Lab or Factory or Church


My mind has been spinning for the last week on a recent Seth Godin post, “The Lab or the Factory”. I have been contemplating what this distinction could reveal about the way we do church. It has also given me a new paradigm to freshly examine my own experiences.

The lab or the factory.

You work at one, or the other.

At the lab, the pressure is to keep searching for a breakthrough, a new way to do things. And it’s accepted that the cost of this insight is failure, finding out what doesn’t work on your way to figuring out what does. The lab doesn’t worry so much about exploiting all the value of what it produces–they’re too busy working on the next thing.

The factory, on the other hand, prizes reliability and productivity. The factory wants no surprises, it wants what it did yesterday, but faster and cheaper.

Seth Godin

Some personalities are more lab technician, others are more factory worker.
Churches are also either labs or factories: partly because of the personality of our leaders and partly because of the philosophy of ministry.

Some leaders prefer an assembly line approach where they are in control of the methods and results. They prize efficiency in the execution of their ideas. For some people, this approach works really well. My wife is one of them. She would say: tell me what to do, show me how you want me to do it, and I will work really hard to improve efficiency and maximize the return.

Other leaders prefer a lab approach where the organized chaos leads to innovation. They prize learning with each individual creating additional value. They are trendsetters in new ministry methods and experiences. Others often come later and improve on the things they’ve pioneered. This is where I come in. I like to question things. If it’s not broken, let’s break it and see if we can make it better. I would say: tell me what you want to accomplish, the problem you want to solve, and I’ll help you figure out how to do it. Then I’ll move to the next problem.

With these very different styles, it would be valuable to understand both the kind of ministry we serve in and our natural bias.

Personal Examples

I struggled in my first ministry assignment and ended up leaving on less than stellar terms. There is plenty of blame to go around, but I don’t want to dwell on that.

I thrived in my second ministry assignment. I still have a positive relationship with my former boss and everyone I worked with.

Two very different places and two very different results.

In the first case, the leader was a visionary who knew exactly what he wanted.

  • Meetings were run to ensure compliance to the leader’s vision.
  • Meetings were generally a one way conversation with questions allowed to clarify the vision. Tension was seen as a symptom of division.
  • In disagreements, the focus turned to the person–their attitude and tone.
  • Each person was given an area of delegation with clearly defined responsibilities.
  • There was a plan and procedure we were meant to follow.
  • Deviation from the plan would result in discipline of some sort.

It was a factory. We worked in ministry areas but, make no mistake, we were cranking widgets. If a staff person left, another was dropped in their place and given the same tasks, just like an assembly line. There was very little development of individual strengths and gifting (not to mention dreams and aspirations). Keep your head down, crank your widget, minimize mistakes, and you were going to get along just fine.

In the second place, I also worked for a visionary leader. His strength was in hiring the best people he could find and empowering them to succeed. In the production area I oversaw:

  • Meetings were run to improve and arrive at the best plan. I knew if I presented my ideas to the team, they would make them better. I knew if I had an incomplete idea, they would help me craft a successful strategy.
  • Meetings were a group conversation. Tension was expected and embraced as we pushed each other to the best idea.
  • In disagreements, the focus stayed on the idea–often with vigorous and animated debate.
  • Each person was empowered to find new approaches and alternatives. Time was given in the work week to explore interests and training.
  • The only plan we had was to be better.
  • Attempts were rewarded.

It was a lab. We were creatives working individually together. As strengths emerged, each person was allowed to exploit those strengths in a way that made the team better, even if it meant they outgrew their job and moved on. I like to think no one was held back just because we needed a widget cranker in assembly line spot #17. The net effect was continual improvement in all measurable areas.

I flourished in a lab where I was encouraged to experiment and grow; and more importantly, I was allowed to encourage others to experiment and grow.

I wish I would have understood this difference 25 years ago.


This distinction is not meant to disparage anyone. I’m not against the factory model, per se, though I have a bias against it since it is not my preference. Hopefully, that is clear. Sometimes a person and a job are not a good fit. This paradigm helps explain why. After all, the last thing an assembly line needs is a worker constantly taking apart their widget cranker to see if they can make it better!

