1: TryTank appoints experiment managers
In an exciting development, TryTank has announced that it will appoint a few experiment managers going forward. The managers will serve for six months to a year each and will be assigned to manage most aspects of individual experiments. "This is a way to have people who are very excited about a particular experiment to work with TryTank on making it a reality," said the Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija, founding director of TryTank. The consultant positions will begin soon with the appointment of managers for the "Digital Church" and "Reimagined Youth Ministry" experiments.
2: Prayer Puppets launched on Easter
Prayer Puppets, the experiment that aims to find out what happens if you mix Sesame Street with Christian formation, launched on Easter Day. The first three episodes of the series (on the topics of Faith, Hope, Love) are available on the Prayer Puppets website for only $1. The evaluation of the current experiment is limited to answering the question: will people be willing to pay for Christian formation, which they are used to getting for free? A marketing campaign is now kicking off to advertise the puppets to a broader audience.
3. How to Try book set to release
The release date of How to Try by TryTank's director is July 16. The book demystifies the process of using design thinking for trying things in the church. Design thinking is the same process used by TryTank in coming up with experiments. The three parts of the process are insight, ideate, and try. "I hope that this short book will be useful to individuals and teams as they dream up new ways of being church," says the Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija, the author. The book will be available for pre-sale through the publisher, Church Publishing, Amazon, and wherever books are sold on May 1, 2021.
4. TryTank surveys church's Covid response
Wondering how much the Covid-19 pandemic will change the church? You are not alone. York St. John University in the UK is running a survey to get some answers. "Our intuition was that there would be a great deal to learn from systematically gathered evidence rather than assembled anecdotes. The Coronavirus, Church & You survey emerged from this conviction," stated Andrew Village and Leslie Francis, who authored the UK survey. TryTank has partnered with them to offer the US version of the study to gather and compare data.
5. New experiment assesses impact of the church
We all know that simply measuring how many people are in our church on Sundays (known as ASA or average Sunday attendance) is an incomplete measure of the health of a church. It certainly is no measure of the impact a church is having in a community. There has to be a better way to evaluate this impact. To answer that question, TryTank has launched the "Evaluating Church Impact" experiment. It aims to create several models that can be used in different settings to see/show the church's work in the neighborhood. We'll be looking for a manager for this experiment. Let us know if this is kind of work may be up your alley.
6. "How to be a top-notch hybrid church" masterclass
We at TryTank firmly believe that the digital church is here to stay. But what's the best way to do digital church when there's also a congregation present? To answer this question, TryTank has announces a master class called "How to be a top-notch Hybrid Church." The class, which will take place on two consecutive Wednesdays, will cover four fundamental pillars of a top-notch hybrid church:
7. El Librito de la Misa Episcopal ready by Advent
It is one of those things we don't think much about: church bulletins. Unless you're a one-person church, and you have to put them together every week. It turns out that for ministers offering Spanish-language services, doing the bulletin each week is a time-consuming administrative task that is repetitive and takes about four hours. But "what if" (that's our favorite question at TryTank!) we were able to create a yearly missal that took care of a bulletin and gave back those hours to the minister? The new resource, El Librito de la Misa Episcopal (The Little Book of the Episcopal Mass), will be out in time for Advent 1, the new church year.
8. HeartEdge offers classes, coaching, and mentoring
HeartEdge, the movement based on the "FourCs" developed by Sam Wells (commerce, compassion, culture, and congregation), and which TryTank took a leadership role in the US, has expanded dramatically in 2021. With now close to 50 US congregations, the US leadership has announced that it will offer classes on the FourCs, develop coaching relationships, and even match newer communities with mentors. These offerings are in addition to the fantastic programming produced by the HeartEdge UK group. Anyone interested in joining can visit the HeartEdge USA website to find out more and join.
9. Signals for the church in 2030
In foresight work, we are always looking for signals of where the future points. Signals are small local innovations that can disrupt the status quo or scale up in size or geography. The key when finding a signal is to ask, "so what?" In other words, what does this mean?
Here are a few headlines, all from the same day:
"Book of Common Prayer finds new online audience seeking comfort during Covid crisis." (The Telegraph, UK 2/26/21)
"Young people turn to Bible to help get through lockdown" (Church Times, UK 2/26/21)
"On late-night TV and bestseller lists, new books on prayer resonating with readers" (Religion News Service, 2/26/21)
Could it be that after this challenging year, religion can speak to the moment? Is this an opportunity for the church?
10. New experiment: Typewriter Poetry Evangelism
Have you ever had a poem written just for you? Perhaps about love or a loved one or even a pet? That's the work that Typewriter Poets offer. They set up a little table and deeply listen to a person for five minutes before taking five minutes to write a poem about them and just for them. To the one receiving, this is an incredible gift and one that they usually cherish. In a new experiment called Typewriter Poetry Evangelism, a published poet will train congregation members to be typewriter poets to write about people and God. It's a gift a congregation can offer the community and maybe even get some of the receivers interested to come visit.
