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June 3, 2018

“Designing Worship like IDEO Designs Everything”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Open our eyes that we might see wondrous things in your word, Amen.<<

In 1999, ABC’s Nightline did a piece on IDEO, a global design firm based in Palo Alto, California.[1]  Nightline asked IDEO to design a better shopping cart in five days.  (I’ll return to this story in just a moment.)  IDEO has designed all sorts of things.[2]  In 1980, Steve Jobs asked IDEO to design a better mouse for personal computers – that design is still used today; IDEO designed the notebook computer – the laptop.  They’ve designed new methods for improving the quality of life for young adults with Schizophrenia; designed ways to improve the treatment outcomes and overall experience of healthcare; they’ve designed online pharmacies; drug-free alternatives to chronic pain; birth control support networks for women; new generations of heart monitors; better patient experiences in emergency rooms; and are working on a project called “redesigning death” to improve the end-of-life experience.  IDEO has designed better emergency evacuation plans for the city of San Francisco; designed better ways to cast votes in Los Angeles; a human-centered way to deliver government services in Singapore; helped New York City prepare for flooding; designed a citizen-centered website for residents of Boston; streamlined health insurance enrollment in California; designed digital literacy apps for children in schools; designed a social learning environment in China to help children learn English; designed a student-centered cafeteria experience in San Francisco; and designed an entire school system in Peru – from k-12 curriculum to campus layout – called Innova Schools to improve the education experience for children.  IDEO even designed the twenty-five foot mechanical whale in the film Free Willy.  If you want a design or a redesign – and it doesn’t matter what it is – IDEO is your firm.  Their not experts in any one area; they’re experts in the process of designing stuff.

Now, back to the ABC Nightline special.  In that segment from 1999 titled The Deep Dive, ABC’s Jack Smith presented a challenge to IDEO designers:  build a better shopping cart in just five days.  The ABC crew filmed each day of the redesign process from initial brainstorming to final product.  Twelve IDEO designers were involved.  Like a First Congregational Church committee meeting, the shopping cart designers were an eclectic group:  a Harvard MBA; a linguist; a marketing expert; a psychologist; a biologist – all were at the table.  Each one equal.  No seniority in the design process, no professional titles, no permanent assignments; each person’s unique skills valued, each perspective important, because, in the words of the shopping cart designers, everyone uses a shopping cart, so everyone has an opinion.  The designers examined every angle of a wire shopping cart.  And then they hit the road to watch real-life shoppers in action – shoppers’ struggles with navigating grocery store aisles, the many shopping cart traffic-jams at check-out, the stuck wheels, the safety concerns for children, children clinging to shopping cart fronts for a ride, etc., etc.  Then the designers reconvened in small groups, shared their fieldwork findings, and set to work on something fresh.  Long hours over the next several days led to a streamlined plastic prototype with smoother wheels and removable baskets, and hooks to hang bags on.  That prototype for the ABC show was given to Whole Foods, and became the model used throughout their stores.

Like in a congregational church, IDEO’s is a team-centered approach, where everyone’s opinion is considered.  Ideas are discussed – even wild, innovative ones.  IDEO calls these idea-engines “focused chaos”; and they follow two mottos:  “fail often in order to succeed sooner”; and “enlightened trial and error succeeds over the lone genius.”  In his book Change By Design, IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown writes, “‘all of us are smarter than any of us”; and “every problem – from adult illiteracy to global warming – [is] a design problem.”[3]

Our Sunday morning service is designed every week; but your opinion matters – which is why we’re encouraging you to fill out the Worship survey to help us answer the question:  How can we design a better worship experience for you and for our congregation?  Worship services are designed – designed with three main movements:  “Gathering,” “Listening,” and then “Responding” and “Sending.”  We gather as a community of faith – all of us together – at 10am each Sunday.  Gather as a single body – the body of Christ – like on that first Pentecost.  Gather from all walks of life and from different places on the journey of faith.  Gather to listen during that focal moment in our service – rooted deeply in our Protestant tradition:  the Word.  The word read from scripture, preached in the children’s time and from the pulpit, sung by our choir during the anthem.  And then we respond to that word.  Respond with our prayers and our gifts.  And respond to that word by being sent out to “be the church.”  Three parts of the service.  Three hymns to match each part:  a gathering hymn; a meditative hymn in the middle; and a sending hymn at the end.  Church is a noun – a space and place.  But it’s also a verb.  A series of movements and actions; a staging area for action and mission and ministry to the communities and neighborhoods outside our walls.  Church is a way of being throughout the week.  It’s a verb, an action, a movement.  Motion, dynamic, full of spirit – a churning spiritual engine in our world, a moral conscience for our world, a testimony to our world of a God, who is herself divine motion:  resurrector, creator, life-giver, inspirer.  Today we conclude our three-part series on the Order of Worship by focusing on the third part, the third movement – the responding/sending part of the service even as we keep in mind that all three parts – all three movements – are, like IDEO’s designs, about the human experience, the human experience of the divine – the divine encountered in this community we call “church.”

