Meghan Hatcher outlines 10 guiding questions at the heart of a five-phase theological innovation process that helps churches develop, launch, and implement creative new ministry ideas. She shares how one Texas church employed this process, developed by the Innovation Laboratory, to design a new way of addressing an epidemic of teen anxiety and stress.
Successful ministry innovation emphasizes process not product, transformation rather than traditional metrics like participation numbers and money, and sees the launch of a creative idea as just one component of effective innovation.
The Innovation Laboratory guides congregations through a five-phase, multi-month Theological Innovation Process that leads them beyond preconceived notions about innovation within their ministry context. Each of the five phases of the Theological Innovation Process centers particular guiding questions. Each question opens doors to the creation of an innovative ministry with the audacious goal of transforming people’s daily lives.
First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth (FUMC) participated in an Innovation Lab cohort that ended in spring 2021. Using their experience as a case study, the following guiding questions can begin to prompt innovative thinking in your own ministry.
Phase 1: Describing
- What’s going on in the lives of people in my community?
- What joys and challenges are people facing?
- Where is God at work?
FUMC’s Innovation Team devoted multiple months to intentionally listening to teenagers and adults in their community. Team members conducted countless interviews and explored demographic data about their community. They observed a common theme in what they learned: Teenagers were experiencing extreme anxiety, stress, and a crippling fear of failure. What’s more, this fear of failure was keeping young people from trying new things or pursuing activities and interests simply for enjoyment rather than evaluation.
Phase 2: Interpreting
- Why is the dominant issue we’re observing in our community happening?
- What’s the root cause?
- What community assets are present?
The team then dug beneath the surface of teen anxiety and stress to unearth the root causes. They realized that not only did young people experience the mental health impacts of a fear of failure, but the problem ran much deeper. Teenagers in their community felt that if they failed at anything (school, sports, extracurriculars, etc.), then they were fundamentally a failure. The team also learned that this internalized belief wasn’t just a concern for teenagers in their community but was also at play for adults.
Phase 3: Norming
- What should be happening in our community according to God’s desires for people and creation?
FUMC’s Innovation Team reflected theologically on how God might respond to the belief that to fail at anything makes a person a failure. They discerned that the gospel story liberates people from the fear of failure because God’s grace and love are freely offered, no matter one’s performance. They realized that humans are created to enjoy life, to laugh, and to simply be with one another.
Phase 4: Ideating & Prototyping
- What innovation could we create that would address the challenges/needs identified in our community?
- How can we draw on the community’s assets as we innovate?
Out of the Innovation Team’s work in Phases 1-3 emerged an idea for an innovative ministry that celebrated failure and created low-stakes opportunities for teens and adults to fail alongside one another while prioritizing fun. “Fail→Safe Studios” was born. The team tested various modalities for Fail→Safe Studios, including a series of one-off events during the pandemic. This included a virtual series called “Quarantine Craft Time,” led by Innovation Team members through Instagram Live videos. From their separate homes, participating teens and adults made marshmallows from scratch, created yarn hearts, and did other activities together.
“Because we didn’t have a project idea going into the pandemic, all of Fail→Safe was invented in and largely shaped by the creative, spacious, if bizarre, early months of the pandemic,” said Kat Bair, FUMC’s director of youth ministries during the Lab cohort. “Baking bread? Making papier-mâché? Crafting? Let’s do it! That has proven to be a key part of its DNA.” In May 2021, the Innovation Team hosted the first In-Person Craft Time at their church building. Signs were posted throughout the space that read: “No perfect beyond this point”, “winning isn’t everything”, and “failure is always an option.” The event, and the underlying premise behind it, have transformed the youth ministry at FUMC. More importantly, the ministry is actively transforming how young people and adults think about themselves and what it means to be worthy and beloved by God and others just as they are.
Phase 5: Implementing
- How will we implement this ministry on a broad scale?
Although FUMC’s Innovation Team completed their official Innovation Lab experience, Fail→Safe Studios continues to evolve and imbue other facets of the church’s ministry in response to the shifting needs of their ministry context. “Fail→Safe is now a regular part of the rhythm of community for teenagers and adults, and has generated beautiful and terrible art, delicious and inedible snacks, and more,” Bair said. “It has worked its way into confirmation curriculum, Vacation Bible School, and the community at large as not just a beloved program, but as a way of being in all of the church’s programs. It was originally an occasional one off-event for teenagers, and has now been a teen and parent event, a high school curriculum set, a social media series, and more. While the core has remained the same, the implementation has varied by time constraints, age group, and more to fit into different spaces.”
Applications are open now for the Innovation Lab’s Fall 2023 cohort, launching in September. Over 18 months, you and a team from your congregation will be guided through the Lab’s five-phase Theological Innovation Process, alongside a coach from outside the faith community, while making connections with other innovators around the country. Learn more about the cohort and our other resources on the Center for Youth Ministry Training’s Innovation Lab website. Apply for a cohort by clicking here.
- A New Model for Leading Change by Doug Powe and Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- The Messy Art of Leading Change by Mike Bonem — Podcast episode | Podcast video | In-depth interview
- Christian Social Innovation Starts with Who, Not Why or How by Kenda Creasy Dean
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