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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Church Design - the Gen X programmer's perspective pt 1.

It's time to kick off a new series of posts.  These posts will be centering around a bit of inspiration that came to me a few weeks ago.  They'll explore the concept of Church Design from a generation X programmer's perspective and how to adapt that to one's church.  Church Design is a term (that I may have made up, but probably not) that represents an administrative approach to how a church configures all of its services to meet God's mandate of extending His Kingdom and shepherding its members.  This encompasses things from how the Sunday morning service(s) are executed, the goals of the Sunday morning service, the plan for non Sunday connections, communicating programs and initiatives, plans for outward serving, etc.

Why is Church Design important?  I think the most overlooked changes in culture today is the evolving importance of the personal experience.  Yes, content is still important.  But, how that content is experienced has been an ever growing part of our society for the last 20 years.  People may talk about cultural shifts regarding entertainment, moral ambiguity, the skew toward humanistic viewpoints, and the ironic rise of the "impersonal" social media platform.  But at the root of many of these shifts is a shift toward tailoring experiences to a person's wants, needs, and lifestyle.   

This shift itself  has its roots in the recent advances in technology.   30 years ago, most technology only had to accomplish the amazing or daunting task it was designed to do.  VCRs could play back one's favorite movie and could even go directly forward or back to a favorite scene.  Computers could do complex repetitive tasks in a snap.  Phones allowed instant long distance communication.   But as these technologies became more commonplace, just being able to do their designed intent wasn't good enough.  Convenience and intuitive design were what made the difference between software that was popular and software that was obscure.  If two pieces of software did close to the same thing, choosing the one that was easier or more intuitive to use just made sense (even if the less user friendly software was technically "better").  And even those design models have given way to tailoring an experience that integrates with one's lifestyle.  For example, you may have an online calendar to keep track of appointments and things to do.  It's easy to use, but it relied on you being at your computer or laptop to check the schedule and reminders.  But today we have smart phones that proactively look at your calendar for  you then push out reminders in a way that grabs your attention or is easy to notice.  So if you have a busy lifestyle, you can still keep on top of your calendar.  Long story short, technology has gone from the realm of the interested enthusiast spending hours learning an esoteric language of codes and program flow to something that has worked to integrate its usefulness into one's own life at an intuitive level.  To ignore or overlook these technological advances as an impetus for cultural change would be foolish.

So you might have picked up on where I'm heading with this.  Church Design, much like these experiential technological developments, is what can take a church from the older "just having it work" experience to something that is a bit more tailored to the person.   And that's important because that's what will allow us to connect with someone not just in a peripheral every Sunday way, but in a get God integrated into their lives way, which is how it's supposed to be.  God isn't a bowling night that's fun to experience once a week.  He needs to be our lives.  Much like technology these days is designed to integrate into our lives, Church Design should strive for an experience  that does the same thing.

It's true, we could say that we shouldn't need to adapt to this change in cultural habits and that God will do what needs to get done.  That people should be ok with a traditional "just having it work" design since they're coming for God and not to be entertained.  True, though I have a couple counter points for anyone saying this to consider:
  1. Overall, the people believing in God is on the decline.  One of the primary reasons cited for this is people not seeing how God, and by extension the church, is relevant in their lives.
  2. While God can will and does do the heavy lifting of changing hearts, it doesn't mean we can get away with putting in as little effort as possible.  There are plenty of passages in the Bible, including a parable by Jesus, about taking the gifts God has given us and doing the best we can with them.  Not only does it produce more fruit, but wasting one's gifts is considered a terrible sin.  
Naturally, there are pitfalls to this.  It's all too easy to sacrifice values in order to please people.  But as tobyMac sang, "I don't want to gain the whole world and lose my soul".  Values cannot be sacrificed in order to attract people and it takes constant vigilance to ensure a church does not slip into apostasy.  And many people, when encountering the possibility of "shaking up" their Church Design start to feel uneasy for this very reason.   For me, there's one rule to help assuage such fears:  Are the changes being made to please God or people?  If it's the latter, then it's on the path to apostasy.  If it's the former, then it's on the right track.

 So, why gen X?  Why is that important?  Before I answer this, I'd like to offer one simple phrase to keep in mind: God has planned and designed everything.  This includes the blueprint of each generation with a general "goal" for that generation.   And for now, let's not get into philosophical debates that surround such a simple statement.  Just rest assured God has a master plan.  And if you were to look at the general attitude and overview of the past three generations, you can see some evidence of that plan.   Each still has its positive and negative qualities, but let's just look at what I consider "intent":
  • Baby Boomers:  Lots of them.  Biggest generation of responsible producers.  
  • Generation X:  witnessed and developed many of the technological advances in the last 30 - 40 years.
  • Millennials: Hungry for real, meaningful, experiences.  
Another way to put it is the Baby Boomers grew our economy to abundance, they've set the stage for provision seen nowhere else in human history.  With that provision set, it's allowed generation X to focus on improving the technology to increase one's quality of life through intuitive integration.  And equipped with provision and integrated technology, the drive for real experiences put Millennials in the perfect position to reach out more than any other generation.

As you can see from this, Generation X is kind of a transitional generation.  Our purpose is to take what's been made before us by Baby Boomers and design it to be more integrated, intuitive, and relevant to today's culture for Millennials to utilize.  That's what generation X is uniquely suited to do.  We've witnessed the rapid advancement of technology that has improved people's day to day lives.  When we were young we had technology that was designed to "just work".  Many of us were happy to learn how to use it since just being able to do something like record a tv show or program a computer seemed cool.  But as time went by, technology started to become more friendly for the non enthusiast.  It was a push to make the technology relevant and useful to people who may not care to write their own programs or figure out which IRQ to install their new sound card on (if they bothered to try to purchase and install one on their own).  We've seen the value that such a experiential design philosophy has.  Not only do we know what it's like before and after, we actually understood the how it worked every step of the way.  

With that type of experience on a cultural level, we can apply that same infrastructure when employing Church Design.  It's not done simply for progression's sake, but for recognizing that the type of technological advances that's happened over the past 30 - 40 years are unique in their cultural impact.  It affected the social aspect of our lives far more than other advances in the past.  The ability to communicate effectively has never been so high.  Having technology assist with one's passions and endeavors has never been more integrated than it is now and I expect this trend to continue.

So that's it for a preamble.  Church Design is important and key to churches becoming relevant once again.  Values need not be sacrificed.  The church doesn't have to try to be something it's not.  We just need to recognize what the cultural shift actually is, that being the catering to personal experience, and adapt accordingly.

In my next post on this series, I'll discuss how to apply this style of Church Design to the Sunday morning service.  Thanks for reading!