Better problem solving in your church starts with these 4 questions.

Jake Mulder Image Jake Mulder | Feb 16, 2018

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I recently presented our Growing Young research to a group of church leaders, when a hand shot up from the back of the room. “I really resonate with what you’ve shared about how adults in our congregation need to step into the lives of young people,” the pastor began, “but the gap in our church just feels too big. How can we help generations that are so different actually connect through meaningful shared relationships?”

My response consisted of four words—words that can revolutionize the way we lead and make decisions about young people and our church.

Now. Why. New. How.

Each word represents a critical question we need to ask whenever we are faced with challenges as leaders. Allow me to explain.

Beyond the problem-solution model

Many of us lead and make decisions using a “problem-solution” approach.

When something’s broken, we fix it.

Perhaps we need a volunteer for a particular ministry, so we recruit someone with the appropriate skills. Or the oil change light in our car comes on, so we take it in for proper maintenance. You get the idea.

In a lot of situations this works well.

When it comes to many of our more difficult or complex situations, however, applying this straightforward problem-solution approach falls short.

Let’s say you’re faced with a decision about changing the worship style in your congregation. The problem seems clear, but most any solution you can come up with results in someone losing out or getting angry. If you keep the worship style the way things are now, you may risk alienating young people. If you make changes and go for something more edgy or contemporary, you may risk offending older members of your congregation.

Or let’s say that your church struggles to attract and involve young adults.

Or you have a colleague who’s not on board with a new initiative you’d like to introduce.

The list could go on and on.

We often feel these problems at a visceral level, yet their complexity demands a holistic and long-term solution. In order to get there, we need to ask deeper questions before taking next steps to make the problem go away. There is an entire field called practical theology that helps us move into deeper action and reflection. The four questions below are taken from Princeton Seminary Professor Richard Osmer's approach. This process both illuminates our current reality and expands our imagination.1

1. Now: What is going on?
2. Why: Why is this going on?
3. New: What ought to be going on?
4. How: How might we respond?

Mapping the path forward

Imagine your church’s current dilemma as a point on a map, and your desired outcome as another point on the map. Prior to getting from your current location to your desired location, you’d need to figure out a few things.

First you’d need to get oriented to where you are now, as well as why you ended up there. Then you’d need to figure out the new destination you’re headed for. Only until you have that information can you actually figure out how you’ll get from where you are to where you want to go.

While this process seems simple—perhaps obvious—many of us don’t apply it to our leadership and decision-making. Instead of surveying where we are or where we’re headed, we just start traveling. The result is that we end up somewhere that may not be strategic or intentional.

Case study: how to use these 4 questions

Let’s apply these four words (and their corresponding questions) to a common ministry scenario.

Last week I met with a church leadership team that was ready to make drastic changes to their worship service in order to draw more young adults. They were convinced that a more updated worship style would be the secret ingredient to young people returning to the congregation. Instead of thinking problem-solution, we agreed to use these four words to first construct a better leadership map, and here’s a summary of what we learned (in about 30 minutes).

1. NOW: What is going on?

The worship style is fairly traditional. Older members enjoy it, but young adults tend to steer clear.

2. WHY: Why is this going on?

At first, the team agreed that young adults avoid the traditional worship (and the overall church) because they prefer more contemporary worship. But then a young adult on the team offered the insight that her peers weren’t primarily looking for a hip or trendy church. They were looking for a church that provided a sense of community and invited them to follow Jesus. She wondered aloud if their church does that well, inside or outside of the worship services.

3. NEW: What ought to be going on?

Another young adult on the team chimed in and shared her hopes that the church would engage her peers beyond just a worship experience, but through relational connection and empathy across multiple areas of the church. As the team continued to discuss and reflect, it became clear that what kept them engaged in this church (no matter their generation) was something much greater than the worship style.

4. HOW: How might we respond?

The team agreed that before making changes to the worship style they wanted to have additional conversation with a handful of young adults to better understand their hopes and dreams for the church. They also wanted to reflect on how to move toward greater relevance and connection with young people throughout other areas of the church too. While they sensed changes to the worship service might take place at some point, there was agreement that changing the worship style alone would be a Band-Aid on a much larger issue.

You can apply the 4 words in any situation or length of time

The beauty of these four words is that they can be applied in all sorts of situations, and for varying lengths of time.

Next time you’re faced with a leadership decision that needs to be made quickly, take two minutes on your own to mentally run through each of the words and their associated questions.

If you’re in the midst of a very difficult decision that may involve weeks or months of planning and dozens of stakeholders, consider using these four words to structure your approach over a longer period of time.

Not sure you have the time for deeper reflection on your decisions? Consider the additional work you’ll have to do (and time it will take) to correct poor decisions or change directions after you’re well into a particular approach.

How to find yourself on the map

Whether you want to make some small improvements or find yourself faced with daunting questions about how to improve your church’s ministry with young people, we’re here to help. Our team has utilized these four words and the field of practical theology to create a Growing Young Assessment to help leaders like you understand your current reality, as well as how to move forward with courage and faithfulness.

Hundreds of other churches have used this assessment to date, and have learned how practices like developing empathy for young people or inviting teenagers and young adults into areas of meaningful leadership can have long-lasting, transformative effects in their ministry.

I invite you to explore the Growing Young Assessment today to construct your own leadership map.

Learn More

1. These four words and their corresponding questions are adapted from the work of Princeton Seminary Professor Richard Osmer. For more, see: Richard Osmer, Practical Theology: An Introduction (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2008).

Jake Mulder Image
Jake Mulder

Jake Mulder is the Senior Director of Strategy at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Fuller's Executive Director of Leadership Formation Division. As Senior Director of Strategy at FYI, he oversees business administration, coordinates new research, develops resources and trainings, and helps the team think strategically. Jake holds a BA in Business Administration in Finance from Western Michigan University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing a PhD at Fuller. Passionate about helping individuals and organizations achieve their full potential, he is the coauthor of Growing Young. Prior to joining the FYI team, Jake worked in a variety of ministry and professional roles, including as a Financial Analyst, Youth Pastor in the Reformed Church of America, Ministry Director with Youth for Christ, and missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Europe and Asia. Jake and his family live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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