Foresight Matters
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Foresight Matters

Rise of the PriestBots: Innovation at the Edge of Faith and Meaning in the Church

By Lyn Jeffery, Director, IFTF Foresight Essentials

The Reverend Lorenzo Lebrija is the founding director of TryTank, a laboratory for innovation in the Church (particularly the Episcopal church) and an alumnus of IFTF Foresight Essentials. He is based in Palm Springs, CA with offices at both of the seminaries that own TryTank: Virginia Theological Seminary (Alexandria, VA), and General Theological Seminary (New York City). Lorenzo blends foresight methods with design thinking to create experiments that draw people closer to faith (you can learn more about his innovative approach in his book, Design Thinking and Church Innovation). IFTF Research Director Lyn Jeffery virtually sat down with Lorenzo in late December, 2021 to learn how he applies futures thinking tools to build new experiences and new communities. (The following is a lightly edited summary).

Lorenzo Lebrija: I just got back from St. Louis, where we’re prototyping a pop-up monastery in the mall. In the midst of shopping, people can take a moment and step away from it all. With technology nowadays it’s really easy! We can create the appearance of lit candles, backlit stained glass windows, surround sound, and twice a day the monks we’re working with in Cambridge, Massachusetts will actually beam their service live from their chapel. The rest of the time, one of the monks will be on a video loop, teaching you for eight minutes on the importance of silence. Then, after eight minutes of silence, the monks finish by singing hymns. We’re even trying to figure out, how do we get the smell of incense without actually burning incense…can we use a little oven or a microwave?! It’s very high-invitation, very low-expectation.

Lyn Jeffery: It sounds amazing! So tell me more about how you come up with these kinds of experiments at TryTank.

Lorenzo Lebrija: Our framework is generally design thinking — discovery, brainstorm, ideation, and implementation. And we always look for the minimum viable prototype because we’re the church, and we don’t have a lot of money! We’re also trying to decentralize innovation in the church; we would never want anyone to think that only TryTank can do it. So we’re setting up innovation hubs around the country. We have about 400 partner congregations now, so we’re really super excited by this.

The pandemic sped up some trends that we already had seen going on — most mainline denominations have been losing about two, two-and-a-half percent of their average Sunday visitors a year. We’re not fully out of the pandemic yet, but my guess is that we will probably see about 15–20% of people aren’t coming back.

So seeing those trends, we try to figure out “how can we be church in this new world?” The pop-up monastery is one example, and another is something we created called Episcopal Prayer on Alexa. If you have a smart speaker, you say, “Alexa, open Episcopal Prayer.” And she’ll say, “The Lord be with you,” and you say, “And also with you.” And then she’ll lead you through morning or evening prayer based on the time of the day. About 500 people on a regular basis, right now, are praying with their smart speakers. And we know from research that if people are engaged with scripture a minimum of four times per week, they’re more likely to be happier, more civically minded, more philanthropic, and also tend to go to church more often. So, our goal is really to figure out, where is the Holy Spirit calling us to be? Where are the people and where can the church meet them where they are, rather than the old model, which was expecting them to come to us?

Reverend Lorenzo Lebrija says mass in a spinning studio. He dubbed this innovation for bringing the church to the people “Spin Church.” (Image provided by Lorenzo Lebrija)

Lyn Jeffery: Really interesting! How does futures thinking fit in with your design thinking and innovation process?

Lorenzo Lebrija: It is about the discovery phase. It actually allows us to see things that research doesn’t tell us. It allows us to see these possible futures that are totally plausible and then we ask, “if that were to happen, what would it look like?” And we ideate based on that knowledge.

Lyn Jeffery: Tell me a little bit about how you came to the futures field in the first place.

Lorenzo Lebrija: When I first began my work here at TryTank, somebody suggested a book by IFTF Distinguished Fellow Bob Johansen. As I got to know Bob better personally, I’m like, “how do I do what you do, how do I think like you?” He told me about your trainings, and because of the pandemic you offered digital trainings, and I was able to attend IFTF Foresight Essentials in 2020. You get to peek behind the curtain a little bit, to realize that you don’t have to be born a futurist. It’s not like you were born, and they smacked you and were like, “Oh, a futurist” and instead of crying you started saying, “What are plausible futures?!” This is something that can be taught.

Lyn Jeffery: You’re actively building a foresight community of practice within the church. How are you doing that?

Lorenzo Lebrija: For myself, I try to read a whole bunch of articles, and I have news alerts to bring in new signals. I have subject area experts every once in a while on topics like the future of leadership. I also have been training bishops — and anyone who will listen to me! — about how to look for signals and drivers of change, and invite them to join a signals gathering network, our “Wisdom Council.” We now have 110 people that I can text from my computer all at the same time, looking for signals and drivers on a regular basis. My goal is that enough signals will come in that we can start to figure out some possible futures, choose the most thought provoking ones, and then turn those into a script.

By the end of this year (2021), our goal is to try to figure out some provocative scenarios, then turn them into a movie. Then next summer, when ten thousand of us gather at our general Convention, we will premiere a movie with some scenarios on the future of the Church!

I’ll give you an example of one. I now firmly believe that with the technology that we have, we are just a few years away from where you could be having a conversation with me, but it would be a bot that looks and feels and sounds just like me, except for two things: it’ll have all the theological knowledge that ever existed, and it would know everything that you’ve ever told me about yourself. So, it would be able to say, “Hey Lyn, I kind of noticed that you sound a little bit down today. That reminds me of this time from scripture when…” So PriestBot is a very real possibility. Then, at the end, you just close it out. That will be one of the scenarios that we put in the movie, someone being able to have a pastoral conversation with a computer.

Lyn Jeffery: I love how many different kinds of things you are doing, with different communities! Last question: based on your experience, what advice would you give to someone who was trying to apply foresight methods to innovation processes more broadly?

Lorenzo Lebrija: The mindset. Make sure that you have a mindset of openness. You don’t have all the answers, just be open to learning, be willing to ask questions and just sort of be immersed in it. Second, trust the process! You’re learning something that’s sequential, and it works. Because futures thinking can be taught. Another piece of advice is from Bob Johansen: do not look for certainty but for clarity. And, in fact, as I talk with people, they want certainty. I cannot offer them that, but I can tell them, “these are some of the possible things that are likely to happen.”

#foresightmethods #futuresthinking #foresight

IFTF Foresight Essentials

Institute for the Future (IFTF) is the world’s leading futures organization. Its training program, IFTF Foresight Essentials, is a comprehensive portfolio of strategic foresight training tools based upon 50 years of IFTF methodologies. IFTF Foresight Essentials cultivates a foresight mindset and skillset that enable individuals and organizations to foresee future forces, identify emerging imperatives, and develop world-ready strategies. To learn more about how IFTF Foresight Essentials is uniquely customizable for businesses, government agencies, and social impact organizations, visit iftf.org/foresightessentials or subscribe to the IFTF Foresight Essentials newsletter.

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IFTF Foresight Essentials

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