Churches face conditions of uncertainty every day, whether it comes from the changing demographics of the local neighbourhood to the different questions and topics that people ask about Christianity.
The activities we plan and perform in church, such as a sermon, a Bible study or a community outreach event, are designed to serve a target audience at a particular point in time.
A big risk we face is the upfront investment of resources (such as time or money) for an unknown return or to see an activity fail. Usually, the cause of failure is that it did not meet the needs of the individuals we sought to reach out to.
So how can a church or individual Christians further the message of Jesus in a manner that meets the changing needs of those they are evangelising to without distorting the message of the Gospel?
The startup method in a church
The Lean Startup is a business book by Eric Ries which discusses an approach for building “products” in conditions of extreme uncertainty. It is a popular book amongst tech companies and startups because its principles have found success in many different industries and scenarios. The book provides simple strategies for how to develop the best “product” to meet consumer demands in ever-changing environments.
How can a business book be applied to a church context? A methodology for systematically and scientifically solving problems could be used by churches to address scenarios such as: How can I evangelise to people in my workplace? How do we bring the Gospel to those in new areas of a city? How do we grow this new church plant to be an asset to this local community?
One of the key concepts Ries discusses is the continuous “Build-Measure-Learn” cycle which allows for ongoing refinement of a product.
It starts with an initial hypothesis of the problem one is trying to solve. For example, if we are thinking about how to reach people at a local high school, a hypothesis might be that youth in a local high school are interested in hearing a Christian perspective on suffering.
From this hypothesis, one would “build” the smallest possible product in the cheapest way (otherwise known as a minimum viable product) to test this hypothesis. In our example, it might be to distribute a survey to understand topics they are interested in.
The goal is to attain validated learning on this hypothesis. For example, if a survey administered on 200 youth found that 5 indicated interest in hearing a Christian perspective on suffering, but 100 wanted to hear more about the Christian perspective on the meaning of life, then this would lead to a learning that validates (or invalidates) a certain idea. The “product” and experiment gives us broader insight into the interests of the community we are trying to serve.
From there, we proceed to the next hypothesis to validate: youth interested in hearing a Christian perspective on the meaning of life are willing to attend an evening event that explores this topic.
Another “product” can be built; in this case, it can be a sign-up sheet for a paid event or a YouTube video which teases the topic. If there is high sign-up or subscriptions, then we validated that the demand is there. These learnings help to reduce the risk of investing time, money and resources into hosting an event that youth may not attend or be interested in.
One repeats the Build-Measure-Learn cycle continuously to gather validated learnings in order to achieve “product-market fit”. When demographics or consumer tastes change, we re-test the assumptions and validated learnings to pivot and adapt to the changing circumstances such as the youth progressing into adulthood.
What can it look like in practice?
At my local church, we try to put this simple methodology to practice in nearly everything we do. For example, every Sunday, we ensure there is a comment card time during the service for all members of the congregation to write down their feedback on the service, ask questions about the sermon or share prayer points.
This continuous feedback loop helped our church introduce question time after most sermons in order to help with reflection on what was preached.
It has also empowered individual members and small groups in our church to run custom Bible studies to meet the demands of newcomers and new Christians.
The same temptations
The key temptation that one might face in applying this is to distort, dilute or change the foundational truths of Christianity as a result of feedback. Paul warns us in 2 Timothy chapter 4, verses 2-5 that “…people will not put up with sound doctrine.”
We must always maintain sound doctrine and remember that the Gospel will be an aroma of life to some but the stench of death to others (2 Corinthians chapter 2, verses 14-16). Sometimes, no matter what methodology we might use to help us evangelise, there will be environments that are extremely hostile to Christianity. As a result, this might mean hardship and suffering, but we persevere because of our convictions that the Gospel is the only means of salvation.
As we face changing circumstances daily, tools like Ries’ Build-Measure-Learn cycle can help reduce risk and give confidence to the activities and events we run to better meet the needs and interests of those whom we seek to evangelise.
Brandon Tsang is a Sydney-based writer currently working in IT. He studied Marketing and Economics at UNSW and loves to spend his spare time hiking, playing volleyball or watching Netflix.