by: Meghan Hatcher

The kickoff of a new academic year represents a programmatic re-set in most churches. As kids return to school and fall activities ramp up, each September brings immense shifts in the dynamics, participants, and feel of a church’s ministry. On top of these changes are the continued mental health struggles and profound disconnection experienced by people throughout many of our communities (including many ministry leaders). All that combined means the programs you ran last year might not be exactly what’s needed by the people in your ministry this year.

This fall could be the perfect time to try something new. But how are you supposed to launch a new ministry on top of everything else you’re already managing on a weekly basis? The answer: start small. 

At the Innovation Lab, we are evangelists for the practice of prototyping ministries before fully launching them. Prototyping is the process of breaking a ministry down into its component parts so that each part can be tested individually. The goal is to narrow in on what is actually leading to transformative experiences for people who participate and what’s not.

Launching a new, full-blown ministry this fall might not sound doable, but I bet you do have the bandwidth for prototyping. That’s because prototypes are intentionally small-scale, low-stakes, low-cost, and low-risk. 

Engaging in prototyping helps you and those in your ministry subvert cultural values that say every new ministry must be excellent, perfect, permanent, and constantly in a state of growth (as measured by attendance). Prototyping helps you prioritize the actual goal of the ministries you launch: creating spaces of belonging and purpose where the Holy Spirit can transform people’s lives. 

Here’s an example: Say you want to launch a new small group for young adults dealing with anxiety that’s co-led by a therapist who attends your church. Rather than writing an entire semester-long curriculum, buying a ton of supplies, and recruiting volunteers, consider prototyping the ministry first. How could you test the idea with just a few people first, gather their feedback, and tweak the idea accordingly before fully developing and marketing it to the entire church? 

Follow these steps to embrace prototyping in your ministry:

  1. Discern which ministry idea to prototype: Innovative ideas are grounded in your faith community’s mission, informed by your theology, and responsive to what’s really going on in people’s daily lives right now (not last year or pre-pandemic). 
  2. Determine the most important components of the idea: Every ministry is made up of various components that contribute to whether the ministry achieves its goals and positively impacts people’s lives. Not all components of a ministry are of equal importance. Some are core to the ministry’s ability to meaningfully impact people’s lives and faith. Some parts are fringe, meaning they matter but they’re not as critical. 
  3. Plan and run prototypes: Once you determine which components are core and which are fringe, you’re ready to plan small-scale tests. Prototype at least the three most important components of the ministry. This will help you understand whether the ministry is actually effective before investing more time, energy, resources, and money into fully launching it.
  4. Seek feedback and respond: Too often when a new ministry launches, leaders assume it was successful simply if people showed up. Prototyping requires you to actually ask participants what parts of the ministry were effective and what could be improved, then make intentional changes before convening another prototype. 

Prototyping is a low-stakes opportunity to learn whether a new idea has the potential to be transformative for participants. With so much on your plate as a ministry leader amidst a rapidly shifting religious landscape, starting small and failing small is paramount. This fall, you can’t afford NOT to prototype. 

Meghan is the director of the Innovation Laboratory at CYMT. She holds degrees in journalism; sustainable development and applied sociology; and a Master of Divinity. Meghan has served diverse faith communities through pastoral leadership, youth ministry, new church development, community engagement, and ministry innovation.