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 other day I read a great article from The New York Times about hobbies. The report covered how to find a hobby. It defined a hobby "as any enjoyable leisure activity that we engage in voluntarily and consistently when we are free from the demands of work or other responsibilities." Up until then, I thought I did not have a hobby. But now, knowing that definition, it turns out I do.
For as long as I can remember, going back to my teens, I have loved taking deep dives. I'd be reading something or watching the news and something would call my attention that I'd then go and learn about. In many cases, I'd even create some sort of business or enterprise plan for a new iteration of the thing. And I really enjoy doing that. So, amazingly, it turns out that researching is my hobby.
Earlier this year, I had a fascinating conversation with some MIT folk about Human-centered Design (HCD). Wikipedia describes HCD as "an approach to problem solving that develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process." HCD really interested me. I have been researching it ever since. Specifically, I've been thinking about how HCD might inform the work of TryTank. The TryTank framework has three steps: research, ideate, execute. Even though the structure was created before I started the deep dive with HCD, those of you familiar with HCD will recognize similarities.
Slowly, I've have been adding more and more research into the experiment idea process. And the more I do this work, the more I realize HCD can really help us discern where the Spirit is leading us. Think about it, a church is really all about relationships. Doesn't it make sense that those very human relationships would play into church innovation?
What this means is that I will be doing more research, both qualitative and quantitative. More interviews with people. More focus groups. More observing how people experience church and how that might change for the better. So, if you're partnering with us on an experiment, don't be surprised if I ask to visit. Researching with you is part of the work!
In a way, doing this research is an experiment itself. Might us doing the work this way lead to better trials that have a more profound impact? We're going to find out.
This is still very exciting work. And I'm glad you're with us on the way.
I was at a conference recently where I heard that more than 50% of the jobs for priests in our church are less than full time. And as you may have read about the recent denominational numbers, there are more churches with less than 10 people on a given Sunday than churches with 300 people or more. This means that we have many (many!) congregations with one single worker, the priest.
If on top of all the regular congregational work, the priest wants to also be innovative and try new things, then the work can be *really* lonely, especially when you consider how many times new things don't work and that somehow they always seem to take longer than we planned.
Trust me, as a staff of one (plus some administrative work help), I know how this work of innovation can get lonely, ... not so much in a physical presence way... rather, in a "conversation partner" way. We want to help change that.
As you have read in the past, through one of our experiments we are helping spread the HearthEdge Network here in the US. And we want you to join us. We still have open spaces for a full-year scholarship. So, do read about it in our latest newsletter HERE and consider joining our experimental community.
On a different note, our newsletter is going from weekly to monthly. This will mean that there will be more meat in it for you as more time will allow for our experiments to have more action.
As we do experiments, we are always looking for ways to measure our outcomes. One of the neat ways we have found to measure (and one which might have more significant implications in our Church) is the Net Promoter Score or NPS.
To find out a score, we ask our participants a simple question: On a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being highest, what's the likelihood that you would recommend (the experiment or ministry goes here) to a friend or colleague?
The grade given, on a scale of one to 10, falls into one of three groups. If a person gives a score of nine or a 10, they are promoters. If they score the work as a seven or an eight, they are passives. You don't know if they are leaning toward loving it, leaving it, or they don't care. And, a score of a six or lower means they are a detractor. To determine the NPS score, we take the percentage of promoters (9s and 10s) and subtract the percentage of detractors (6s and lower). That's the NPS.
We recently asked this question to our Alexa skill experiment users. Fifty-eight people responded to our quick survey, with mostly positive feedback. In the end, our score was 81. In and of itself that's impressive. But then we realized that we had a way of proving it.
We launched the Alexa Skill in February. From the launch to the end of June, we had 561 skill activations. During the 30 day survey period, we had 381 new people activate the Alexa skill. Since we were not doing any advertising or marketing for the skill during that time, the only way we could have gained new people was, you guessed it, from current users "promoting" the skill to their friends and family.
All of a sudden, that 81 NPS is much more real.
This got me thinking, since the best method to evangelize is for people to invite their friends and family, what might it look like if churches started to measure their NPS? Could it be as simple as adding the question to the weekly church email? Or even doing a dedicated monthly email just asking that simple, 10-second question:
On a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being highest, what's the likelihood that you would recommend "St. John's" to a friend or colleague?