Today’s scripture readings, especially the Old Testament and gospel readings, are examples of ancient, “design” thinking, so to speak.  Today’s Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy – the fifth book in the collection known as the “Books of Moses”:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and today’s book, Deuteronomy.  Books that tradition ascribes to Moses, but which came together over centuries through the hard, design thinking and work of many authors and editors.  Today’s Deuteronomy reading is a portion of the Ten Commandments.  And is a redesign of the work week.  A redesign that incorporates the element of rest – of Sabbath rest.  Rest with a social justice edge.  The fourth commandment – the command to Sabbath – is not a “thou shalt not” command, like the commands “thou shalt not murder”; or “thou shalt not covet.”  Today’s command is a positive command – a “thou shalt” command.  “Observe the sabbath day” says the command:  “you, your children, your laborers, your animals shall rest.”  This command to rest applies to everyone, not just owners but also workers.  CEOs and laborers.  Company executives in London and assembly-line workers in Indonesia who stitch clothes.  Farm owners and the undocumented farmworkers, who milk cows and pick corn.  Everyone deserves rest.  Anything less is unjust and exploitative – a breach of God’s labor contract with humanity.  The fourth commandment is an IDEO-type, work-week redesign.  But it’s a vague redesign.  The command to rest from work doesn’t define what is meant by “work.”  So, in the time of Jesus, religious scholars designed various definitions, calling these definitions a “fence” to protect the commandment.  In a second century rabbinic text called the Mishnah there are 39 definitions of “work”:  sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, cleansing crops, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing or beating or dying it, spinning, weaving, making loops, weaving threads, separating threads, tying a knot, loosening a knot, sewing, tearing, hunting animals, slaughtering or flaying or salting them or curing their skin, writing letters, erasing words on a letter, building, pulling down, putting out a fire, lighting a fire, striking with a hammer, or carrying something from one house into another.  Anyone – the owner, the worker, the undocumented worker – who did one of these things was in danger of breaching the social justice Sabbath command to rest.  Non-Jews in antiquity knew about this work-week redesign – that Jews rested on the Sabbath, which is why the Roman army was hesitant to hire Jewish soldiers:  Jews wouldn’t march on the Sabbath, because marching was working.

But Jesus, in today’s gospel reading from Mark, pushes this IDEO-type redesign of the work-week further.  Today’s gospel reading contains two Sabbath stories:  a plucking story and a healing story.  In the plucking story, the disciples of Jesus pluck grain and nibble at the kernels to fill their hungry bellies.  In the healing story, Jesus tells a man who is differently abled to stretch out his withered hand.  Both, according to some schools of thought in antiquity, constituted work and thus a breach of Sabbath law.  But Jesus was progressive; and he redesigned the command to rest around a principle – a principle we still follow today in the progressive Christian tradition:  people before precept.  If filling hungry human bellies by plucking grain breaches Sabbath law, according to Jesus, then so be it.  If healing a man on the Sabbath breaches the law to rest, according to Jesus, then so be it.  People matter more than a precept.  If welcoming the LGBTQ community into churches with wide open arms breaches a tiny handful of ancient precepts around sexuality in scripture, then so be it:  people matter more than a precept.  If housing slaves or caring for undocumented people breaches the laws of a nation, then so be it:  people matter more than a precept.  Precepts can be changed.  But people are precious.  And people can be damaged forever by harmful precepts – by harmful religion.  People are beloved children of God, children of God through whom divine light shines, as St. Paul says in today’s reading from Second Corinthians.  The health, wholeness, the salvation of people matters more than adherence to cold precepts.  People before precept.

