By D. Dale Walker
Second of two parts
One of the defining characteristics of the American church is its entrepreneurial spirit. Innovations like Methodism and Mormonism took deep root in this country, as did radio and television ministries. Parachurch organizations provide the clearest tokens of individual initiative in religious practices. If the institutional church can’t keep up with individuals’ ideas, then people launch their own religious start-ups. Innovation is in our blood, and we don’t hold ourselves in check at the church doors.
Many new ideas arise from the particularities of circumstances or individuals, which is to say that they are the result of luck. Organizations, however, can’t wait for lightning to strike. They must regularize innovation, which design can do. Design mentalities and methods provide a process for problem-solving anywhere, including in the church. For example, if a church wants to identify a new program area to pursue or a strategy to address a particular challenge, a design process provides a useful map to follow.
If we take the declining interest of young people in institutional religion as a challenge to investigate, how might we approach this? Vijay Kumar outlines a design thinking process in his important book, 101 Design Methods: A Structural Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), on which the following relies.
Who participates in this process? Involving young people themselves will give them ownership and greater enthusiasm for the outcomes. Church leadership must tread carefully. If they insert themselves as experts, they can hobble creativity. Observation and analysis are times for “yes/and,” not critique, which needs to wait until after brainstorming. A truism among designers is that the first idea is rarely the best idea. Observation and brainstorming have to proceed unfiltered precisely to push beyond preconceptions and yield the broadest possible array of insights.
Involving young people themselves will give them ownership and greater enthusiasm for the outcomes. Church leadership must tread carefully.
What I have described may be familiar to some church members, because architectural planning often uses a design approach. If your church has built a new wing, for example, you might have engaged in a design process. Maybe you participated in charettes, assessing needs, identifying goals, and proposing solutions. Or you may have studied a maquette, which uses models and sketches, in order to think and see more concretely what a structure might look like, how it might occupy a space. Such exercises are iterative, stimulating more ideas and leading to subsequent rounds of deliberation and planning.
My point in this blog is that a similar process can be applied to church services and ministries, including the challenge of how to interact meaningfully with young people. If you are looking for answers, a design approach can guide you to insights.
D. Dale Walker is deputy director of major gifts at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. He earned a PhD at the University of Chicago and published his second book with Anselm Academic: Beyond the Obvious: Doorways to Understanding the New Testament (2014), in which he directly addresses his interest in creativity. While working at IIT Institute of Design he spent four years in conversation with thought leaders in human-centered design.