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We anticipate innovation in things like medicine, science and technology. But we don’t have a framework for, and often times there’s opposition to innovation in the spiritual realm. But why? In his book, Spiritual Innovation, Cole asks how we got where we are, what God might be saying today, and what that means for our future.

Spiritual Innovation

Spiritual Innovation is the idea that, if God is infinite, then sure- ly there is more to be discovered about who God is and how He’s working. We’ll explore how our narrow criteria of how and where we can experience God keeps us from finding him, and we’ll begin to see how, when we open ourselves up to Him, we discover Him in the most unexpected places.

I hope we open ourselves to the possibility that there might be so much more for us than we ever imagined. At the very least, I hope you discover a new freedom for yourself—the freedom to dream again and dream bigger. But ultimately, I hope for something so much more—that your dreaming will manifest itself as noticeable, tangible shifts in the world around you.

This is the cultural shift I’m talking about. Do you know you have the power to change your surrounding atmosphere?

So often we discount our ability to walk into a room and shift the atmosphere. We understand the power of music to do this. That’s why there’s background music playing almost everywhere we go. We understand that the way something sounds or smells or feels (like temperature) can change the entire attitude of a room. But we forget we have this same power. Something as simple as a smile can shift the reality around you, and even more so the power of the Holy Spirit revealed through you. This is the concept of Spiritual Innova- tion—that you have the ability to access the unseen, to participate in the work of God, and to radically shift the world by living with supernatural wisdom.

There are people who will read that statement and think, “Hm. Right now, I’m questioning whether or not God even exists, let alone if He’s working and wants me to participate in it.” Maybe you’re one of those people. Well, I think you’re in exactly the right place to be encountering this book. I have so many friends who have given up on God and I don’t blame them. We’ve been fed a powerless, impo- tent religion in the form of American Evangelicalism. But it’s time to take back the power our faith has always had from the beginning. It’s time to see a new reformation that demonstrates the power of God in ways we’ve never encountered before. It’s time to allow his love and grace to drip from us and into the world around us.

It’s a new way of thinking about your faith. This is Spiritual Innovation.

I pray this book will help launch us into a different cultural reality— one of asking questions and expecting more. One in which we, filled with the mind of Christ and the Holy Spirit, contribute to society, rather than continually tearing it to pieces. One in which we no lon- ger anticipate and hope for cultural destruction but lead the way in helping our earth resemble heaven.

Something Is Missing

Have you ever felt like your life with God was powerless; like there is supposed to be more? Have you ever wondered why there seems to be such a gap between the lives of the people you see in the Bible and your life today?

It was a rainy, late summer evening and I had walked a few blocks through the Florida night to a bar down the street from my house to meet some friends. When I got there, the friends I had come to meet hadn’t yet arrived but another friend, Nick, was sitting by the pool table with some guys. I walked over to say hi.

Nick and I had known each other for a long time. In fact, we led worship together in the first year of our friendship. By the time I ran into him at the bar, we were still friends, but found ourselves in different places of belief.

Somehow, the conversation shifted quickly from small talk. Nick looked over at me and said, “You know, the things you believe as a Christian can be reached by many other means—other religions, other philosophies.”

“Yep.” I acknowledged. He was right. There are a lot of wonderful people who believe all kinds of things apart from Christianity—who are doing amazing things to make the world a better place. Then I went on.

“But I don’t believe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The Church has lost something over the last 1500 years or so. Following Christ used to include a powerful demonstration of something otherworldly—for the sake of God’s glory and the revelation of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Today, that’s what’s missing.”

I frequently have conversations with people who are disillusioned with their experience with the American Evangelical Church, conversations like the one I had with Nick. I share many of the things you’ll read in the coming chapters of this book, and the people I share these things with often respond in a similar way as Nick: “Yeah, but what you’re talking about isn’t Christianity. It’s something else.”

In some ways that comment is true. Many people who are practicing the Christian faith today are living a sterilized version of what it means to follow Jesus. Honestly, most of the time, that’s my reality too. The picture I paint in this book is a life of immense power, liberated from the systems we’ve created to make us feel safe and to control other people. But do I live that kind of life? Not always.

So, Nick was right. The life I’m talking about seems far removed from our modern Evangelical Christian experience; but in that, I believe it becomes all the more Christian.

