A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: AN EXPERIMENTAL CHURCH
For the last three years, we’ve identified as an “experimental church.” If you play out the metaphor of the scientific method there, you have a sense of how we approach ministry. In a scientific experiment, you start with a question, usually some version of “What would happen if…” Then you do background research, checking out what is already known about your question. Based on that work, you form a hypothesis, which is your best prediction of the answer to your question based on what you already know or can deduce.
Then you’re ready to do an experiment, in which you test the hypothesis by actually trying something to demonstrate your hypothesis. The experiment produces data, which you evaluate and then determine whether it proves your hypothesis. Which means that every good experiment “succeeds,” whether your hypothesis is correct or not, because no matter what happens, you learn something important that you can apply to future hypotheses and experiments.
Here at First Pres, we have conducted countless experiments to help us determine the most faithful and effective ways we can be accomplishing our congregational mission to “explore how God’s gracious love gives meaning to our lives and inspires us to address the needs of the world.” Those experiments have sharpened the impact and understanding of everything from our worship services, to youth ministry, to what kind of staff we need, to how Session operates.
Our most recent big experiment has been the School Age Virtual Learning Center. In August, when the Bethlehem Area School District announced its hybrid plan for school children in light of the pandemic, many families and caregivers found themselves in a very difficult situation: how do you work a full-time job when your children are learning from home three days a week? Seeing this crisis developing, we began asking the question, “What would happen if we met that need by creating a place where families could drop off their kids to do their remote learning under adult supervision?”
Our background research helped us quickly create a hypothesis of what a safe and effective learning environment along these lines would require, that this would fulfill our congregational mission well, and that there were more than enough families who needed such a resource and would respond to this opportunity to make it financially viable. Our experiment, then, was to design and market a small version of a program that fulfilled those we could conceive that would let us test the hypothesis.
What we learned was that we were right about the first two elements of the hypothesis, but incorrect about the third: despite what our background research indicated about professed need for such a program, including a massive wait-list for the school district’s own program along these lines, we did not get enough interest from families to make the program viable, even with several “sub-experiments” to generate alternative revenue and allow the program to build over time. So, last Monday the Session reluctantly made the decision not to launch the full program.
I want to thank all those who worked so hard on this important experiment, especially the Session’s Preschool Task Force under the leadership of Becky Gorton and Elizabeth Conard, and our Preschool Director Andie Barbehenn. This was a very successful experiment that will inform our ongoing and future ministry with children and to the community in important ways, even if it was not the results we wanted.
And I am excited about all the other experiments in our church that are in the works or already bubbling in our church life. The Worship Committee is developing multiple experiments for digital and outdoor in-person worship as autumn progresses and winter arrives. Congregational Life and Discipleship are doing the same for our ministries of fellowship and education. The Deacons continue to develop new ways of providing pastoral presence and care during a pandemic. And so on.
So, if you have a good question, a strong hypothesis, or an interesting experiment that you want to suggest and help develop for our congregation’s mission and ministry, let us hear about it! See you in the lab…
Grace and peace,