Putting people first is a religious redesign – an IDEO-type redesign – that we find across progressive traditions – whether it’s in the UCC or in Reform Judaism or liberal Islam or in the compassionate teachings of the Dalai Lama.  In our denomination – the United Church of Christ – we call this redesign our “list of firsts.”[4]  Our spiritual ancestors were the first to seek spiritual freedom on the shores of America.  They were the first to take a stand against slavery.  The first to awaken people to the transforming power of faith in the Great Awakenings in our country.  The first to participate in civil disobedience in the Boston Tea Party.  The first to publish writings by African American poets.  The first to ordain African Americans to preach.  The first to launch an integrated anti-slavery society.  The first to ordain a woman.  The first denomination formed by joining various traditions instead of by schism.  The first to join the Civil Rights movement.  The first to ordain an openly gay man.  The first to support same-gender marriage equality.  People before precept – a principle that goes back to Jesus himself, and his IDEO-type redesign of the fourth commandment.

A principle we continue to see in our churches today.  Like in that UCC church in Casper, Wyoming – the first organization in town to fly a pride flag.[5]  Rev. Dee Lundberg says the church tries to maintain “a space for Wyoming’s progressive community … , creating … [a place] of ‘tolerance and justice and peace’” as a counterpoint to the fundamentalism throughout the town.  “For Lundberg and Casper UCC, ‘church’ doesn’t simply mean a place of worship.  It’s a community.  ‘My church is by no means all Christian,’” says Rev. Lundberg, “‘[we] have a handful of atheists in [here].  A truckload of agnostics.  They want that community, that tolerant, open, peace-seeking community’. … ‘Every time someone walks through the door and sees the flag,’” she continues, “‘or sits long enough through a sermon, and you see their shoulders kinda relax, or they say something in the prayer time that they finally feel like they’re home or with their people, or it’s okay for me to be who I am – you can’t put a price on that … .  That’s what it’s all about.’”  It’s people first.

It’s the same principle – the redesign principle that goes back to Jesus – that we find at Love in Action UCC church in Philadelphia, where a transgender woman named Jennifer “found a spiritual home … .”[6]  Her story was featured on Vox Media.  Jennifer said when the producer of the Vox Media show heard about Love in Action UCC – a church that accepted her as a person and child of God – the producer said, “‘Really?  There’s a Christian church that welcomes trans people?’”  The pastor of Love in Action UCC, Rev. Josh Blakesley said, “‘Often those of us in UCC circles forget how fortunate we are. … Every time I speak to someone outside of UCC or UU contexts,’” he goes on, “‘[I’m] saddened by the continued rejection of … people by Christian churches.  Perhaps it is because the loud voices who present themselves as “Christians” are often hateful or discriminatory … .  It also calls to my attention the increased need for all of us in welcoming congregations to be louder with our welcome and stronger in love and cooperation.’”  Jennifer said it took her more than a year to muster the courage to show up at Love in Action.  “She vividly recalled the first time she arrived for worship in February 2017.  ‘A greeter met me at the door and welcomed me warmly.  I could barely speak,’ [she said.]  ‘I slowly walked up the stairs to where worship was just about to begin.  I was terrified.  I found a seat in the back and sat down trying to ignore everyone around me.  But ignoring people who kept coming up to introduce themselves and welcome me proved to be difficult.  Everyone was [so] kind … .  [People] sat next to me like guardians. … I began to wonder if it could be true – that this was truly a safe place. … [But] I saw it was true.  Never before had I felt so safe … .’”

…This is church as a verb.  It’s why our Sunday morning service is designed around a pivot – a pivot from “Gathering” and “Listening” to the action of the people:  “Responding” and “Sending”………and welcoming – welcoming everyone around a common table.  Actions that put people first, like Jesus taught us to do so long ago in his great IDEO-type religious redesign.  Amen.


[1] Watch it here:  https://www.ideo.com/about

2 See:  https://www.ideo.com/

3 Tim Brown, Change By Design:  How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (New York:  HarperCollins, 2009), 26, 38.

4 http://www.ucc.org/about-us_ucc-firsts

5 https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/casper-wyoming-united-church-of-christ_us_59df0270e4b0fdad73b20679?section=us_religion

6 http://www.ucc.org/news_trans_woman_pennsylvania_church_share_story_of_love_acceptance_with_national_audience_03102018?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+UnitedChurchOfChrist+%28United+Church+of+Christ+News%29