In the business world, the NPS is about driving improvements. So, why not in churches? You could ask those who give a score of 8 or below: "What would it take to raise our score just by one point?" And it also is building and deepening the relationship with those who respond.
As a side benefit, asking the question plants the seed that it would be nice if people recommended your church to their friends and family. You are planting the seed for them to become -- gasp -- evangelists!
Let me know what you think.
In the last edition of this newsletter, I announced eight new experiments. It was pretty cool stuff.
Among the experiments, there was one called "Drunk Bible." The concept was to take the premise of the top-rated Comedy Central program, "Drunk History," and make it about Bible stories.
Many of you wrote in to say how cool and innovative that was. Some even offered to be personally involved. It felt pretty good and affirmed what I thought was a pretty neat idea about how to teach a new audience about the Bible.
I also heard back from some who felt that the church has no place ever making fun of alcohol and what it can do to a person and their life. Some of these stories were very personal, raw, and showed pain.
And so I huddled with others. And I responded to address the concerns as best I could. And I prayed. And I prayed some more. And then it hit me, no matter how good an experiment may seem and what sort of impact it may have, it's not worth it if we hurt people along the way. As doctors say: first, do no harm.
Honestly, I felt a little sad that we wouldn't be doing the show. I enjoy the Comedy Central program. But then the Spirit kicked in as I reimagined what the show COULD be.
What if we did "Street Bible" instead? We get a host to interview folks on the street about Bible stories (old Jay Leno style). "Tell me the story of Job from the Bible." It'll be wild answers for sure! We cobble a few of them into a narrative, and that narrative is the re-enactment. We also interview a young priest-type or academic person who does know the story. They interrupt here and there in the video to correct the story. The reenactors then also fix what they just did. As I imagine it, I think it can still be pretty funny.
And so that's what the experiment became. Still funny. Still teaching. No hurting.
Remember, TryTank itself is an experiment, and that means that we won't always get it right the first time. But we can adapt. And that hopefully is also a good model for the church.
Happy 4th of July week! I pray that this summertime may be a restorative and peaceful time for all of you. I myself am back from a few days of a "staycation" which I used to catch up on fun reading and relaxing (meaning lots of naps!).
Right before my vacation, I was in Virginia at VTS where I had a great time mingling with, listening to, and hopefully, be a resource to the MDiv students on campus.
While I was there I had numerous meetings and we are happy to announce a few more experiments:
18-Virtual Supply Priest: Creating a network of great Episcopal preachers who can provide recorded video sermons for congregations who do not have a Sunday clergy person and will instead offer Morning Prayer.
19-Touring Gospel Choir: Organize a touring gospel choir who can go to various Episcopal communities to perform. In each community, the choir will lead a master class for local Episcopal choirs on how to best use the gospel music in our tradition.
20-Modern Christian Radio: A streaming radio station that plays contemporary music but has Christian messages in between the music.
21-Drunk Bible: Produce videos in the line of Comedy Central's "Drunk History" that make learning Bible truths fun and provide a first step on the path to discipleship.
22-Cleaning Monks: Create a low-barrier, low-investment, and replicable model of a social enterprise that can provide jobs (as a ministry) and where profits can support the mission of the sponsoring congregation.
23-Millennial Travel Experience: Work with an experienced tour operator to create a trip that can fill the "spiritual experience" desires of millennials.
24-Easy Invite Show: Organize a small tour for a theatrical show that can be performed in a church and thus make it easy for people to invite their friends to church and have a conversation about spirituality.
25-EpiscoPALS: To connect US high school students with Palestinian high school students with the goal of creating deep accompanying relationships among the faithful. (If the name sounds familiar, it's because we are repurposing the name we had for experiment #14 which for now we are calling "Senior Community.")
What do you think of the new experiments? Do any stand out to you and maybe you want to get involved? Email me, I'd love to chat.
Also, Now that we have more experiments (25!!), I have also reformatted this newsletter to make it easier to follow the experiments based on where they are in the development cycle.
As always, stay tuned!
The Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija is the founding director of the TryTank Experimental Lab.