7 Silicon Valley Lessons for Church Leaders
One programmer's insights offer help for leading churches well.
7 Silicon Valley Lessons for Church Leaders

I work as a front-end engineer at Yahoo in the San Francisco Bay area. My claim to fame is that I have won the most number of “hackathons” at Yahoo. Hackathons are innovation competitions where we build working product prototypes in 24 hours. These competitions are a great outlet for disrupting the status quo with new ideas, and sometimes these innovations even get funded and can affect hundreds of millions of users.

I’ve learned several lessons with a direct application for other technology companies, as well as organizations in other sectors. I even see how these lessons can benefit church leaders in their day-to-day work, thanks to my service on the communications and finance committees at Bethel Church of San Jose, where I have attended for seven years.

As you work to lead and manage your church’s activities well, perhaps one or more of the following seven lessons will help you:

1. Cross-pollinate between departments. At Yahoo, when I prepare for a hackathon, I start with a grand brainstorming session. I get a lot of ideas from other engineers, but I also find a wealth of ideas from people in our design department, our legal department, and elsewhere. By going beyond those in my department, I get better ideas primarily because of the diversity of thought. In churches, this means empowering various departments and committees to go to each other for brainstorming, planning, and evaluation. When you do, you might see new possibilities never previously considered.

2. Get outside of your bubble. When you’re around like-minded technologists all the time, sometimes you feel like there’s nothing new under the sun. I once attended a design talk in which the speaker cautioned us about the “Silicon Valley bubble.” The people in this bubble are not regular users because many are very tech-focused. They suggested to drive an hour outside this bubble to meet with real users, and gather feedback on products. If those real users think your project is magical, then you know you’re onto something. I’ve experienced this, too. I try to spend about a month back home in Canada during the Christmas season. When I do, I see and hear people interacting with technology. That’s when I am best able to recognize truly worthy ideas. Church leaders should do the same. Attend events and conferences outside of the “church world,” and meet with people who do or don’t attend church to hear more about their stories, their needs, and their interests. Go places where you can observe and interact with people beyond your regular circles of influence.

3. An idea is only as good as you can communicate it. When I completed my graduate studies in computer science at the University of Victoria, guess which course was mandatory for every student? Public speaking. Our faculty understood the critical need for people to not only innovate and create, but then to be able to communicate their innovations and creations well. You see this play out on the television show Shark Tank. When I found the show, I binge-watched a lot of episodes, and over time, I began to see this need for communication play out: Teams could have really intriguing ideas, but their presentations were poor and their pitches were shot down. In a church, leaders must have the ability to communicate an idea quickly, concisely, and effectively so that others can understand and process it.

4. Once an idea takes hold, make sure it sells with your team. Every week at Yahoo, we have an all-hands event for the entire company. We discuss the latest initiatives and products, and executives respond to employee feedback during a question-and-answer time. The reason: If you can’t sell your team on an idea or project, you’re highly unlikely to sell the end user. Once an idea or project catches on, church leaders are wise to make certain the staff and key lay leaders believe in it and buy into it, too, before going to the church board and congregation.

5. When an idea becomes reality, use “bucket” testing. “Bucket” testing means you offer two variations of a concept to two different groups of users. It’s a really smart way to find the best-performing features and incorporate them into your product. Technology companies often do this for websites with “A/B” testing (gauging how some users interact with “Option A” of a site while also monitoring how other users interact with “Option B”). In a church, bucket testing could be used to determine the best features and best optimizations for a church’s website.

6. Don’t underestimate the power of small changes. I volunteer for my church’s communications team. Last year we re-launched our website with a big redesign. One thing I noticed was that our video traffic declined. The team thought it was due to natural traffic patterns driven by seasonality. But after the season passed, the traffic stayed down. I looked into it further and noticed the video play button on the church’s homepage was an off-shade of gray, and it was hard to see. I suggested changing the play button to a more prominent color like red. Traffic soon returned to normal. Sometimes, just a minor tweak can make all the difference—and it doesn’t require vast amounts of research or user data. Keep this in mind for all facets of church life. If something isn’t working well, don’t assume a major change is required. Study it to see if a small and simple change is all that is needed.

7. Leaders make decisions that change people’s lives. When I used the Internet for the first time, I came across this amazing thing called “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” which became what we now call Yahoo. From that point on, I fell in love with computers and programming, leading me to study computer science. When I finished grad school I thought I’d try applying to Yahoo, which I considered the big leagues. A week after I interviewed, I remember a mailman walking up to my house with a purple box that yodeled when I opened it. Inside I found my job offer. My life changed that day. In Silicon Valley I’ve come to realize how much leaders influence the trajectories of people’s lives. The same is true of leaders in churches. This is a power that should never be taken for granted. You hire someone and it changes their life trajectory. The same is true when you let someone go. It’s also true when you assign someone specific responsibilities, or focus on developing certain skills and knowledge of theirs. Remember to recognize the power you have to shape someone’s life. With this power comes great responsibility. Use it carefully and prayerfully.

Chris Chan is a front-end engineer at Yahoo and a member of the communication and finance committees at Bethel Church in San Jose, California.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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