Rapid Iterative Prototyping: Validated learning within a context of tradition

by Ken Howard

This is the fourth post in an ongoing series on Vision-Guided Experimentation
click here for previous post

Faith Communities are living organisms made up of human beings. They “live and move and have their being,” sharing many of the characteristics of the people who populate them. Like them, one of things faith communities have to do in order to survive and thrive is sense, respond, and adapt to the environment in which they live.

Last week’s post was about the sensing part of that equation: Mission Context Analysis. We discussed ways of “Getting Outside the Building,” in order to learn more about the characteristics, needs, strengths, and aspirations of the people who comprise the neighborhoods we hope to serve.

This week’s post is about responding and adapting, employing a process we call Rapid Iteration Prototyping. Once we have gotten to know the needs and aspirations of the communities inside and outside the building and having discerned how God is calling us to respond to those needs and aspirations, the next step is creating actual ministries and programs to carry that out. And because of the rapid pace of change in our neighborhoods we have to be able to develop and test them quickly, discarding what doesn’t work and refining what does.

To do that, we start by creating what folks in the business startup arena call a Minimum Viable Product, or in our case a Minimum Viable Program or Ministry. We create a prototype of the program – not a “deluxe” version with everything WE might WANT in it but a much simpler version with only what we have VERIFIED they NEED. In the illustration above, we label this step “ADAPT,” in order to remind ourselves that since, as the proverb says, “there is nothing new under the sun,” that for this step to work we don’t have create a program “out of whole cloth,” but that creativity often takes the form of stealing and repurposing something someone else has already tried.

Then we begin the actual process of rapidly and repetitively testing and tweaking. We test the program with the intended audience (APPLY), ask them what they think about it (ASSESS), and then tweak the aspects of the prototype that are working and toss those that don’t. Then we repeat, learning and adapting more and more with each iteration, until we get it “right.”

Over the nearly 20 years I’ve been designing and refining this approach to ministry development and redevelopment, I’ve seen it applied to every aspect of congregational life, from startup to expansion, from evangelism to worship, from marketing to member giving.

Let me share an example from a church I served, about prototyping a program to engage and serve an underrepresented population.

The Issue:

Comparing the composition of our congregation to that of the surrounding community, we determined that families with young children were significantly underrepresented in our congregation. Feeling called to address that disparity, we undertook the following steps:

Iteration 1:

We convened a focus group comprised of families with young children, some who were current members of our congregation, and some were friends or neighbors of current members. We asked their input in order to design, refine, pilot, and evaluate a service designed around the needs of people like them.

After several months of listening and planning, we proposed a new worship service closely tailored to their input, which was to say, a service in which everything would be designed entirely around the needs of children: children’s music, children’s service, children in many worship server positions, and a special Holy Play area, in which children could play quietly with worship and bible themed toys, coloring books, art material, and more. They gave us a green light. “It’s everything we asked for,” they said. But apparently, not entirely what they wanted, as we discovered not too long after we launched.

Initial response was strong. But over time, many young families moved from the children’s service to our main service. We polled them and found that, to our surprise and theirs, a lot of the parents missed their adult sermons. (As the old saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.”)

Iteration 2:

After more discussion with our focus group, we decided to combine the best parts of both services into one single service. We took the Holy Play area and children’s servers from the Children’s Service, Adult sermons from the main service, some children’s music and some adult music, merged them into one and called it “Intergenerational.”  They loved it!

But then we noticed that the parents of the youngest children weren’t staying after for fellowship. We asked why and found that nursing moms worried they might be frowned upon…

Iteration 3:

So with my assisting priest (a nursing mom herself), we designed and launched a “Nursing is Holy” campaign, employing social media, discussions, interactions, and other strategies. And finally… Success!

But not without unintended consequences: more kids, more noise. And so we continued refining through several additional iterations of trying, tweaking, and tossing, and trying again.

In Conclusion

Vision-Guided Experimentation – experimenting with different ways of being (and doing) faith communities, while remaining laser-focused on their reason for being – is an essential tool to help faith communities survive and thrive in a rapidly changing and increasingly uncertain world. And Rapid Iterative Prototyping is a quick and effective way to carry out that experimentation.

And why do we call it Rapid Iterative Prototyping and not just Rapid Prototyping? Because its initials are R.I.P., which is a good way to remind ourselves that when old ways of doing no longer support our reason for being, it’s time to let them die and find some new ones that do.