Prototyping Can Fundamentally Shift How Your Ministry Rebuilds 

By Meghan Hatcher

I’ve heard countless stories lately from ministry colleagues, friends serving in local churches, and others working in non-profit organizations that this fall is a particularly challenging ministry season (after a series of challenging seasons). One refrain keeps being repeated: This is a season of rebuilding. 

Inherent in the idea of rebuilding is the reality that what’s rebuilt won’t look identical to the original model. It can’t. We aren’t rebuilding ministries based on the original blueprints, and some of the building blocks we were working with prior to the pandemic aren’t even available now. There are elements to grieve in this present reality, to be sure, but there is also immense opportunity for creativity and innovation. 

So what does one do when rebuilding without original blueprints or building blocks? You try things and see what works and what doesn’t. Then you tweak and try again. This is the process of innovating. 

“Innovation” can sound intimidating, especially in a season like this one. But the core concept of prototyping liberates us from the pressure of developing a perfect, sustainable ministry right out of the gate. 

Prototyping in ministry is the process of breaking down a ministry idea into its component parts and testing each part individually. The goal is to narrow in on what is working well within the ministry and identify what needs to be improved so it can become the best version possible. 

The practice of prototyping is ongoing and never truly stops. It’s low risk, low stakes, low cost, and high reward. Prototyping lends permission to ministry leaders to start small and fail small with a new ministry idea, and the opportunities for learning are endless.

Consider this example: First Presbyterian Church hopes to address the challenge of elementary and middle school-aged kids in their community not having a safe place to go after school. They have an idea for an innovative ministry that might meet this need. The team wants to prototype it to be sure they’re on the right track before investing countless financial resources, staff bandwidth, and volunteer time. 

The ministry is called Kids PlaySpace – a sports-centered, after-school program that offers homework help, nutritious meals, and meaningful connections with multigenerational adult volunteers. As they plan prototypes for Kids PlaySpace they need to break the ministry into its component parts. 

“After-school program” is a system of components that are intended to address the challenge of kids not having a safe place to go after school. “Sports” is a component of the after-school program; “homework help” is a component; “nutritious meal” is a component; and “meaningful connections with multigenerational adult volunteers” is a component. 

The team developing Kids PlaySpace will work together to test each component through a prototype. They’ll invite a small group of participants to try out the ministry and offer feedback. This approach allows them to discern what’s most important to actually addressing young people’s need for a safe place after school and what might need to change so the ministry is more effective.  

Through their prototypes, perhaps they learn that the young people interested in Kids PlaySpace actually prefer board games over sports activities. Maybe the team at First Presbyterian made an assumption that students need homework help, but what kids actually crave is help developing their leadership skills. Perhaps one prototype shows them that some of the kids have a passion for cooking and want to be involved in meal planning and preparation. Maybe they learn that what is positively core to the ministry is the relationships that form between older adult volunteers and young people so, whatever they do, this relational component should be prioritized.   

The team at First Presbyterian Church would never have known any of these insights without prototyping the ministry before fully launching it. Traditionally, they would have moved full-steam ahead developing Kids PlaySpace based only on their assumptions. They would have missed an opportunity to demonstrate the love of Jesus in impactful ways in their community. And they would have wasted significant time and resources developing a ministry that couldn’t actually meet its goals. 

Instead, prototyping showed them how to create a ministry that could truly meet young people’s needs and transform lives. Every ministry has the same opportunity to embrace this way of developing innovative ideas. Embracing the concept of prototyping is a fundamental shift that can transform leaders, entire churches, and communities. 

Want to learn more about prototyping in your context? Join the Innovation Laboratory for a virtual workshop called “Rebuilding Your Ministry Through Prototyping.” You’ll learn how to prototype in your context. We’ll discuss how to reframe “failure” as you rebuild, why program longevity might not be the right metric for this season, and how to develop and test ministries that meet your community exactly where they are. Join us on Oct. 20, 10-11:30 a.m. CST via Zoom. Register by clicking here [