By Meghan Hatcher
The first step in product thinking, as Nikkel Blaase writes in an article for the Interaction Design Foundation, is to “determine the problem that your users are looking to solve.” When done well, determining a user’s problem begins with researching the user’s lived experience. From there, a product is ideated and tested that intends to solve the problem in a meaningful way.
This approach to designing new products is infiltrating the Protestant Church in the United States. Countless workshops, books, training sessions, and consulting contracts have been created to help ministry leaders define and solve the problems facing people in their communities through new ministries.
It’s an appealing offer, of course. Leaders and congregations are told if they can only define the right problems, they’ll be able to develop a solution that will make everything in the Church right again. Pews will be crowded on Sunday mornings and offering plates will fill back up. Parking lots will be full and the church building will bustle with activity again.
But what if the underlying premise, with its focus only on problems, is all wrong? People, created in the very image of God, are not simply the sum of their problems or needs. Every person’s life is a divine and messy mix of both joys and suffering, triumphs and challenges, assets and needs.
To mindlessly adopt product thinking into the practices of the Church is to risk problematizing people while disregarding the living, breathing work of the Holy Spirit in every person and community. This isn’t just bad theology; it’s heretical.
Product thinking can be a helpful way to reframe the purpose of a new ministry as being not primarily about the success of the institutional church, but about transforming the people involved. But this way of thinking only functions with integrity when ministry leaders approach it through the lens of theological reflection. Any new program, event, worship series, or Bible study should be developed as a response to what’s going on in people’s actual daily lives. This includes people’s problems, but it must also include their assets.
To rephrase a sentence from Blaase’s article: “If the problem you choose doesn’t actually exist or the solution you propose doesn’t actually solve the problem – your ministries are going to be worthless to people.” In light of theological reflection, ministry leaders must also consider the assets and gifts every person brings to their church and community. These assets bring value to the ministry, in and of themselves, because people are of tremendous value to God.
An overblown focus on people’s problems and needs, while ignoring assets, puts the Church in the position of creating ministry FOR, rather than ministry WITH. The Church as the body of Christ is not a for-profit company, relentlessly churning out new products to keep up with customers’ demands and generate income. A focus only on people’s problems too often leads to the creation of new ministries that don’t positively transform anyone’s relationship with God, themselves, or their neighbors.
Innovating at the intersection of people’s needs and assets and informed by deep theological reflection, on the other hand, ensures that any new ministry uplifts the active presence of God in every person and every place. Thinking about problems and needs is just one aspect of the equation. Surely God is up to so much more.