Minimum Viable Belief: Discovering Your “Why Of Whys”

Minimum Viable Belief

By Ken Howard

Okay. Let’s review.

Early this summer I published a research paper entitled, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” in which I described an emerging phenomenon in which the total numbers of denominations and worship centers (local faith communities) worldwide is growing and splintering considerably faster than the total number of Christians, driving relentlessly downward the average number of Christians per denomination and worship center. This, in turn, will render both institutions unsustainable in their current forms by the end of this century. Ultimately, denominations may die out due to their lack of capacity for experimentation and change. However, local faith communities may be able to transform themselves into a new expression of Church. To do that, they need to develop the capacity to experiment with new ways of being Church without sacrificing the heart of Christianity. So how do they develop those capacities? That was the topic of last week’s blog post, in which I outlined the seven practices I call Vision Guided Experimentation. Today, we explore the first practice, Minimum Viable Belief (MVB), which underpins the practices that follow it.

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
(Proverbs 29:18)

This verse from Proverbs is the reason why the first practice of Vision-Guided Experimentation is so important. Minimum Viable Belief (MVB) is all about vision. It’s about getting to your faith-based community’s “Why of Why’s” – the seminal belief from which all other organizational beliefs and values stem – so that you can make its vision so clear, core, and compelling that it becomes the primary motivator and compass for all members of the community, so that it both motivates them to get up in the morning and keeps them going all day no matter what frustrations they face.

Minimum Viable Belief is the overarching, transcendent, and seminal reason for your faith community’s existence, driving every other practice. It is a transcendent vision about how that organization wants to change the world, a vision so meaningful to the members of the community that they would rather fail in the service of that vision than succeed in the service of anything else. In the Christian tradition – as well as some others – we define this as a sense of call: an clear and overriding sense of what God desires for a faith community or a faith-based organization (or an individual) to do or to be.

Minimum Viable Belief is also about creating a organizational culture that is experimental, creative, and flexible, and yet grounded, focused, and faithful. MVB allows the community and its members to navigate around massive and complex obstacles while continuing to tack towards its ultimate goal. It empowers startup communities and organizations to be sufficiently self-directing, self-correcting, and tenacious that they can survive the departures of their founders and their transition to their community’s full scale.

A problem most faith communities have is that most of the time we never get past asking ourselves the question, “What?,” as in, “what programs should we offer?” And if we are going to do any tweaking of anything we do, it comes up here. Once in a while we dive a little deeper, asking, “How?,” as in, “How do we get this approved?” Unfortunately, we seldom get to “Why?,” as in “What is our motivation for doing this in the first place?” I say unfortunately, since just asking Why once is not enough: we tend to have a different Why for every What. Rather, we have to keep asking Why until we get to the “Why of Whys.” Exactly how you get to that transcendent Why is what this and the next blog post are about.

While an overarching vision can provide a theological grounding for a faith community, it was not conceived simply as the result of an abstract theological thought process. Rather, it grew out of my practical, pastoral, congregational experience. First, as a newly-minted priest serving as the assistant pastor in a church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, I watched from afar as a seemingly-promising church plant in Germantown, the next city over, became entangled in an intense conflict over human sexuality, chose sides, broke apart, and died.

As I pondered what had caused the problem and how it might be avoided in the future, I formed a hypothesis. The common wisdom was that the unity in community is built upon uniformity: that the more alike members of a congregation – in beliefs, practice, demographics, and other ways – the more healthy and less likely to split. My hypothesis was exactly the opposite: that the higher the level uniformity required as the “cost of membership,” the less healthy the church and the more likely to split (because there would be more things to fight about). And if that was the case, then my corollary hypothesis would be that congregations that limited their cost of membership to at most a few core beliefs or practices, or perhaps even a core relationship (i.e., with Jesus Christ), would be more healthy and less likely to split.

Don’t underestimate the power of your vision to change the world.
Whether that world is your office, your community,
an industry or a global movement,
you need to have a core belief that what you contribute
can fundamentally change the paradigm or way of thinking about problems.
Leroy Hood – American Scientist, b. 1938

Little was I to know that in just a year or so after I posited those hypotheses, I would be given the opportunity to test those hypotheses when I was asked by the bishop and the bishop’s appointed search committee to head up a new church in the same area as, and with many of the same people from, the church that closed. It was then that we began to feel our way step-by-step toward becoming a new kind of faith community that emotional or controversial issues could not pull apart, that could disagree without being disagreeable, that could not just tolerate but welcome conflicting points of view. Experimentally rather than theoretically, we worked our way through a multi-part process to develop a “living vision” for our community that allowed us to transcend our differences by viewing them through the core beliefs we held in common. This living vision we achieved is what I have come to call Minimum Viable Belief, because it keeps us focused on the one or two most important things we hold most sacred, rather that the myriad doctrines, practices, and teachings that are derived from them. In our case, it was the one thing that makes people Christ followers: Christ’s love for us.

So that is what Minimum Viable Belief is. Next week we will explore how to get there: the seven steps to discern your faith community’s MVB.

click here to read the next article in the series:
MVB: Seven Steps to an Enduring Vision