The Lean Startup for Church Planting

May 30, 2016

by Eric Swanson

Over the past few months I’ve been talking with church planters about what we can learn from the startup community about starting new churches. On my last trip out to the San Francisco Bay Area I brought ten copies of Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and had some great conversations with planters about the soul-bound ties between church planters and entrepreneurs. Without exception it was a conversation all of them leaned into.

I believe that church planters are the entrepreneurs of the kingdom. On a Spirit-led whim, equipped only with vision and mustard seed faith, they have left the security and predictability of an existing church to build something that doesn’t exist with resources they don’t currently have. Church planters have much more in common with tech entrepreneurs than they do with the small group pastor or director of global missions. They want to build something from scratch—not building on another’s foundation (Romans 15:20).

Over the past few years some very smart business leaders have been thinking deeply about how to have the best chance at starting and growing a sustainable business. Led my folks like Steve Blankand Eric Ries, they are redefining how businesses are started. They tell us that a startup is not just a smaller version of larger companies. Startups are a different species of business. The sole purpose of a startup is “to find the sustainable business model.” That’s it. It’s not to make money or get lots of customers. My suggestion is that you watch a few YouTube videos on The Lean Startup. There are some decent book summaries as well as some stump speeches by Eric Ries. You will also LOVE Steve Blank’s Udacity course called How to Build a Startup. If anything you will learn the terminology and process that will make you more conversant with your business and tech friends. In 2013 I hosted six to fifteen co-workers in our home on Tuesday nights where we ate pizza, wings and went through this course together. It was a time of amazing and insightful learning! But in the meantime let me see if I can pique your interest in going deeper.

What is a startup?

Ries defines a startup as “a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” Is there a better definition of a church startup? He goes on to say that the goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build—the thing customers want and will pay for…as quickly as possible. Q. How would you modify that statement for church startups? What does “pay for” mean? In time? In participation? In tithing? What do you think?

The lean startup asks people to start measuring their productivity differently. Because startups often “accidentally build something nobody wants, it doesn’t matter much if they do it on time and on budget.” Q. Can you think of any church plants where planters “built something nobody wanted?” How’d that work out?

Who is the archetype?

Start with your archetype or persona. Who is the person / persons you are trying to reach? Is it the young single professional? Young couples with kids? Poor, single moms? Marathi Indians? For examples of a user story or persona click here. Next create a “user story” for each of your potential customers. A user story defines the “who,” “what,” and “why” of your customer  

Leap-of-faith assumptions

For any tech or business startup to succeed there are certain assumptions that must be true. Ries calls these “leap-of-faith” assumptions because as of yet, they are untested. To have a sustainable business, the following will have to be true:
  1. The customer wants this product or service
  2. The customer is willing to pay for this product or service
  3. The customer wants to buy this product or service from you
Rather than building an entire product or service, each of the above assumptions can be tested by creating a “minimum viable product” (MVP). So an MVP might be a prototype that people can play around with or even a slide deck defining the problem and solution.

Similarly, church planters have leap-of-faith assumptions that must be true for their church to thrive. Such assumptions might include:
  • People here have a spiritual hunger and are open to conversations about God
  • There is a critical mass of unchurched / unconnected believers here
  • People here want to be connected to a meaningful community that’s making a difference in the world. They want to “do life together”
  • People here would like to be led / influenced by me / my team
  • People here would be willing to be fully engaged in a church if we structured it right
  1. What are your “leap-of-faith” assumptions on which the “success” of your church startup hinges? Q. What is your MVP?
Testing your leap-of-faith assumptions through validated learning

Ries and his mentor, Steve Blank, continually say, “There is no knowledge in the room.” Every leap-of-faith assumption must be tested in the streets. We must learn the truth about which elements of our strategy are working to realize our vision and which are just crazy. We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want. We must discover whether we are on a path that will lead to growing a sustainable business. He calls this process “validated learning.” Because the assumptions haven’t been proved to be true (they are assumptions after all), and in fact are often erroneous, the goal of a startup’s early efforts should be to test them as quickly as possible. Q. How could you and your team “get outside the building” to test your leap of faith assumptions?

When to pivot

When reality (what you discover through validated learning) does not match up to your leap-of-faith assumption it is time to “pivot.” A pivot is a change of tactic but not a change of your vision. Lean startups pivot frequently to be effective in finding the right model that leads to growth. “A pivot is a special kind of change designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, business model, and engine of growth.”

For example many planters assume that people want to “do life together” or they want to “love on people” or be “loved on.” They assume people want to be part of a weekly small group. They assume people will want to meet in homes to share a meal. They assume that people will want to be on mission together. They assume people will love the worship style you will provide. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t but you can devise ways to find out if your leap-of-faith assumptions are true…or not. Let the data speak and then either “pivot or persevere.”

“A startup’s job is to rigorously measure where it is right now, confronting the hard truths that assessment reveals, and then 2) devise experiments to learn how to move the real numbers closer to the ideal…”

Build, Measure, Learn

Ries suggests testing your assumptions by creating an MVP as quickly as possible and then testing it with real people and measure their response. Ries calls this the “Build-Measure-Learn” loop. The MVP is that version of the product that enables a full turn of the Build-Measure-Learn loop with a minimum amount of effort and the least amount of development time.  

The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customer respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere. All successful startup processes should be geared to accelerate that feedback loop.

The two most important assumptions

The two most important assumptions to test are the value hypothesis and the growth hypothesis.
  1. The value hypothesis tests whether a product or service really delivers value to customers once they are using it. The true test of the value hypothesis is always a “voluntary exchange of value between customers and the startup that serves them.” Q.What is a concise statement of your value hypothesis?
  2. The growth hypothesis tests how new customers will discover a product or service. Growth comes from satisfied customers telling their friends, marketing, social media, etc. Q. How will your church grow?
The Business Strategy Canvas

This is probably the most helpful tool in thinking through your church startup. Take a look at Steve Blank’s 5 minute presentation on the strategy canvas.


The strategy canvas is a living document that continually changes as you get outside the building and test your hypotheses. Blow it up to poster size and use sticky notes to post your latest thinking.

The power of the Business Strategy Canvas A few months ago a young couple wanted to seek my advice about starting a prayer ministry in an adjacent city. They brought with them their full-blown plan on what they were going to do—events and meetings for all kinds of people. I suggested that they take a look at Steve Blank’s How to Build a Startup. They were very reticent reminding me that the Bible says that we need to be careful whom we listen to. I honestly did not think they’d have any interest. But six weeks later I received a card in the mail:


Thank you once again for taking the time to sit down with us, hear what God has put on our hearts and share…. The Business Model Canvas and Udacity Course have been AMAZING! They have reshaped our thinking and have allowed us to have peace knowing we don’t have to launch as a “fully operational” organizations with tons of services but rather with a viable product / service that is truly needed.”

It’s important to remember that all of this simply fits over what God is doing in your city. Church planting is a spiritual endeavor done by Spirit-filled people but sometimes our best insights come from other disciplines. Recommendations: Look for Lean Startup meetups / events in your city. Introduce yourself as one who is creating a space for people to connect with God, others and the needs of the world. Keep learning, keep validating, keep praying.

This article was originally published on the Leadership Network, click here to see the original piece.
Leadership Development