The longer I talked with Nick, the more I started to uncover an idea I think is really important: People (myself included) don’t need the Jesus of Evangelical Christianity—at least not the way he’s been presented. Think about it: he’s an impotent character of good ideologies. He has been stripped of power, sealed in a completely “knowable” package, and delivered to us as a product we can control. It seems we’ve taken a faith meant to be wild, confusing, mysterious, tangible, active, and powerful and reduced it to something manageable and comfortable.

But when I read the Bible and encounter stories about the sea parting and bushes burning and paralyzed men being healed with a touch—I have to ask myself: doesn’t it seem like we’re missing something?

Spiritual Machines

When Jesus was around, he lived in a culture of stories, questions, parables, and a recognition of something more than the cerebral. Often we see people coming to Jesus to ask questions and yet he doesn’t answer them. Rather, he tells them a story and those stories leave people with more questions than answers. To me, there’s something really beautiful about this. Jesus’ stories don’t satisfy every intellectual curiosity. They don’t provide black and white answers. Instead they leave people coming back to Jesus again and again, longing for more.

After telling the parable of the sower,

The disciples came to [Jesus] and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

(Matthew 13:10-13)

Jesus knew the hearts of the disciples were postured in such a way that they could derive spiritual truth from the parables he told. In contrast, Jesus went on to explain that those who didn’t understand failed to do so because of the callousness of their hearts. In other words, they came to Jesus not to discover the depths of a relationship with God, but to be validated in their own understanding.

We’re quick to assume we’re on the side of the disciples, but ask yourself honestly: Do you want a relationship with God, or do you want to be right?

Those seeking to satisfy their own understanding will dismiss Jesus’ words as frivolous, while those who hang on his words, who wrestle with them, will be able to discover the deeper realities in them. When we believe the best about something—when we look for the divine in it—we discover God there. On the other hand, when we approach it with disdain or preconceived expectation, we miss the unexpected possibilities of discovery.

This is the entire story of Jesus. The religious, with their deep understanding of Old Testament scripture, expected a militant Jesus who would come to forcefully deliver the Jews from the hands of the Romans. The problem was, when the Messiah showed up, they missed him because he didn’t meet their expectations.

On the other hand, the New Testament church—the early followers of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit—knew life was about discovering the unknown depths of God. The book of Acts records some of the fruit that came from their posture of discovery. Thousands came to know Christ, people were healed, and the power of the Holy Spirit was tangibly present in and through the lives of the people. But religiosity is the enemy of a relationship with God. Religion attempts to recreate meaningful spiritual experiences through the analysis and systemization of circumstances. God wants to do something new in each person everyday.

If you’ve ever been to an improv show, you’ve probably seen a bad improv scene. You know, the ones where people get on stage and just kind of stare at each other awkwardly. Then someone says, “ Uhhhh… hey… what’s up?” The other guy says something like, “Oh… not much. Just… uhh… hanging out.” Then guy number one replies, “Cool.” And they stare at each other some more until, somehow, the scene is put out of its misery.

Well, some well-meaning individuals along the way created some “rules of improv” that are in place to help prevent such a situation. The rules are as follows:

1. Don’t deny.

2. Don’t ask questions.

3. Don’t dictate action.

4. Don’t talk about past or future events.

5. Say “yes” then say “and.”

The list goes on.

In his book, “Improvise,” Mick Napier tells the story of how this whole thing came about. At some point he says, there was the first improv scene. Some people were in front of some other people. They started acting out a scene. The people watching began to laugh. It was electric. They kept going! The audience laughed more. The scene ended. They walked off stage, looked at each other and said, “Wow! That was awesome! What just happened, and how can we do it again?”

Soon, other people tried to recreate the experience but something just wasn’t happening right. The scenes were getting awkward. They would just stand there and talk about stuff. No one laughed. The audience was wishing it was over. The lighting tech was trying to figure out when to turn the lights off to signal the end of the scene. And the performers just wanted to get off the stage.

“We want to experience those good scenes again!” the improvisers lamented. “We don’t ever want those bad scenes to happen again. What should we do?” Thus, the rules were born and have lived on in improv history ever since. But I love Napier’s conclusion about these rules (in his own stream of consciousness kind of way):

“Learning rules can be bad improvisation.

Why, why?

