Remember Kenny Rogers? He was a country music star that crossed over a few times to the pop charts. One of those songs was called "The Gambler," which I remember as being quite popular. It's a pretty catchy tune.
The song's chorus begins with "You got to know when to hold 'em; Know when to fold 'em; Know when to walk away; And know when to run…" I was reminded of that this past month as I looked at the full list of our experiments.
Out of our entire list of 58 experiments, 35 were in some form of an active stage. And that includes our second ever experiment, which we have not yet been able to try. Of course, there is also the reality that the pandemic forced us to put many of them on hold.
But then I thought about The Gambler. As I hummed the song to myself, I wondered if for some of the experiments that are just taking forever, if it was time to "fold 'em" and walk away? After all, if something has taken a year and a half and it still can't seem to happen, maybe the Spirit is not there?
As I went down the list, I looked at each of the experiments and asked: (1) is this taking longer than it should have? (2) would there be a natural partner to take it over? (3) since I am a staff of one with support from some student workers, could my time be better spent discovering new ideas? As you will see in the experiment updates below, 9 more have now closed. This brings our active number to 26, which is more manageable. And frees up space for more!
One final note: as I was about to close 9 experiments and put them in the "did not work" category, I went through a moment of what my wise mentor calls "the embarrassment factor." Would people think less of me for doing this? "That Lorenzo is all talk. He couldn't even land some simple experiment." It's easier to model failure when we talk that the church won't end, but it's good to remember that there's a personal factor. In the end, I feel good about this decision.
And who knows, maybe one of you will pick one of the "failed" experiments and get it done. If you do, please let me know. I'll be the first to shake your hand and share in your success. And then we can tell the whole church about it!
With much gratitude,
If you have met me or if perhaps you have seen me give a presentation, you know that I can get pretty excited about the work we do. Remember when Kermit would get really excited in The Muppets? Kind of like that.
But even though this work excites me, there are times when one of the experiments super-excites me. Today, I’d like to share one of those with you.
As you’ll recall, our framework at TryTank is that we gain insights and then develop ideas to address them. Sometimes that happens by design, and sometimes, inspiration hits. In 2019, I learned that the new “norm” for people going to church is once every four to six weeks. This also means that if they have children, they attend Sunday school every four to six weeks. It is hard to develop Christian formation of children when they are only getting bits and pieces. At about the same time, the movie came out where Tom Hanks played Mr. Rogers. And so, up came the question, what if there was a Mr. Roger’s type show that taught Christian formation to kids at home? The idea went into development and expanded and changed (they always do!). In the end, we developed something that to me is super exciting.
I’d like to introduce you to the Prayer Puppets. Think of them as a Christian Sesame Street that will regularly put out new episodes through the web to teach Christian formation to kids. Using the learnings of children’s television, the Prayer Puppets use lots of color and repetition to teach three things: 1) there is a God, 2) you are beloved by God, and 3) you can pray to God who listens. There will be many themes, but the goal is to always teach those three points. The show is aimed at two to five-year-old children. Each episode will also have a song to go with the theme (and they are catchy!).
But wait, there’s more!
As we developed the Prayer Puppets, we wanted ALL of God’s children to be able to see themselves in there so we developed varied characters. Our main one is Pax, a gender non-binary puppet (meaning they are neither male nor female). The other characters are all different colors and have different personalities and yet they all very much belong. Their differences are, well, normal.
This is Pax, our main character.
Three episodes of the Prayer Puppets are currently in production and will be ready to go right after Thanksgiving. The scripts are funny and warm. The theology is one we all recognize since it’s a theology rooted deeply in love. We are hoping that they are popular enough that it could become a self-sustaining ministry.
I am often asked if our experiments “move the needle.” Sometimes, however, we may not know for a long time. Sometimes, all we can do is plant a seed and let the Spirit do the work. But, I can’t help but wonder what would happen in our world if many, many more kids knew the truth that they are God’s beloved.
That really excites me.
Welcome to (almost) Fall!
We are moving our publication date to the first Wednesday of the month so that you can have the WHOLE month to enjoy it! Since we just sent an update two weeks ago, today’s newsletter will offer something a little different: a look behind our work. As we have been doing this work of “trying,” many people have asked about HOW we do what we do. What is the process that TryTank uses in creating innovation? We have a method to our madness! Our framework is based on the work of Design Thinking (sometimes also called Human-Centered Design). Simply put, we follow a three-step process is 1) Insight, 2) Idea, and 3) Try it.
