"Always in Beta"

Several months ago our daughter was in town to run a half marathon. After she had completed the run and various contestants were milling about I noticed one runner wearing a t-shirt with the slogan "Always in Beta". It took a few moments for that to sink in. “Beta”—a stage of development in which a product is nearly complete but not yet ready for release. Here was an athlete embracing the notion that perpetual development leading to continuous improvement would be her everyday norm. In other words, in her quest to be an excellent runner she was committed to constantly pressing ahead, not quite ever arriving and never settling for stasis.

As I was reflecting on that athlete’s slogan I realized it would make a great church slogan: “Always in Beta.” Here’s the idea: a church committed to being on mission would always be in the development stage where adaptation is normative. Maintaining status quo would be considered unhealthy and abnormal.

As a related aside, consider how “Beta” works in the computing world. As software evolves each new version is tested in its beta form. During this phase bugs are eliminated and improvements made. Finally, the software is rolled out for primetime use. Meanwhile, software engineers are already working on the next version, with an eye to improving the next iteration of the software. I’m really happy for this! I can’t imagine being constrained to MS Dos 2.0 these 32 years after I first started using a computer. Yes, I’ve had to migrate from Dos to Windows 2.0 to Windows 95 to Windows XP to Windows Vista to OS 8 to OS 10, and so it goes. Sometimes the shift to a new OS was frustrating. Yet, I would never go back because today’s operating systems are far more powerful and effective than Dos of yesteryear.

Always in Beta. Even in the church? Why would I propose such a thing? Sounds so anti-traditional and unsettling and taxing. Can’t we just go to church and relax? Well, in a word, NO!

First, if Jesus calls the church into mission, and I believe He does, the church will never fully achieve its God-given mission. There will always be more people to reach, and we must press ahead with our marching orders. And, second, as the culture changes effectiveness in mission will require new methods and approaches to engage each new generation. In a continuously changing culture the church on mission will constantly be adapting. Otherwise, its missional effectiveness will fade. A church always in beta will never allow its strategies and tactics to be set in stone. By necessity, adaptation and experimentation will be the norm, not the exception.

Unfortunately, most churches do the opposite. By nature churches tend to be conserving institutions. They latch on to one or two effective programs, canonize them, and resist dropping them even years after they are ineffective. Some of these ministry approaches sink into the church’s bedrock DNA and become enshrined there. Homeostasis sets in. Years later when the church needs to move to a new location, start a new service, develop a multi-site, grow younger, re-strategize its outreach methods, reach out to new ethnic groups moving into the neighborhood it’s like pulling teeth because “change” is not part of it’s culture. This calcification of methodology is a major reason many older churches become inflexible and resistant to change as the years pass by. This not only threatens their future, but their ability to fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations.

In essence if a church is stuck in concrete and unwilling to adapt it has traded faithfulness to Christ’s mission for tradition and familiarity. It trades new wineskins for old wineskins, a move that saddens the heart of Jesus. Constant change at a pace that is tolerable for the sake of mission effectiveness is that antidote, and must become our new norm. "Always in Beta."

How might your church move into Beta mode? Consider these simple ideas:

1. Encourage ministry experiments. If an experiment fails, which will inevitably happen, learn from the attempt and avoid taking punitive measures.

2. Encourage life-long learning for the pastor and church leaders. Read and discuss a book together. Go to a conference together. Take field trips to see what other growing churches are doing.

3. Conduct a ministry audit. Ruthlessly measure whether a program or ministry is still effective, growing or declining, or hopelessly irrelevant. Make the hard decision to stop resourcing ineffective ministries.

4. Listen to newcomers moving into your community by inviting them to participate in focus groups. Buy their meal in exchange for the opportunity to ask questions about their beliefs, their hopes and dreams.

5. Challenge the status quo, especially when these reasons are used for blocking change: “We tried that once and it didn’t work.” “We’ve always done it this way.” “That would upset too many people.” “’So and so’ will stop giving if we do that.”

6. Celebrate success when a new ministry is found to be effective. Give people an opportunity to tell how the new effort has Jesus has transformed their life because of it.

7. Encourage your pastor to lead the church like an entrepreneur starting up a new business venture rather than a tour director on a cruise ship.

8. If major stakeholders have sacrificed resources, time, space and finances to support something new—such as shifting service times and worship style to reach young adults—thank them again and again.

“Always in Beta” is about recovering the experimental, willing to change, attitude that we see in the ministries of Jesus and Paul so that the church will be continuously effective in mission. This means embracing change and experimentation as an essential part of the church’s culture. Such churches will be full of new, creative approaches to ministries, and lives will be changed. Our God will bless and empower churches who risk adaptation for the sake of His mission.