Because the worst part about rules is that people remember them. Often above and beyond anything else. It satisfies and stimulates the left brain. Oh, for a list. “There they are, all numbered and listed. I can remember that. I will remember that. I will remember The Rules of improvisation. How could I not? After all, they are The Rules.”

They stick to the brain like glue. They help you think about stuff. Why, you can’t help but think about The Rules. They’re all memorized in your head. They’re “in your head.”… The Rules. The Rules. Got ‘em all? Think about them because you don’t want to break one, think long and hard –

Now, improvise, play!

Good luck.

Yes. That’s why I’m not a big fan of The Rules. They help people think in a particular way and that way of thinking is often death to good improvisation. I’ve watched those damn Rules screw people up for years, and I don’t mean that for years, I’ve seen The Rules screw people up. Individuals who can think of nothing else on stage but The Rules, wandering around powerlessly for years, thinking and measuring and being very careful not to break The Rules, all the while wondering why they are not improving, Improvising.

Left brain, analytical heaven. Not very much fun.

That’s religion. We have a great experience with God. We attempt to recreate it. It doesn’t turn out the way we expect. We consider it a failure because we didn’t find what we were looking for, so we create rules and systems to avert failure in the future. All we want is greater intimacy with God, but in our attempts to control our encounters with Him, we do just the opposite. We stop relying on God and end up confined in a dead religion of rules.

Evangelical Evangelism

I’ve grown up as part of the American Evangelical church. It wasn’t until I started writing this book that I realized:

American Evangelicalism does not equal following Christ. In fact, people were following Christ long before America or Evangelicalism and people will be following Christ long after both cease to exist.

It seems like such a simple reality, but—depending on your experience—it might sound completely heretical. That’s because those who have grown up in the institution of Christianity have been led to believe the two are synonymous—that the depiction of “Christ-follower” in contemporary American culture is the only and ultimate depiction of Christ-follower. And yet to say the two are the same is to say there were no Christians before American Evangelicalism, which, I hope we can agree, is certainly not the case.

So where’s the dividing line? It rests in answering the question: “What’s Jesus and what’s not?”

To answer this question, we can look to The Pharisees, who were excellent at having good intentions and yet suffered some dire and unexpected consequences. Their hope was to please God. In their understanding, all the systems and rules they were creating were “biblically based” as the term goes. They figured out systems by which they could instruct people to live so they might avoid making God mad. And as a result, they loved sameness. They cherished conformity. It was easy to target those who were displeasing God, because those people were different. When everything is the same and one thing is different, the different thing stands out. Sound familiar?

This disease of sameness defines Evangelical culture. Here’s a simple example: a bookshelf. If you have a certain book on your shelf, you’re giving that book an endorsement of sorts. When someone looks at your bookshelf, they can get an idea of the types of things you’ve read and researched. That’s why one of the books on my shelf has a white piece of paper around the binding. I pulled the book from the shelf and found it, ironically, placed between Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” and Orwell’s “1984.” I bought the book as a 16-year-old. An (unnamed) guy wrote this (to remain unnamed) book in the late nineties and every youth pastor thought it important for every boy in his youth group to read. The book paints this very American Evangelical idea of what it means to be a man, then tries to create a spiritual framework for that idea. The author writes in hopes of creating sameness among the men of our species. In the second chapter, the author is asking what Jesus is like.

“Isn’t he sort of meek and mild?” a friend remarked. “I mean the pictures I have of him show a gentle guy with children all around. Kind of like Mother Theresa.” Yes, those are the pictures I’ve seen myself in many churches. In fact, those are the only pictures I’ve seen of Jesus. As I’ve said before, they leave me with the impression that he was the world’s nicest guy. Mister Rogers with a beard. Telling me to be like him feels like telling me to go limp and passive. Be nice. Be swell. Be like Mother Theresa.

I’d much rather be told to be like William Wallace.

I’ve never had a conversation with the guy who wrote this book. I’m sure, like the Pharisees, as we all do (myself included), he had good intentions. And while the word “masculine” never appears in the Bible, I’m sure we can say it was this author’s desire to write a biblically-based book. And yet, I can’t help but feel like his perspective has been influenced by culture as much as it has by Christ.

I love risk. I love stepping out in faith. I love doing things simply because they make me feel alive. And I believe those things are central to abundant life in Christ. But then creeps in this American Evangelical stereotype of loving sports and craving violence. He tells boys there’s something wrong with them if they don’t fit this mold. A couple chapters later, the author writes,

“This is why my boys love to wrestle with me—why any healthy boy wants the same with his father.”