What kind of person are you? What kind of leader are you? Are you more lab technician or factory worker?

What kind of ministry do you work for (serve in)? A lab or a factory?

Perhaps more importantly, what does your ministry need in your position and are you the right fit for this assignment?

I’d be interested in your answers and thoughts in the comments section.


8 thoughts on “Lab or Factory or Church

  1. Great word. Thanks for posting.
    A truly healthy atmosphere would have a mixture of both. Every ministry needs people to take it to the next level as well as those who are empowered by maintaining the aspects that are still vibrant and viable.
    A true leader must the know his people to ensure each one is in the right role (no lab techs assign to widget stamper #17) those of us who are willing to serve must also being willing to be coached into that right role.
    When we all work together SOOO much is possible.

    1. Thanks, Brandy. Good balancing perspective. I appreciate that. Seth’s point is that it is very hard to do/be both.
      Of course, if you think of a classic factory like an auto manufacturer, you have both an assembly line and a lab where new methods, materials, and ideas are explored.
      For me, the challenge is understanding who you are, the environment you work in, and how to help others thrive.
      Thanks for offering your point of view.
      See, my ideas are better already thanks to your input.

      1. From experience, I’ve seen that the larger the organization the easier it is, probably even the more it is required, to have both types. Smaller organizations struggle trying to do/be both

      2. Clark, interesting observation.
        Even in the larger organization, wouldn’t the departments function independently? As 2 entities?
        That would underscore the need for both, but also the clear distinction.

  2. We as churches tend to look at other “growing” churches and ask what are they doing that’s different or effective and try and copy it. We get caught up with numbers or quantity, which is an easy thing to measure, but loose the quality or the real life changes. I think it is really important to see the mission God has called us to and focus like a laser beam on that! As unglamorous as it may seem not to be the coolest or fastest growing or loudest or innovative, but doing what God has called us to be would be the most effective in the long run. Helping people grow spiritually even to move on to other churches or ministries trumps gaining 10 pew warmers. I really like the analogy between lab and factory.

    1. Many times, it seems to me, new methods that growing churches use come out of their own trial and error as they tweak their strengths.
      Without that philosophical underpinning, others end up copying the wrong things or making surface adjustments that can’t support true change.
      It may be obvious, but I believe the thinking is the hard work and the important work.

  3. I think that I am definitely a lab person. This is the part of your blog that I identified with the most: ” I like to question things. If it’s not broken, let’s break it and see if we can make it better.” It reminds me of my purple bicycle when I was a little girl. I was curious about how the bike worked, so I took it a part, piece by piece, until I had no more bike…but I was no longer curious.

    In ministry (which is not wholly defined within a church setting for me) I think that we should examine the world around us, listen to it’s heartbeat, hear the groaning that is coming from outside the four walls and then fall to our knees and pray to be the answer. When we get the answer, then we should get up off of our knees and then go out there and do what the world needs us to do. The lab work comes when we begin to put to practice what we have received in prayer, no matter how unprecedented it is, no matter if we are the only ones doing it in the whole city, no matter if it doesn’t fit within ‘religions framework’ if that’s what God says then we do it. That’s the prophetic and I don’t see too many prophets fitting in an assembly line.

    My thoughts may not do well to fit a standard ministry but there still needs to be a ministry mindset that runs toward the masses on any day of the week and someone needs to lead…right?

    1. Nice. I had a purple bike, too. I think I liked it cause it was unique.
      Funny, my brothers and I ended up with one of those old metal lunch boxes, without a lid, filled with nuts and bolts from all of our bike “improvements”.

      I could not agree with you more that when we have the answer, we should start moving. I would add that when we don’t have the complete answer, we should still start moving … and tweak. That’s where the lab idea comes in for me.

      I am just not wired to crank the *Sunday School* widget for the rest of my life. It’s not the repetition I’m leery of, it’s the rut.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion!

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