources. Many of our people also served as skill coaches for the different teams, helping them with particular aspects of their project in areas like branding or legal issues. We saw that there is a yearning in the marketplace to have more connection between Sunday and Monday.

ALS: So Innové clearly had a big impact on the congregation. How did it impact the community?

BJ: All together, through the two rounds of Innové, we helped 11 ventures launch, and each of them are all still going strong. One is the Twin Cities Mobile Market, which is a grocery store on wheels that brings fresh produce and other grocery staples into food deserts around Minneapolis. Another is Exodus Lending, which is an alternative to the payday lenders. The Sheridan Story is a program that is getting backpacks of weekend food into the hands of tons of low income students — I think they are in more than 100 schools now. Another venture is trying to address human trafficking by focusing on the demand side and educating men and boys.  Launch Ministry established a resource center to serve homeless youth in the city. Another entrepreneur started a business employing female Somali immigrants in Minneapolis who earn extra income for their families by selling sambusas.

ALS: Having seen the incredible good Innové was able to do both inside the church and in the community, you decided in late 2016 to launch Innové Studios to help other congregations catch this vision. Can you describe the work you’re doing now?

BJ: The mission at Innové Studios is to help other churches replicate the model. In some cases a church wants to do everything the same as Colonial. They figure the model works really well, so why change it? So in Houston, Texas, First Presbyterian Church ran their own competition that was just like Innové, but for their context they decided to call it “Project Flourish.” So some churches want it “as is.” I can provide them with the playbook; it’s like “mission paradigm shift in a box.” But the word “Studios” in our title connotes the idea of creativity. So we are taking the central ideas of the model but adapting it in different ways based on the particular assets and context of the church.

ALS: Is there a certain target audience of churches that you think the Innové model best suits?

BJ: I think a lot of churches can do this, but yes, I’d say that the target is the suburban church with a minimum of at least 300 folks. You need a church with a lot of white collar professionals who have marketplace experience and skills — and most importantly, networks. People don’t realize what an asset networks and connections are. That’s so important for the social entrepreneurs. And of course you need a church with a mindset to reach the community, to be more engaged in the community for good. Congregations with a rich theology of justice and a heart to do good in the city are ripe for doing this sort of initiative. Plenty of churches want to make a difference. They just need help in thinking though how to do that effectively. And what I see is suburban congregations have this mentality of wanting to do good in the city and helping to launch a social venture allows them to have an impact that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

“There has to be a mindset of asking, ‘Are we making the best impact we can with what we have? Is this really helping?’ It’s about having a head for mission as well as a heart.”

ALS: What are you seeing as the biggest challenges the churches face?

BJ: What I’m realizing in this work is that it’s less a church I’m looking for and more a particular leader, the person with the vision and the passion to carry it through. There has to be a mindset of asking, “Are we making the best impact we can with what we have? Is this really helping?” It’s about having a head for mission as well as the heart. There’s got to be a willingness to not just keep repeating what’s always been done; a courage to hit the off ramp and try new things. At Colonial we followed a both/and strategy. We didn’t abandon all that we’d been doing; we added this new initiative. And then people really caught the vision and saw the amazing impact and then they wanted more of that.

More information about Colonial’s Innové Project is included in a recent article, Enterprising Solutions: How One Church Launched 11 Social Ventures.

Topics: Church Mission, City Engagement, Reframing Missional Strategy, Social Entrepreneurship

About the Author

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).