Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Speculate, Collaborate, Learn

Principles from the Software Industry applied to the Development of Worship Services
"Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds."-------- Alexander Graham Bell

The recommendations, speculate, collaborate, learn, come from an article on software development, by Jim Highsmith, in Software Testing and Quality magazine. The article is subtitled, Software Development to Meet the Challenges of a High-Speed, High-Change Environment. My boss recommended this magazine to me in the interest of both of us keeping our jobs. The article establishes some useful principles that I think are relevant to the task we face in making the church a transforming force in the modern urban environment.
E-Commerce, the field in which I work, is volatile. Start-Ups come and go with the frequency of the hype regarding new technologies and speculative investments in the Internet. It's nice to be in a fast moving field where a lot of money is being invested. There are, on the downside, certain challenges. Those referenced in Highsmith's article involve time constraints, incredibly diverse and rapidly changing technology, and quality control. Investments in quality control are mandated by the large number of worker hours currently being lost while people grind their teeth because the software on their computer screens is malfunctioning. When my wife has spent three hours trying to fix a document because her word processor has done something wrong that is impossible to reformat, I hear about it when I get home, even if I don't work for the company that made the software.
A hord of tenuous software companies are selling stuff that doesn't work as advertised partly because competition in the marketplace mandates feverish development cycles. The constraints are often such that companies will go out of business if they try to design and build perfect software. Therein lies a dilemma: If the software doesn't work, customers are unsatisfied and likely to dump the product, but if too much time and money are invested trying to get it right, the product may not get to market in time at a competitive price. Those of us who go to church find a strangely similar assignment trying to create worship services and ministries that are high in spiritual content without losing people constantly distracted by other pursuits. The river of worship needs to be deep and calming. On the other hand, if it is not fast enough to be engaging to contemporary people, we will not attract enough of them to keep the doors open. To continuously re-evangelize our cities, the church needs to quickly adapt while still maintaining quality.
Highsmith's recommendations for the management of software-development enterprises are interesting because they comprise a methodology for dealing with conflicting requirements and time urgency. Worship services must deal with the same kinds of conflicting interests and urgency in our era of church-growth seminars and abandonment of liturgical forms. Changing old models of engineering and business management have demonstrated commendable results in the software industry. How can we learn from this?
The first of Highsmith's recommendations is to stop trying to anticipate every outcome of our efforts. In a more stable environment, it might be feasible to predict all the features a product must have in order to be viable. But this is not a stable environment. Technology is changing too fast. Engineers and architects used to think Louis Sullivan had it right in his much-quoted dictum: "form follows function." Stuart Brand now says this "misled a century of architects into believing they could really anticipate function." Planning is always going to be important, but rapid change calls for an adaptive product life cycles. If we get something up and running fairly quickly, it can be refined through cycles of testing and customer feedback. Trying to anticipate everything leads to the paralysis of analysis.
Products used to be rigorously designed; now they evolve. It's better to begin with something imperfect than plan interminably, afraid to fail. Another engineer, Henry Petroski, author of The Evolution of Useful Things, argues that, in fact, "form follows failure." It is his contention that "The only way to determine how a product should evolve is to use it." If he is right, failure is the impetus to the evolution of good products. In church, if our objective is to find ways to bring more people into worship services that create an aroma of the Bread of Life, we may have to begin with half baked ideas and deal with our flops when, not if, they come. To really know how something will work, or even know what we might want to do, we have to start someplace and take problems in stride.
Next on the list of recommendations for success in a pressured, uncertain environment is collaboration. People who follow Jesus shouldn't find this surprising. The church was born in an uncertain environment. Pressure? "The blood of the martyrs," Tertullian said, "is the seed of the church." In the face of uncertainty and stress, Jesus told his followers to love one another. The church exists to nurture and cultivate the hopes and aspirations of those who come for respite from a world where they are thoughtlessly used and dominated by whomever has power, at work, at school, in the marketplace, or even in their families and personal interactions. Success in business now requires the collaboration of many people both inside and outside the companies trying to produce useful products. The first lesson for those working in high technology is that many people with specialized skills have to cooperate to get anything done. Managers rely on the expertise of the people they supervise because they simply cannot be informed in all the areas necessary for the completion of their projects. Communication also has to be efficient and thorough as products are tested and problems arise. When the inevitable failures come, fixing blame is irrelevant. The important thing is not who is responsible for an idea that didn't work, but who has an idea that will work for the foreseeable future. As managers are advised to release products for refinement against the flaws soon to be discovered, it is imperative to move ahead through discussion without recrimination. Problems are to be expected.
The body analogy from St. Paul's epistle teaches cohesive action and cherishing all the church's members because all are needed for its proper functioning. In the modern business environment or in church it is going to take the cooperation of many people to accomplish anything. Decision-making has to be collaborative to be any good. This precludes a command-control style of leadership. Chains of command may have worked in the past. Now they will stifle the most innovative and productive efforts of people working together on a lot of problems simultaneously. The objective is to learn and thereby improve, not to control. When you need fifteen specialists in areas only they understand, who knows enough to be in control? A good manager in the present business environment would concur with Jesus when he said, "Among the Gentiles, those with authority lord it over them, but it should not be so among you. Rather, whoever would be great must be a servant, and whoever would be greatest must be servant of all."