Now that there finally seems to be some good news out there regarding the pandemic, many of us have been starting to think about being back in our buildings. For us, that means the continuation of several experiments that have been on hold.
Right at the top of that list is an experiment we call, "La Misa in English". In our research, we realized that 2/3 of the Latino population in the US was also born here in the US. Of those, 95% speak English and around 70% actually prefer to receive their information in English, rather than Spanish.
Knowing that insight allowed us the opportunity to wonder what an Episcopal liturgy aimed at these English-speaking Latinos would look like. In other words, how can we authentically do an "in-culture" service rather than in-language.
On the surface, the answer is pretty easy: we are folks who follow the Book of Common Prayer, so just follow that. But what are the cultural elements that should be a part as well. (I cal it the Latino Flavor!) As an example, the music will be from the Flor y Canto hymnal, rather than the 1982 Hymnal. There will also be a stronger use of Latinos from the Cloud of Witnesses calendar. And certainly, during Advent, the traditional posadas will play a role.
And now that we can consider emerging out from the pandemic and eventually gathering for worship, it is time to start planning the role out of the experiment. So, if you have ever wanted to do Latino ministry but were limited by language, this is your invitation to join us in this experiment. Simply hit "reply" to this email and we'll add you to the list. As our normal way of doing this, we are looking for diversity in geography and congregation size, so don't think that you wouldn't be right to try this.
Speaking of experiments, there are three new ones I want to share with you:
8560-Digital Church: Creating a prototype Episcopal digital community that is sacramental and is constantly inviting people to an in-person congregation as well.
8561-Evaluating Church Impact: Creating easy-to-use tools for congregations and the church to measure the impact they are having.
8562-Typewriter Poetry Evangelism: Teaching and using Typewriter Poetry as a form of person-to-person evangelism for congregations to use.
Have an awesome March!
With much gratitude,
February 3, 2021
How is it February already?
Recently, we concluded our "Connected Congregations" experiment, #8503 (although we're doing a second part with one of the participating congregations to look at something deeper). I mention the closing of this experiment because it has good news.
The goal of this experiment was to see if people became more "connected" to their congregation if the church sent regular text messages. We knew that corporations used this strategy and so we wondered if it would work in the church. The answer: yes!
The Rev. Reagan Humber is the pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Co. Before starting with the texting experiment, they used Facebook and email to get the word out about events and liturgies. But he liked the idea of texting and thought his congregation would take well to it. And did they! He can confidently report that because more people read their texts and they all carry their phones with them, 25% more people remember events and show up.
That's an amazing feat. What might it look like in your setting if you reminded people via text about events? How would it feel to have 25% more people participate? It'll be different in different places but even if only 10% more people show up to bible study or a forum, wouldn't that be worth the effort?
We will keep working with Rev. Reagan and HFASS to see how deep we can go with pastoral care using texting. We're both excited to see what we learn.
Have an awesome February!
With much gratitude,
This year, TryTank is embarking on a focused year-long project and we want you to join us! We are creating a “Signals Network” to inform our work--and the church--with more foresight.
A “Signal of Change” is a core foresight methodology and is one of the foundational tools used to outline plausible alternative future visions.
A Signal of Change is defined as a recent small or local innovation—a new ministry, service, behavior, initiative, policy, data point, or technology—with the potential to scale in impact and affect other places, people, or the church as a whole. In other words, “signals” are specific events or innovations happening today that you instinctively feel will take us in a new direction. You could even think of these “signals” as “indicators.”
In order to get signals from all over, we need eyes as outposts all over. So, we need you!
Starting today, you can text the word “SIGNAL” to (833) 629-0176. Then, you can send us any signals you’ve noticed. You can send us articles, pictures, or sound files, right from your phone. As part of the network, twice a month, you’ll get a text reminder (a nudge!) to forward any signals. And we’ll start to gather these.
We are also expanding what we read. Beyond the daily newspapers and several thematic publications (on psychology, behavioral science, and business), we are expanding to read as many church publications from the rest of the Anglican communion. Something happening in Argentina today could be a signal for our tomorrow here!
By this time next year, we will publish a Signals Report and also some forecasts. This will hopefully lead to some new conversations and discussions about the kind of future the Spirit may be calling us toward.
We will also find ways of letting you (as part of the network) see what we are finding and to join in the conversation about what these signals might mean. I hope you will join us in this work. The easiest way is to text right now and get in the network.
With much gratitude,
I want to tell you about another super-duper exciting experiment we are working on. It is called the “Facebook DNA” experiment. Let me briefly explain it. (“Super-duper” may not be the most technical term, but have you noticed there are no technical terms to describe excitement?)
See? I need a technical term for super-duper excited!
With much gratitude,
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.
The Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija is the founding director of the TryTank Experimental Lab.