A prototyping mindset for ministry
A prototyping mindset for ministry

Taking notes in a coffee shop

I recently participated in the Future of Adult Faith Formation 2015 National Symposium hosted by CMT friend and colleague John Roberto. It has me thinking about innovation in the church.

One of John’s great gifts to our community has been modeling how to learn from the business world in thoughtful, faith-filled ways. He’s been a leader in helping churches use tools like scenario planning and design thinking to prepare for the future.

We left his symposium with a list of good ideas for several possible futures in adult faith formation, and I’m sure the participants will continue to contribute new ones.

But no matter how compelling these initiatives are, how well we think they fit the identified need, they will be harder to implement than to imagine.

That’s where I want to reflect for a minute. My question of the day is about how we launch things.

Learning from start-ups

In a John Roberto-ian fashion, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what the church can learn from a particular segment of the business world: start-ups. (It will surprise no regular readers that my interest in start-ups began with a podcast.)

To be sure, start-ups are lousy role models for churches in several respects.

Most start-ups rely heavily on automation technology to support their growth. When Facebook bought Instagram, the latter had built a user base of 30 million with 13 employees. Churches rely on people at every stage of the deepening relationship. While there are certainly similarities, a user/customer is very different from a congregant/disciple.

And the growth rates of even the most vigorous churches are laughable compared to any start-up that’s doing it right. The famous start-up bootcamp Y Combinator wants to see growth rates of 5-7% per week. A church that doubled its size in two years (and how many of those do you know?) would be growing at a rate of 0.7% per week. Surely we’re talking two very different organizational philosophies.

But what start-ups and congregations have in common is that both want increasing engagement with a growing number of participants. Start-ups call them users or customers; we call them parishioners or congregants or just Christians.

What start-ups have gotten really good at doing and what churches are mostly lousy at doing is studying user (member) behavior and incorporating those insights to make products (ministries) better. The Lean Startup Methodology calls the cycle Build, Measure, Learn.

A diagram of the process start-ups follow

This is the area where I think start-ups are great role models. In their approach to getting a new product going, every successive version is a prototype for the next version. You start by putting the minimum viable product into the world and then learning as much as you can from the people you get to use it.

The product gets better as the people help you build it.

Of course, church folks should be careful with words like “product” and what they tell us about start-ups’ approach. I’m not advocating that we change the church’s message to better fit what people want.

But if our goal is engagement—if we trust that deeper participation in a community of faith will change us and the people we wish to serve—then it’s vitally important that we improve in our ability to incorporate feedback from the people we want to include. We need to be responsive to their behavior and realistic about their current levels of commitment.

The incorporation of design thinking in ministry, with its emphasis on interviews, focus groups, and other ways of building in knowledge of desired participants, is terrific. But I worry that we’re spending too much time in the initial design step.

The most valuable insights into our designs will come after we’ve put them out into the world. The Holy Spirit will show us the way.

Prototyping e-Formation badges

I hate it when articles like this avoid anything concrete, so let me try out an example. Our e-Formation Learning Community has two problems:

  1. it looks more like a disconnected yearly conference than a year-round network of collaborative practitioners, and
  2. learners too often come, get trained and inspired, and then return to their contexts without using what they’ve learned.

We believe digital badging is possible solution. To earn these micro-credentials associated with our e-Formation program, participants have to show evidence of having applied their knowledge. Our hope is that the earning of badges will become both an empowering and a playfully competitive endeavor.

The prototyping mindset has been at the core of how we’ve started:

  1. We pitched the idea.
  2. We connected with a group of interested “clients” (the “know your audience” step of the design process).
  3. We created a prototype badge and gave it out.
  4. Based on an enthusiastic reception, we created a prototype badging system and started recruiting participants and collecting their feedback.
  5. Based on that further feedback and momentum, we’re working on the next round of badges and partnerships, which tap into formation topics beyond technology.

We could have spent months (maybe years?) perfecting, discussing, paying consultants, refining, and preparing before we offered a single badge. We probably would have gotten it wrong. We still might.

But I believe this way we’ve got a much better shot at finding where our initial idea and the needs of our community (and the wider church) match up.


I am convinced that a prototyping mindset has a place in any ministry launch or relaunch. And notice that Build, Measure, Learn is a cycle. It says as much to us about sustainable “maintenance” as it does about launch. The whole point is continuous improvement.

Are you thinking of launching a new worship service? Spend less time writing prayers and picking out candles and even spreading the word. Get some interested folks together and start worshiping. Your new community might hate candles or want to write their own prayers anyway.

Do you want to try out one of those new approaches to the adult faith formation future that is already here? Pack up some Bibles or smartphones, get your team the hell out of your church building, and start learning.

What’s the best way to do that? Guess less, listen more, keep trying.

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is digital missioner and instructor in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, lead curator of the e-Formation Learning Community, a rabid Gimlet Media listener, and a new member of Hack Manhattan: a self-described do-ocracy in New York City.

Image credit: “Innovation Illustrated 1: Build, Measure, Learn” by jonny goldstein via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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