This is consistent with the best practices of the early church. When the apostles were overseeing worship, a collaborative order was maintained. People from the rank and file could initiate things. 1st Corinthians 14: 26 says: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. But, let all things be done for edification and in order." Church members were encouraged to bring their contributions before the assembly despite excesses in the Corinthian Church that had elicited Paul's corrective letters. Things had gotten completely out of hand in Corinth. People were engaging in a kind of devotional anarchy and even getting drunk. But Paul didn't suggest the overseers take charge in an authoritarian manner. The collaborative methodology was to be continued, but under a more orderly format. If those instructed personally by Jesus did not govern in an authoritative manner but sanctioned collaborative worship, we should concur. It is fascinating to see this style proving to be the most effective in the software industry where managers are simply interested in getting products to market efficiently and staying in business.
Again, the objective is to learn in order to better serve the objectives, whether in the software industry or in church. In church we don't have to sell our worship services. Market-driven worship will often offend church members whose experience is worth more than the research done by various methods. The gospel doesn't have to be sold; it's free in many different senses of the word. But worship services in a large downtown church are of little benefit if attendance dwindles toward the vanishing point. Everything we do needs to be worked out in a collaborative setting. We should be forthright about criticism without letting it become rancorous, and even more important, without letting failures stop the implementation of new ideas and improvements on the ones that have led to problems. The evaluative process should inform the next stage of development, not lead to a stage where the deliberations go into private negotiations beyond the control of interested parties.
In addition to the rationale that worship planning should be open and collaborative because it is the most productive way to get things done, there is an even better reason. The work of seeking and saving the lost to which Jesus commands his followers must be done in a way consistent with these goals. Hundreds or even thousands of people have been involved in the ministries of most churches since their founding. If there is one message the church should leave with those who have come and those who continue to gather, it is that they are of ultimate concern to God. When church members and those who simply come cannot make their voices heard in worship and in the planning sessions that go into it, and when they cannot contribute to it from their own understanding, the message in unmistakable terms that they will take away is that they are not important enough to the leadership of the church to be taken seriously. This will be the net result of our efforts if we try to impose our ideas on people, regardless of our good intentions. The goal of worship is to bring people into the presence of God with an understanding that their prayers, their praise, and their thanksgiving are important to God and that he will hear them in heaven. How will this objective be served if our committees won't hear them?
Given these goals, worship services cannot be choreographed by planners of any persuasion. They must develop through the inspiration and participation of the laity. Traditional liturgical forms have come to us from the long history of the church. We dispense with them at our peril, but just as certainly, we miss the mark if we obstruct the development of new ideas when they come from sincere contemporary Christians. Worship born of the inspiration of the people who worship is heading in the right direction. People work with what they have, whether from tradition or invention, and the liturgy that evolves can be improved. Imposed order, whether that of traditional forms or that imposed by a trend-following clergy, will usually obstruct true worship. Our job as facilitators of worship--not planners--is to empower and encourage the congregation to participate in worship, not do it for them. We can't.
When we have created services in which there are nearly as many people reading, singing, ushering, teaching, decorating, preaching, and serving in all the other capacities that go into worship as there are those who come only as auditors, we might have something that resembles the model Paul envisioned for the church at Corinth. It will also be a diverse and vital fellowship in which nobody will have to complain that tradition or trends are driving out worship as they know it. This is easier in principle than in practice, but the laity-generated form of worship taught by the Apostle is clear. Worship comes about through the inspiration of the people. Their impulses need to be encouraged, their ideas put into practice without hesitation or much critique. When evaluation is needed, things should be discussed in a collaborative setting. Forms imposed through command-control management practices are likely to be counterproductive. In spite of growing pains, the church should in all its methodology as well as in its declarations bring people into the presence of a God who draws them into worship because He has been looking for just what they have to offer.

1 comment:

Jason Silver said...

Wow. What a great article!

You wrote this back in April, and I just found it now by searching for Worship Planning. Amazing.

I'm a software programming myself, and recognize what you say about planning as true... open source software is often more appealing and user-friendly for exactly that reason-- no dictatorship in it's design, it's open to criticism and improvement from the masses.

Though worship planning isn't exactly, directly transferable, I see the connection points too. As a paid worship pastor, though, I recognize that I have the time needed to think through worship and the needs of our congregation more than volunteers do. We use teams to share the planning, but most seem quite content to let me design elements myself. I'd like more input from people, more invention from people, but it can be like pulling teeth at times. :)

A program I've written, called ServiceBuilder, allows online collaboration with worship team members. I hope it's okay that I linked to it from this comment spot.

Thanks again for your article. I'm going to do a lot of thinking about this.

~Jason Silver