Last year I took a course in Design Thinking, a new discipline focused on smart innovation. The course covered how to use the Design Thinking process to innovate both products and services in the for-profit and not-for-profit world, but did not deal specifically with churches. This model, however, explains why things I’ve tried with churches worked (or did not work.)
Many churches are struggling with a drop off in participation. However, after nearly two thousand years of growth, it seems ridiculous to scrap the current model of doing and being church altogether and start over. Design Thinking supports this viewpoint and offers a low-risk, incremental format for innovation.
Appropriately, the Design Thinking process starts with questions that help an innovative leader develop empathy. Who is involved in our churches, how are they involved, and what do they really care about? Design Thinking seeks to find discrete areas in which innovation can be developed and tested. The process is designed to create change incrementally, which minimizes wasted energy and expense and avoids alienating current participants. Many churches have begun this part of the process already. For example, at a church I served in the past decade, some of our older members struggled with physical challenges. The church had already added a handicapped ramp and sturdier railings on the main entrance, but I noticed that some folks struggled to get downstairs to attend coffee hour after church, so they stopped participating. What if coffee hour were moved upstairs? Any change such as this is often regarded as serious and can be debated for years without anything being done about it, while the problem continues or becomes worse. Design Thinking cuts through that by proposing a trial run of the change for a discreet period, followed by an evaluation.
One of the most interesting parts of Design Thinking is the importance of the “wow” factor.
A change that merely solves a problem but doesn’t “wow” the people invested in the solution is much less likely to result in a lasting improvement. A church that decides to explore the addition of a monthly Intergenerational service should propose a pilot period (say, three to six months) during which something extra-special happens at that service that will excite all ages. Any change is somewhat prone to bumps at the beginning, but a “wow” factor helps people overlook the problems and focus on the positives.
The Design Thinking model holds great promise for affordable, doable innovations in churches. The principle is fairly easy to understand and apply. Church leaders should take notice and start to envision the possibilities.