Step 1 - Insight. Because the world is always changing around us in unexpected ways, there is always something we can learn that will lead to innovation. Really! No matter how well you know your city, community, or even your congregation, you can always glean insights by intentionally seeking to learn more. A lot of my work at TryTank is research. I read (OK, skim) 6 newspapers a day and many magazines to see what’s new in the world. I also review journals on behavioral science, economics, and even psychology. The key is to bump into something where my interest is piqued. Once there’s an area where I say, “hmm, that’s interesting…what if we did…” then I do more focused research. From interviews with experts to interviews with the public, the key is to keep an open mind and be inquisitive. When was the last time you asked, “what if we did…”? Once there are insights that lead to “what if we did…” questions, we are ready to be playful in coming up with ideas.
Step 2 - Idea. While there are several ways to come up with ideas, one of the ones we try (and love) is the old familiar brainstorm. But this is more like "brainstorm plus"! Here’s how: first, with your team, change your “what if” question to a “how might we” question. The difference is that while one is more about curiosity, the other is more focused on the action of making it happen. Then, brainstorm for at least 30 minutes seeking answers to the “how might we” question. But—and this is the plus part—you must come up with at least 35 ideas. (You can even go longer; the formula for the number of ideas is time plus 5.) As with a regular brainstorming session, at this point don’t worry about the feasibility or anything regarding the ideas. Just come up with the required number. Now, from that list of ideas, select your favorites (2-3) that you want to explore further. I bet you that the ideas you like the most, the ones that will be most creative and that excite you, will be toward the end of the list. It’s amazing how that happens!
Step 3 - Try It. Now, it’s time to try it! At TryTank, we developed a one-page "Mission Canvas" based on the popular Business Canvas used in business. It’s basically a one-page mission business plan that forces you to explore your idea from nine different angles just to make sure you holistically consider the idea. It's limited to one-page is so that you don’t overthink it. This is when most ideas will fall by the side. The key is to get to the minimum viable prototype as quickly as possible so that you can try the idea. Why? Because it will NOT work as you plan. Once an idea hits reality, it will have to adapt. So, think this way: what’s the easiest, fastest, least expensive way we can try this to see if it’ll take? And then try that. Hand-in-hand with trying is evaluating. Nothing fancy, just some metrics to figure a way to see if what you are trying to do does happen. Then you either iterate and try again, or it didn’t work and move on to the next idea (at TryTank, we’ve had both kinds).
Insight, Idea, Try it. Innovation is very much something we as a church can and should do! Are you ready to try new things? How can we help?
You’ve probably heard the saying, “if you want to make God laugh, make a plan.” While the theology of such a statement is flawed, it can allow us some levity in otherwise difficult situations. And after some five months of this pandemic, I could use some levity. As the new year began, we had some great plans for the work of TryTank this year. And then...well.
TryTank is an action research experimental laboratory. Our work, by design, is IN the churches. With churches mostly on pause to in-person worship and gathering, we’ve obviously had to adapt to the new reality. We had to look at each of our active experiments to see if we could do anything with them during this time. We have put many of the experiments on hold (it’s hard to do evangelism theater or teach Gospel music during these times, for example). After some research, we concluded that some of the experiments were not feasible. And we discerned that experiments which had not gained traction probably never would. To that end, we have decided to close the book on a few of them. (You can see updates on our entire list of experiments at any time on our website: www.trytank.org.)
What has not gone away from our plan for 2020 (although it is developing slower) is our focused energy into Hispanic Ministry. And I wanted to briefly say a word about that.
Currently, the Episcopal Church is about 90% Non-Hispanic White. The country as a whole is only 60.7% Non-Hispanic White*. This means our church has a large opportunity to expand within the Hispanic community. This is especially important when you consider that by 2045, Non-Hispanic Whites will drop below 50% of the U.S. population and the largest minority will be Hispanics. “Think of it this way: Every 30 seconds, two non-Hispanics reach retirement age and one Latino turns 18. Like the baby boomers before us, the Latino baby boom will affect every aspect of American life over the next 50 years.”**
We have several experiments addressing this opportunity. We are helping three dioceses create a ministry based on the success of our earlier Latino Ministry in a Box experiment. We are also working on a Latino Music Project to create a music video library as well as a Spanish-Language missalette to save time and care for the environment. We are learning if we can plant a Spanish-language congregation using the radio and are developing La Misa in English to reach younger Hispanics who are bilingual and prefer to receive their information in-culture and in-English. All of it exciting!
One final note, as you know, TryTank is a joint project of Virginia Theological Seminary and General Theological Seminary. Within VTS, we make our home within the Lifelong Learning department. The department is always putting on some fascinating content and resources. Starting with this newsletter, we’ll be mentioning some of the events and resources being offered. I hope you’ll take advantage of some of those as well.
