Everything Is an Experiment

At the end of your ministry, you’ll regret opportunities missed more than mistakes made.

I'm not afraid of making mistakes. I'm afraid of not making mistakes, because it means I'm not stretching myself. An experimental approach to ministry not only inspires us to try new things, it gives us the freedom to fail.

I view every sermon series as a teaching experiment, every outreach as an evangelism experiment, every small group as a discipleship experiment. Building the largest coffeehouse on Capitol Hill was a $2.5 million experiment. Our vision of meeting in movie theaters at metro stops throughout the D.C. area is an experiment in doing church in the middle of the marketplace.

The beauty of this approach to ministry is that it gives you leadership latitude. People are resistant to change, but it's tough to argue with an experiment. After all, it's just an experiment. If it doesn't work, we'll stop doing it. If it does work, we'll continue improving it. Approaching everything as an experiment not only reduces the tension of opposition. It reduces the pressure to succeed.

Some experiments fail and that's OK. At the end of our lives and ministries, I think we'll regret opportunities missed a lot more than mistakes made.

That conviction is backed up by the research of two Cornell sociologists, Tom Gilovich and Vicki Medvec. According to their study, time is a key factor in what we regret. Over the short term, we tend to regret our actions. But over the long haul, we tend to regret inactions. Their study found that over the course of an average week, action regrets outnumber inaction regrets 53 percent to 47 percent. But when people look at their lives as a whole, inaction regrets outnumber action regrets 84 percent to 16 percent.

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I have my fair share of action regrets. All of us have said things and done things that we wish we could unsay and undo. Who hasn't secretly wished that they could fly counter-rotational around the earth at supersonic speeds and reverse time like Superman?

In theological terms, those action regrets are sins of commission, and they cause a twinge of guilt. But it is the inaction regrets, or sins of omission, that haunt us the rest of our lives. We are left to wonder, What if? I just don't want to get to the end of my life and my ministry and wonder, What if?

Our generation has an unprecedented opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission if we simply redeem the technology at our disposal and use it for God's purposes. But we need to stop doing ministry out of memory and do ministry out of imagination. We need to stop repeating the past and start creating the future.

Maybe it's time for an experiment.

Every church ought to attempt an outreach that is bigger than they are every year. When our church plant was less than two years old we hosted a Convoy of Hope. I still don't know how we did it, but our core team of fifty people pulled off an outreach that fed five thousand people. It was way over our heads, but God loves it when we dream God-sized dreams that require divine intervention. Plus it keeps us from becoming complacent.

Every year we host an Easter Eggstravaganza—the largest egg hunt in Washington, D.C., after the Easter Egg Roll at the White House. How did it start? It started as an experiment, and that experiment has grown into one of our most effective outreach events.

Maybe it's time for an outreach experiment. All you need is a little creativity and a little compassion.

Instead of preaching from behind the pulpit, why not go off-site and shoot a video. Or shoot a trailer to introduce your sermon series and generate momentum.

A few years ago, we rented an underwater camera and filmed a short message based on Micah 7:19, where it says that God casts our sins to the bottom of the sea. We wanted to give people an unforgettable picture of forgiveness, so we had them write out a confession during communion. We put those confessions into a steel box. I put the box in a canoe and paddled out to the middle of a lake while talking about pictures of forgiveness in the Old Testament. Then I threw the box into the water and we filmed it as it sank to the bottom. That video gave people a multi-sensory picture of forgiveness.

The medieval church used stained glass to communicate the gospel in pictures. Our movie theater screens are postmodern stained glass. Why not use them to tell the gospel story in moving pictures.

A few years ago we went to a free market system of small groups at National Community Church. Instead of a top-down approach to discipleship, it's a bottom up approach that gives our leaders the freedom to get a vision from God and go for it. It's an organic way of starting and pruning small groups.

Our church is made up of 73 percent single twenty-somethings, so we don't have many teenagers, but this small-group system gave us the freedom to start a youth ministry via small groups.

Maybe you need to experiment with some free market groups? Why not give Alpha a try. Or maybe you need to design a retreat experience for singles or couples. Or why not launch a new ministry via small groups. No more What ifs?

Mark Batterson serves as lead pastor of National Community Church (theaterchurch.com) in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day (Multnomah) and blogs at markbatterson.com. Mark lives on Capitol Hill with his wife Lora and three children.

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