Lean Youth Ministry

This years holiday reading included Eric Ries’ The Lean Start Up: How constant innovation creates radically successful businesses. Here is a useful summary of the book I came across on YouTube…

The lean startups big idea is that when creating products we make a lot of assumptions about the needs of customers. The danger of this dominant approach to business is that we end up creating things that the customer doesn’t want or won’t engage with, Peter Drucker writes

“there is surely nothing quite as useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all”.

The lean startup is on a mission against waste in business, “in every industry we see endless stories of failed launches, ill-conceived projects and large-batch death spirals. I consider this misuse of people’s time a criminally negligent waste of human creativity and potential”.

Eric’s words resonated with me as a youth worker, time and time again I watch as my best-laid plans fail to connect with a critical mass of young people. I have watched as myself and others have created events or rescources that have had great vision and creativity yet when implemented – a handful of young people have turned up and fewer still really connect with what is happening on a spiritual level.

This approach is costly on the youth worker, its demotivating and its my observation that this could be one of the factors of burn out in youth minstry – who wants to work for a failing buisness?

The lean startup, however, encourages us to think differently. Firstly Eric suggests we create a “Minimum Viable Project” (MVP). The MVP is a kind of BETA version, its the version that is most viable with minimum time and resources. The purpose of an MVP is simply to learn by testing your assumptions. 

Once you have launched your MVP, next we apply a feedback loop: Build, Measure, Learn. Every launch of an MVP is a new opportunity to learn something new about the needs, hopes and desires of the young people we work with, its an opportunity to create alongside them a “product” that they actually want to be a part of and one which will actually benefit them. This also opens the door for innovation as it requires us not just to “do what we have always done before” but to deeply and intentionally reflect on what is needed in our work with young people.


Let’s apply this idea:

  • 1 – Vision
    We may have the vision to start a brand new youth club in our church, a safe & fun space where we can connect with young people in our community.
  • 2  Identify the underlying assumptions:
  • That young people will regularly come out for a youth club
  • That young people who are already in the church will attend, AND that they will invite friends
  • That young people will enter a church, even for something fun
  • That the things you put on will be more fun than the competitors (Game’s consoles, sports clubs etc…)

So before creating an entire programme for the term, branding, spending hours deciding on the best name, buying a table tennis table and finding a bigger team you instead…

  • 3 – Develop your MVP

How could you test your vision and assumptions to see how this might work with minimal time, effort & resources?

How are you going to measure this?

Perhaps you might borrow some games equipment or hire in a company to run activities for an evening (laser tag etc…), you could partner with a local school to let young people know that there is an event on and encourage young people who attend the church to invite friends along. Next, you test your assumptions. One measure in this circumstance might be the number of young people who attend the evening (although numbers are not always a helpful measure!), perhaps also asking for feedback on the evening and asking young people if they would come again.

  • 4 – Pivot or Persevere 

If it went really well, great! You might persevere with your vision. However, if it didn’t – you haven’t failed! You have learnt something valuable and what happens next is that space is created to do something truly innovative…

Say young people don’t come, or your church young people do but they haven’t invited anyone else along with them… it’s time to pivot. In other words, its time to adapt the vision around the preferences and needs of your young people. You might try to change the focus from fun to something else – “will they come out for a debate” or perhaps rethink fun? “will they come out for a movie evening?”. Or perhaps the assumption that needs to pivot is your expectation for them to come out to a church, perhaps what is needed is for you to meet them in their spaces, both real and virtual ones?


What happens as a result of the lean startup model is that we spend our time and energy ensuring we create the right thing. It leaves space for us to be truly creative and end up trying things that have perhaps never been done before (surely the current crisis in youth ministry calls for this kind of innovative thinking?). Something else that also happens is that we actually begin doing youth work proper (controversial!?!?). The goal of youth work after all is to empower young people to partipate, lead and have their voices heard. In other words, it is not about us putting on events for young people, but rather enabling young people to have a voice and empowering them to take control over their own lives. The Lean startup helps us do this by ensuring that our work is not based on our assumptions but rather the actual needs of young people.

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