**Chiqui Cartagena, Hispanics are creating a new baby boom in the United States
If your inbox is like mine, it has been filled with a gazillion emails offering resources to cope with this time. And I have wondered more than once if Zoom has been the best or worst thing ever invented. And so it took a lot of convincing myself that offering you two webinars was indeed a good idea. But I really think they are. (And then I also added an invitation to participate in an experiment!)
Here's how I convinced myself: these are NOT about the current Covid-19 situation, but about the new world that is being left in its wake. And the experiment is one that can help us emerge from this as those "agile church plants in 150-year-old buildings" that I mentioned last month.
So, I encourage you to sign up for the webinars even if you can't attend live but to get the recording and watch it at your convenience. They should be fantastic conversations. And to discern if the experiment is right for you.
I am a HUGE Mel Brooks fan. Always have been. Always will be.
Perhaps one of the funniest and most memorable Mel Brooks scenes is from his 1981 film A History of the World: Part 1, in which Brooks, in the role of Moses, comes down from Mount Sinai carrying three tablets containing 15 commandments. He then drops one (with the best use of "Oy!" I can recall) and as the tablet breaks, we are left with only 10 commandments.*
It is brilliant.
I bring this up because we need more humor right now. And also because it is a good reminder that we do indeed have only 10 commandments. All the other rules and regulations we have are ours and we can change them.
As Winston Churchill was working to form the United Nations after WWII, he famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. From something bad came something good. The worldwide pandemic which has caused churches to close to public worship is indeed a crisis. And one that presents the church with opportunities.
I have seen several webinars and articles about "restarting" our churches after the crisis. But I have not seen a good, sound conversation about NOT restarting our churches. Rather, let us relaunch our congregations. Let us be nimble church plants in gorgeous 150-year old buildings. Let us dream a new church into being, one that is not modeled on the way church was. Rather, on what it could be.
What if church services were held on other days than Sundays and thus allow more flexibility for families whose weekends are over-scheduled?
What if our Latino ministry was "in-culture" but not in Spanish?
What if, now that we know we can do it, we used live streaming and other digital tools to reach a larger audience, that can become a new way of congregating?
And what if, as we come back, we don't reflexively re-start everything we had been doing but first checked to make sure that everything we do moving forward is part of our mission?
As we do this, we'll fail at some things but we'll be trying new ways. This in itself is exciting.
The bottom line is this: let us not let the opportunity created by this crisis go to waste. Let us take it and run with it.
I'll finish with this (think of it as an iron-clad guarantee): as we dream a new church into being, even falling along the way, as long as we are prayerful, open, loving, discerning, and always looking for Jesus in what we do, we'll be fine.
With all that is going on, a regular monthly newsletter will not do. Instead, I wanted to send along this special short note to share with you three bits of information from our learnings that might help you during this time when churches are suspending public worship to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
LIVE STREAM YOUR SERVICES. I put together a quick video for my diocese that should help. It's the four steps you need to take to live stream on Facebook Live (and anyone can access it, even if they're not on Facebook). All of our churches can be "live" this Sunday.
ZOOM FOR MEETINGS/STUDIES. The Lifelong Learning team at Virginia Theological Seminary will host a webinar today (Thursday, March 12) on the best practices for using Zoom in our settings. I encourage you to check it out or be sure to watch the recording of it. (The recording and other great webinars are available on the Building Faith website.)
TEXT TO CALM FEARS. Our "Connected Congregations" experiment has worked really well in keeping people informed about the happenings in their congregations. It has also proven to be a good pastoral tool. As a participating congregation rector said: "My favorite use has been prayer groups. I'll break parishioners into groups of 7 folks each. A new group will get a text Sunday afternoon letting them know that I'm praying for them that week and asking if there's anything specific they want me to pray for. It has really opened the doors for me on a pastoral level. Many times I would have never learned about a situation if it wasn't for these intentional texts." Perhaps this is a great opportunity to start a texting program in your congregation and stay better connected. We use SimpleTexting which is incredibly easy to use. (You can tell them TryTank sent you!)
Lastly, let's all keep each other in prayer during these times. Please know that you are in mine.
In behavioral economics, there is a theory called the "Sunk Cost Fallacy." Briefly stated, it says that "individuals commit the sunk cost fallacy when they continue a behavior or endeavor as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort)" (Arkes & Blumer, 1985). And don't feel bad, we all fall into this way of thinking. We’re wired to believe that the time or money we already have invested into something should be factored into our current decision making. This is flawed logic.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy is one of my main takeaways from business school. It seems that every class we took covered the concept and put it deep into our brains. There is a time when you simply have to ask, "are we going to keep investing in something even though we know the outcome will not be what we want simply because we already have put money into it?" You may have heard of it by its less academic term, "throwing good money after bad."