Is it possible a man could be a man and not want to wrestle with his father? Is it possible we’re not all the same?

Most of my male friends make music and films and paintings. They’re artists. A few of them like UFC and Crossfit and shooting guns, and we’re still friends, but a lot of them don’t do any of those things. Fortunately, we’ve found a home with one another—a home that says, “I’ll meet you where you are and Christ is the foundation for us. That’s enough. You don’t have to be the same as me. You don’t have to like the things I like. You don’t even have to believe the things I believe. You are a human. God loves you. You’re valuable. I want you to thrive in the uniqueness of who you are.”

There’s a distinction between what’s Christ-like and what’s American, Southern, Evangelical. Regardless of who you are, what your gender is or what you pursue, Christ calls us to a life of risk. Christ calls us to know his love so fully—so deeply—that we’re willing to step out in faith. God desires for us to live a life of power and effectiveness and adventure but those things are far removed from the American, Evangelical construct of sameness, of saying that being a man means embracing fighting and guns and war and sports. It’s okay to not adopt those things for our lives because they aren’t inherent in what it means to be a “Christian.” They are cultural.


  • Spiritual Innovation

    - Spiritual Innovation is the idea […]
  • Something Is Missing

    - Have you ever felt like […]
  • Spiritual Machines

    - When Jesus was around, he […]
  • Evangelical Evangelism

    - I’ve grown up as part […]

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What are people saying?

Here are some things other people have found to be meaningful about Spiritual Innovation.

Brad Lomenick, Former director of Catalyst, Author of “The Catalyst Leader”

Brad Lomenick, Former director of Catalyst, Author of “The Catalyst Leader”

Cole helps shift and challenge how we see our relationship with Jesus, focusing on the practical realities of what it means to see heaven on earth. Cole not only talks about faith and creativity, he lives it out in his love for the Church and the world. Read this book, and dream again!

Ryan O'Neal, Sleeping At Last

Ryan O'Neal, Sleeping At Last

I thoroughly enjoyed Cole’s beautiful and thoughtful examination of the power and necessity of mystery. Spiritual Innovation serves as a wonderful instruction manual for creatives and non-creatives alike, to dare to dream bigger.

Carlos Whittaker, Musician and author of Moment Maker

Carlos Whittaker, Musician and author of Moment Maker

Cole’s creative approach to what it means to follow Jesus will help shift how you see the world and then propel you into a new level of effectiveness and purpose in your identity and calling.

Allison Vesterfelt, Author of Packing Light

Allison Vesterfelt, Author of Packing Light

This book will challenge everything you thought you knew about being a Chris- tian. With intelligence, wit and grace, Cole examines some of the deeply ingrained (and highly protected) beliefs and practices and of the Christian faith and asks a very dangerous—and very necessary—question: why? What would it look like to give ourselves permission to “do faith” differently, to innovate and grow? Whether you’re skeptical of Christianity, resistant to Christianity or have been deeply defined by your Christian faith, this book will open you to a God who is bigger, a faith that is stronger and a life more empowered than you could ever dream.

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About the Author


Cole NeSmith

Cole NeSmith is the Pastor and Creative Director of City Beautiful Church in Orlando, FL. Additionally, Cole is heavily involved in the arts and culture of Orlando. He has been given opportunities to build cultural momentum for the city first hand through initiatives with the Downtown Development Board, United Arts of Central Florida as well as the Office of the Mayor.

He created and curates the Creative City Project which hosts artists and arts organizations performing in unexpected downtown public spaces. Through the Creative City Project, he has partnered with Cirque du Soleil, Orlando Ballet, SAK Comedy Lab, Mad Cow Theatre and dozens of other arts organizations.

Cole is also owner of Uncover The Color – an interactive and immersive experience company. Through Uncover The Color, Cole has partnered with the Catalyst Conference, the Echo Conference, the Cru National Leadership Conference, the Cru Bi-Annual Summer Conference and many other events.

Cole wrote and co-created the award winning “Connected : An Interactive Experience” which premiered at the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival in 2012. He is also co-creator of The Tree of Light, an interactive sculpture.

His combination of artist, musician, actor, prophet and pastor brings a unique perspective to our lives and faith.

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