MeTalk: Agile Church

whiteboardIt the world I came out of, software development, there was no more curst task than requirements development.  No one ever wanted our products just as they were, they always needed to be adapted to each customer.  So, it was the job of some poor unfortunate souls to be in meeting after meeting with different groups and define exactly what would be changed.

I, as you can tell, never enjoyed it.

Part of the problem was it was tedious.  The other problem that in most cases it would seem pointless.  In a perfect world you could document all the necessary changes, go back to the office and spend a few weeks (or months) making them, then install the modified version and be done.  Of course, in this place I live called the real world, it never worked out that way.

You would discover quickly that unintended consequences, improper assumptions, or out right misinformation had caused you to do something that simply won’t work.

Today, many groups in the software biz are changing tactics.  Instead of putting out big products that update every few years (think Microsoft office 2000, 2003, 2007, 2010), they are putting out smaller versions on a much regular basis.  Changing by smaller degrees over shorter periods of time instead of pushing them out in one big lump. This goes by several names, but the process that is used to create these products is typically called agile development.

This came to mind recently as I sat in a meeting justifying a budget request to our conferences finance committee.  I head a team that is in charge of planting new churches and we have a place we’d like to bring a new worshiping community to.  So the obvious question to ask is, “what do you want to spend the money on?”  My answer, “I’m honestly not sure.”

grand opendingOften times we in the church tend to lean towards monolithic projects not unlike those of my previous life.  We allow a small group of people to dictate what the new church, worship service, community event, or mission project will look like.  We get the picture of it clear as possible in our minds, then set about building what we see.  Finally, after a great deal of work and often times money, we unleash our creation on the masses.

It is then of course that we find what we overlooked or misinterpreted.

This isn’t unrecoverable, but it is harmful.  The problem is that it can be discouraging to have a major effort fall short.  For evidence see Windows Vista.

Instead, I would argue that we need to have a more agile approach to things.  Starting small, and letting time and experience guide us where we need to go.  Our new church start will be based on equipping and allowing a small group of people to explore the community we’d like to serve.  They will then create a number of experiments that will allow us to connect with new people in new ways.   We are relying on organic processes to mold our effort into what it needs to be.

I’ve seen a similar thing at work in my church.  Our Free Store started with a very simple goal: give away things people need.  Over time we’ve learned better and better how to address what’s really going on in our community.  Coffee and cookies were not well received.  However, because the schools don’t offer free breakfast/lunch on Saturdays, hot soup and bread have been a great success.

What we stock has developed over time as well, dictated by what people tell us they need most.

It’s a small example, but an important one.  To often we go down this path of putting massive amounts of time and energy into things based on a set of presumptions that may or may not be true.  Instead, we need to start small, develop a comfort with failure, and allow things to develop over time.

The greatest barrier to doing this type of work is truly allowing the new people we encounter to shape the project.  We are so very good in the church of giving all the control to the insiders, which is often the exact opposite of what we need to do.

I’m not sure how it ended up this way.  We are moving towards Easter at warp speed, the event at the center of all we hold dear.  Yet, this same event reminds time after time that God came to Earth in Jesus and did what we needed him to do.  Christ did not go to the cross and rise from the tomb for his benefit, he did it for ours.  It is the ultimate example of letting the needs of others shape your actions.

So, as the Body of Christ on Earth, how do we do any different?