Of course, the concept of the sunk cost is not just for business. I have seen it violated in the arts, the non-profit sector and, of course, in the church. After all, in the church, we *really* value tradition. And tradition is one of the easiest ways to stop looking at whether something works/is worth doing/we even like doing it. We just do it because, say it with me, "we always have."
This is on my mind these days because when experimenting, it is especially important to know when to pull the plug on something. In one experiment in particular, we have reached that point.
You might recall we announced an experiment called "Drunk Bible" based on the hit Comedy Central show, "Drunk History." After hearing back from many of you, we decided that this was not something we wanted to do. And so we pivoted, and we created "Street Bible." Along the way, we lost sight of who we wanted as our audience and, I feel, the end product shows. (You can see the unpublished videos on my own YouTube page. There's the one about Adam and Eve and the one about Noah. Tell me what you think.)
We could try to market it via Facebook ads and see if it'll be a "thing" with any group. Maybe kids will like it? Maybe the unchurched will like it? My early testing shows that there's really no "there" there. And so we get to the question: do we keep investing in this because we've already invested time and money into it, or do we call it a day?
If I thought that if we got this right it would move the needle and more people would find their way to God and life as a follower of Christ, maybe. But we have other experiments that have a greater chance and are more focused. And so, another one is done. And it goes in the "didn't work" category. That's ok. It's why we call it experimenting.
A new year is always an excellent opportunity to refocus. Sure, it is entirely arbitrary, and you can refocus at any time, but there is something about the newness of a brand-new year (a new decade!) that makes it seem just right. The new year also marks the first anniversary of the TryTank, so an even better time to look back, redirect, and go forward!
For those who like numbers, in our first year, we undertook 42 experiments, working with 63 congregations in 22 states. I traveled 100,811 miles all over the place (according to American Airlines, that's 3.5 times around the world and 211 hours in the sky).
And what have we learned so far? I think the most important learning is that there are many (many!) hardworking members of congregations who are already doing innovative work. (Here's looking at you!) TryTank has allowed many to find others who are like them and, in some cases, giving them the courage to try new things even if that new thing might fail.
We have learned that non-Spanish speaking congregations can launch Latino ministry. We have learned that people like the assistance a smart speaker provides in their prayer devotions. We gleaned insights into the habits of those whose churches are growing. And we learned that yes, Facebook marketing works to get people into a church, but that it's best to outsource that to an expert in that field, especially since it's always changing and very affordable to do so.
We also learned that while people may be finding a community in group fitness, they already have a chosen community and don't need an alternative. And that some ideas don't gain traction, and that it's ok to let them go. (Seven experiments met this fate.)
So, what's new for the second year? We have 30 experiments still active. (All of that development work will finally bear fruit!) Also, we are entering the second phase of some experiments. We are also going to explore more deeply how far we can take design thinking to impact our work. And, of course, we'll develop new experiments based on what we're learning and hearing from you.
Thanks for being a part of this journey. Especially to the many of you who chime in with ideas and prompts. Your wisdom matters.
By now, you have probably heard of the big Episcopal gathering taking place this January in Atlanta. While at first I liked that the meeting was dubbed, "Episcapalooza," I have to admit that I love the actual name: Rooted in Jesus. In all that we do, we should always strive to be "Rooted in Jesus." Being rooted is particularly essential for those who work in the church. In all that we do, no matter how holy or how mundane it really should be all about Jesus.
And so I was delighted that one of our experiments (the "Ideas Festival") would merge into the conference.
We are happy that TryTank will be presenting a total of four workshops at the VTS stage. They are:
The Lifelong Learning team from VTS will also be presenting workshops at the VTS stage on formation and evangelism.
On Thursday night, January 23, TryTank will be hosting a gathering for innovators in the church. It'll be an opportunity to network and have some fun, but we'll also have design questions to spur new ideas for experiments. (This is a private reception by invitation only. To attend, you can submit an idea for Pitch Tank or join the HeartEdge USA network. Or just hit reply to this email and tell us why you think you want to be there!)
If you haven't already, be sure to register for Rooted in Jesus. Put your thinking cap on and give us your best ideas for experiments in the Pitch Tank. Keep up with all we're doing at the conference by visiting us at www.VTSatRooted.com. And be sure to say hello if you're there.
The Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija is the founding director of the TryTank Experimental Lab.