People look at me sideways a lot. As if to say, “You don’t really get it, do you?”
Oh no I get it. Inertia and entropy are hard at work in youth ministry. The weight of this is how we do things and the gravitational pull of this impacted me so it’ll work today are powerful. It’s hard to imagine anything else working better. When you are working so hard it’s hard to step back enough to ponder, “Is my strategy even working? Can I change these trends with small changes? Or do I need a reboot?”
People look at me weird because I’m a lover and a fighter. It’s easy to leave youth ministry and go into another area of the church. This is why so many youth workers plant churches. It’s not that youth ministry is unfulfilling. It’s that inertia is so strong and leaders don’t think they have the power to turn it around. And all the fighting to innovate into something different is just too difficult. I get it, it’s totally understandable.
But that’s not me. I love this thing enough to fight for it. And I have a feeling a lot of folks who are reading this are the same way.
So how do we fight our way forward?
Here are a few things I’m learning.
Jerry Maguire and Martin Luther both got fired
It’s important to remember this fact. Both Jerry Maguire and Martin Luther wrote manifestos and ignited their own pyre. It might have been the only way to make the changes they needed to see. But that doesn’t mean it is the only way for us to lead the change process. I love manifestos. But the reality is that you don’t need to write one because it’ll probably just get you fired! Instead, live a manifesto!
Too often I talk to folks who can see the problem and think their only option is something radical. Their youth ministry is reaching almost no one. And the weight of those they are reaching is costing them the freedom to reach others. (You have reached the wrong 1% of the population! Let’s call them the easy 1%.) So they think the best way to create something new is to change everything. Trust me, this almost always gets you fired from a church.
Soft innovation is the process of intentional incremental adjustments to what you are doing that can increase the productivity for the whole operation. You know those safety triggers on lawn mowers? Those things drive me crazy because I have to hold my hands in a weird position to keep the engine running on the mower. And sometimes I want to leave the engine running while I clear away a stick or ball in the grass. For me, a velcro cable tie is a soft innovation which solves this problem. I can wrap that around the safety so that I can let go of the mower and not have to constantly restart the engine. It increased my productivity, decreased my frustration, and is fairly simple and safe.
In churches, that’s often the best way to lead the change process.
Lead experiments, don’t change things
One thing I’ve learned recently is to not call change, change. It seems silly by positioning things as experiments but I’ve found that people are willing to give it a try. Change feels like high commitment. But an experiment feels like it’s OK to fail. It’s low committal and it makes people feel like they are part of the process as subjects as opposed to victims of change.
So rather than use a phrase like, “We’re going to change some things around here because we’re stuck in a rut.” I’ve learned I get a better response by saying, “I’d like to try a couple of experiments. Let’s try this for a few weeks and see how it goes.” (Which is absolutely true. If it sucks we’re going to kill it!)
Open the process to everyone
Here’s the last thing that I’ve learned as a lover and a fighter. It sucks to fight alone. It’s even stupid to think that you can fight alone for very long. (Actually, if you’re completely alone you’re probably wrong in your hypothesis.)
I’ve learned that once I create an environment of experimentation, soft innovation, and failing fast… it spurs on new ideas from EVERYONE. And if you really want to unleash an energy bomb in your midst, start empowering these ideas that come to you. The phrase, “OK, let’s try it!” has earned me a thousand smiles and helped me discover some really cool stuff I never would have found on my own.