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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Neophobia and a Community of Practice

Written by: on September 29, 2020

Innovation requires risk. Risk requires courage. Courage responds to fear. The twenty-first century possesses a fear-based, ambivalent posture towards innovation. Only 4% of businesses have not defined innovation as a strategic priority, yet only 10% are satisfied with their current innovative endeavors. Meanwhile, a culture of fear has hamstrung courageous risk taking – from the removal of “unsafe” playground equipment to the ubiquitous reminder, “better safe than sorry.”

Understanding the twenty-first century ethos around fear is essential for the global leader. British sociologist, Frank Furedi, provides a helpful background and framework in his work How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century. He examines the West’s understanding of fear in its historical context, places the locus of fear in morality, and offers a way forward from a current fatalistic worldview. He locates the fount of healthy fear in moral values, and points to current relativism’s lack of consistent moral worldview as the cause of instability which leads to paralyzing fear.

Furedi’s work is wanting in a couple of areas. First, his lack of nuance between concern and fear is problematic. Based on his own assessment, couldn’t his concern for a culture of fear be labeled a fear of fear itself? Is his overarching outlook on the future of fear itself a doomsday call? Furthermore, he offers a rational solution to an emotional problem. In his conclusion Furedi remarks, “If we understand how fear works in the twenty-first century then we can actually do something effective to neutralize its toxic effects” (237). To his defense, perhaps his “do something” would encompass emotional solutions, but I find his closing remarks leaning too heavily towards the cerebral. An emotional impulse must include more of an emotional solution.

Furedi intersects with my work in the context of risk and the emotional processes inherent in innovation. He writes, “Even the application of the most rigorous techniques of risk assessment cannot transform the emotion of fear and the forms of behavior it encourages into an instrument of rationality” (22). Whether on the banks of Jordan or the base of Golgotha, neophobia – fear of the new – can paralyze. The answer isn’t a new way of thinking, but a revitalization of historical fear in a community of practice.

First a revitalization of historical fear and risk. The classical version of fear included “blvd, daring; adventurous” while the current definition of risk does not “possess any redeeming qualities” (156). This fear, rooted in morality is epitomized in the Judeo-Christian value of fearing the Lord. This reverential awe allows for bold innovation.

Neither is this is a single hero’s journey, but is best lived in a community of practice. “Good friends turn good intentions into good reality,” a friend of mine is known for saying. A community or network of practitioners act as a mutual encouragement towards appropriate risk and act as a safeguard against all kinds of paralyzing fear. Tongue in cheek to the overly cautious “safety first” mentality, our international missions arm unofficially lauds “safety third” as a mantra. It’s this collective ethos that propels us towards further horizons.

Creating something new requires traversing the unknown. The unknown entices fear, and always has. Not only does Furedi highlight the historical approach to fear, he also does the same with courage, especially as it finds its locus in classical morality:

The contemporary version of courage negates its classical equivalent. The classical virtue of courage rooted it within moral norms that emphasized responsibility, altruism and wisdom.The twenty-first-century therapeutic version is not based on unshakable normative foundation; it has become disassociated from moral norms and is adopted instrumentally as a medium for achieving wellness. (182)

When I talk about providing a theology, attitudes, and methodology for innovation, theology (or more broadly worldview) is essential. Questions like 1)Will the future resemble the present? 2) Is the future comprehensible? and 3) Can humankind influence the future? (82) are all questions of worldview, questions of philosophy, and questions of theology. While innovation seeks to progress in an untethered, relativistic culture, its no wonder why ethics take a back seat. Innovation theory must admit these essential questions are not driven by desirability, feasibility and viability, but are inherently philosophical questions that no market can answer.

Perhaps more than anything else, Christian innovators can offer hope to the teleology of doom. One essential attitude of innovation is that overwhelming belief that tomorrow can be better than today. Anti-fatalistic, anti-nihilistic hope. Someone who can look into the void of the unknown and see light, redemption and shalom. Someone who can shepherd beyond neophobia, past the fear of the unknown, and even through the fear of fear itself. Someone of courage. Someone who can risk. Someone who can innovate.

Frank Furedi, How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century (London, Bloomsbury Continuim: 2018).

About the Author

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Shawn Cramer

5 responses to “Neophobia and a Community of Practice”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Shawn, I love the idea of a community of practice where we can experiment and fail together. The process of innovation is one that should be collaborative, but our fear of failing in front of others give us pause.

    How would you go about facilitating a community of practice?

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    Shawn,
    Your idea of looking into the void of the unknown and seeing light lends itself to a prophetic mindset. It appears fear plays a role in people being stuck in the past not wanting change. But there is a certain amount of fear in innovation toward being stuck in the past and becoming irrelevant. How do you seen these as different? How are these similar?

  3. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Shawn,
    My husband always says people won’t change until they come to a place of pain that is unbearable. I agree with his assessment, and have observed it to be true in a number of circumstances. Pain eventually is the driver that moves people from one place to another. How do you envision innovation happening when the pain factor isn’t sufficient enough to drive that change?

  4. mm Jer Swigart says:

    “Tomorrow can be better than today,” yet “fear of the unknown” tethers us to yesterday.

    It seems that so many prefer to remain in the knowable reality. With dreams of a better tomorrow, the comfort and safety of the known cause us to priortize it over what could be.

    I want to lift up the idea of community as an essential element of overcoming our fears. I really appreciate how, in this piece, you move us beyond an individualistic approach to overcoming fear and expose the power of being in it together. Community, it seems, provides the belay for our journey into the unknown. Rather than promoting haphazard and irresponsible risks, community encourages us to take one step at a time into new horizons.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    There’s great power to innovate in the context of community and if the practice of community encourages innovation, then the failures are celebrated as much as the successes. There was a Disney movie several years ago that hit on this- a kid with a gifted mind is transported from his unencouraging existence and placed in a community of thinkers and inventors. With the freedom to experiment and fail, his potential for greater achievement grew exponentially. What if our organizations could let go of our fears of failure and covenant to support new ideas and innovation in community?

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