Many churches I know are anxious about their future. Faced with troubling trends of declining attendance, dwindling budgets, and decaying buildings, congregational leaders face increasing pressure to come up with solutions to these problems.
I should know, because when I was a pastor, I spent many waking hours wrestling with this issue.
It didn’t help that I wasn’t a particularly “visionary” pastor. I was upfront that I wasn’t likely to bring down a set of tablets from Mt. Sinai that contained the church’s strategic plan for the next five years.
It also didn’t help that many churches have bought into the notion that one person (the pastor) or one group (the long-range planning committee) is responsible to find the one right solution.
As a result, I, and the congregation, felt stuck.
Recently, I heard an interview and podcast with Dave Evans, a Silicon Valley engineer. He offers up a possible solution called “Design Thinking” for people who feel stuck and not living their ideal life.
I was instantly intrigued about how the designing thinking approach may have implications not only for coaching individuals feeling stuck, but also for churches trying to discover their ideal future.
For me, the main takeaway in design thinking is the notion of “wayfinding.”
Evans says, “When you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t navigate like a GPS would because you don’t have a map and you don’t have all the information. You have to wayfind. And wayfinding means taking one step at a time knowing something about the direction you’re going, trying a few things, tuning it up and then doing it again and doing it again.”
Wayfinding requires that we let go of the notion that there is one right path toward our ideal future.
“So the problem with the current approach that lots of people are taking,” says Evans, “is it starts with the wrong question. And the wrong question is ‘How do I figure out that one best solution to my life? There is one exclusive, unique, optimal version of me, and I’m supposed to already know it, and I’m probably already late. And how do I figure it out? And how would I know if I knew? How can I be sure?’”
“Those are wrong questions,” continues Evans. “Once you realize none of us knows the future, we’re making it up as we go along, so let’s get really good at making it up as we go along. In fact, let’s design it as we go along. That turns out to work much more effectively.”
In his workshops, Evans asks his students to come up with three different paths they could realistically pursue, and take steps to try them out. In fact, he says, the key to successful wayfinding is to try many things, fail early and often, retool, and then try again.
Wayfinding is very different from our usual method of “strategic planning.”
Wayfinding requires that we give up the notion of being able to obtain enough information to predict the future and to find the right path to that future. It also requires that we give up the illusion of control derived from our prior knowledge, careful analysis, strategic planning, and implementation of our plans. Instead of “predict and control,” wayfinding invites us to “sense and respond.”
A Wayfinding God
As I listened to these ideas, I was reminded of a wayfaring God, who calls Abraham and Sarah to “go from your country to the land I will show you” without a map or reassurances. In a similar vein, Jesus tells a parable of a Sower who spreads seeds in all directions to see which ones will take root and produce a crop — a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
Wayfinding in our Churches?
What does wayfinding look like in our churches?
First, let’s consider what wayfinding is NOT.
Let’s use the example of outreach. Wayfinding doesn’t ask the staff to come up with one “perfect” program to do “outreach.”
Wayfinding isn’t about having one person or small group come up with one way.
Instead, wayfinding might look like individuals or groups within the church launching low-cost “experiments” in “new ways of living” (not programs). This might mean starting neighborhood block parties, babysitting co-ops, or senior adult ride-share arrangements.
Groups within the church self-organize according to their interests and passion for a mutual purpose. As these groups forge new friendships and seek feedback, they may gain new ideas about next steps.
Some “experiments” will need to be retooled or revised. Some may “fail.” But some of these might lead the way to a next step, and another.
One step at a time into a new future.
What experiments in wayfinding have you or your churches tried? I’d love to hear about them!