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The science of pioneering

I remember the first experiment I ever tried. I was 8 years old at a burger place with my dad, and there was a bank of fizzy drink dispensers on the counter where you could fill up your cup with your choice of beverage. As I headed to the counter the world slowed to a stop as a thought hit my brain. What if I didn’t just get one flavour? What if I got… ALL the flavours? My mind virtually exploded as I considered the possibilities. 

I calculated quickly. If I only got the drinks that I liked and combined them together, then I would be guaranteed to like the flavour of my new drink. It was logical. It was risky. I was on the edge! With a full body of glee, I filled my cup with no less than four different types of fizzy drink and headed back to my dad, barely able to contain my excitement. That first taste was magic. It was unlike anything else I had ever had before: root beer, Fanta, Dr Pepper and Coke. Exquisite. From then on, I tried everything in pursuit of the best drink in the world. There were a lot of terrible combinations, but 29 years later it is a thing of perfection.

When did we lose that giggly joy of experimenting? So often in ministry, experimenting has become discouraged. As children’s and youth pastors, we can groan under the expectation of constantly delivering success. Other people’s expectations of what our ministry should look like can be crippling. We can feel cornered into delivering a holiday club “as good as” last year, or finally starting that much anticipated midweek youth social club with the obligatory God-slot. And when the expected path doesn’t produce the spiritual fruit we are hoping for, we can feel trapped. Trapped into a limited amount of possible solutions that our leaders, parents and church communities feel comfortable with.

It can suck the joy and effectiveness right out of a ministry.

If we want to find what is useful, true and powerful in our ministries, then we need to not only be open to failure, we need to create a learning process for ourselves that includes experimentation.

The best things in my ministry have always been as a result of experimentation; either an experiment that has turned out better than I hoped, or one that so blew my theory out of the water that I had to go back to the drawing board. Many times I learned something completely different than I intended to, and it changed how I operated for ever.

We are called to empower children and young people to meet with God in life-altering ways and enable them to grow in their relationship with him, becoming powerful followers of Jesus in a broken world. How you do that for your kids in your community will look radically different than how it looks for mine. It is supposed to. It’s why God put us there.

Experimenting is at the heart of leadership. It is a strategic testing of what you feel God is leading you in, a test of wisdom and circumstances that you feel is right. We can often have a fear of experimenting, not wanting to be chaotic or disappointing to the young people or the church. I think we forget that experimenting is not the same as ‘wildly and randomly trying stuff’. Experimenting is a deliberate attempt to test a theory. It is strategic and thoughtful, and will give you vital information you need as a leader finding a way forward.

In my church, we are currently in the middle of an experiment. We observed that our families really struggle with helping their children engage with the worship for the first part of the church service. We have bored, disengaged kids on their tablets or just wandering around playing. Our theory is that the cause is primarily because the parents at our church are unsure how to help their kids actually worship, and are even unsure of what to expect from children during that time. So we are running an experiment. We are going to offer a course for families to go on together that takes place entirely within the worship time on a Sunday morning: 15 minutes of teaching in a separate room and then 15 minutes of applying that teaching immediately within the main worship of the service. There will be two courses. One for families with under-5s, and one for families with older children. If we are right, then we expect that we will see a dramatic increase in the children in our church engaging in sung worship on a Sunday morning.

Will it work? I don’t know. But we will see! It’s worth a try. If it works, we will have learned something about how our children engage with church, how the particular parents at our church prefer to use and be resources and more. If it fails, or no one shows up, well…. we will have learned something too. Either way, we will be further on our journey towards our goal.

What have you observed in your youth or children’s ministry that you are burning to try to fix? What is your theory of why it is happening and what might work? What experiment would test your theory and give you a chance of moving that situation forward?

Experimenting is not wildly and randomly trying stuff. Experimenting is at the heart of leadership. It is a strategic testing of what you feel god is leading you in

The world is full of innovation that was only achieved through intense experimentation. Post-it notes were the result of a failed experiments at making superglue. Thomas Edison took over 1,000 attempts to make a functioning lightbulb. James Dyson went through 5, 127 prototypes before he finalised his vacuum cleaner. Their successes and failure helped us all.

So jump my friends, be brave. Be strategic. Experiment. The young people and children you serve need you to, and I can’t wait to learn from all you are doing.

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