“This Fall I arrived on campus as the new Entrepreneur in Residence and I was excited to hear a story that combines my passions for entrepreneurship, Christian faith, and mobile technology. …Summer observed that ‘Today’s students are raised with more choices and are more empowered to control their own life.  This new generation was asking for more than just chapel.'”

For the December 2015 issue of MinistryTech magazine, my column featured Oklahoma Christian University’s Summer Lashley and the Ethos program.

In this article series, we’ve defined a startup this way: a new venture working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed.  We’ve also defined a Christian entrepreneur as: a person, driven to glorify God in all he does, and ruled by the Word of God, who starts a new venture and is willing to risk a loss in order to achieve the success of the venture.  Each month I’ve been introducing you to specific Christian startups and entrepreneurs, some of which may be helpful to your church, ministry, or business, but my main intent is to encourage, inspire, and educate you.

So far, all of the startups I’ve featured have been businesses, but startups can be new ministries as well.  This month, I’d like to feature a new technology-enabled startup within an existing, traditional Christian organization.

Daily Chapel is Good

Founded in 1950, Oklahoma Christian University (OC) has just over 2,500 students.  According to their website, “Oklahoma Christian University is a higher learning community that transforms lives for Christian faith, scholarship, and service.”  This Fall I arrived on campus as the new Entrepreneur in Residence and I was excited to hear a story that combines my passions for entrepreneurship, Christian faith, and mobile technology.

Daily Chapel has been a valued tradition at OC since the school’s formation.  Most students attend “Big Chapel” but other options include Missions Chapel, Seekers Chapel, Women’s Chapel, Great Songs Chapel, and weekly chapels for each academic college or department.  Historically, students have been required to attend chapel each day, with a set number of absences allowed.

Spiritual Development is Better

Summer Lashley, an OC alumnus, had spent a couple of years early in her career at a web startup company.  That entrepreneurial spirit must have been apparent because, after she returned to campus as part of the student life team, she was asked to move into the spiritual life office and figure out how to “reboot” the university’s approach to spiritual development. Chapel has always been good, but she realized that it may not meet every student where they are in their spiritual growth.  Summer observed that “Today’s students are raised with more choices and are more empowered to control their own life.  This new generation was asking for more than just chapel.”

In true Lean startup mode, Summer started doing Customer Discovery.  She would pull students out of chapel, both those up front and fully engaged and those in the back corner with ear buds in and hoodie pulled over.  What did they like and what didn’t they like?  What was missing?  What was their real need?  She started creating alternatives, forming small groups, and working with YouVersion to launch an OC reading plan within the popular Bible app.  She gave a small group of trusted students the freedom to pursue their own spiritual development plan and to journal what they did and how it impacted them.

As Summer and the campus minister read their own reading plan and considered what they were learning from the students, the Holy Spirit seemed to focus them on the two great commandments that Jesus clearly outlined in Mark 12:30-31 “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”  What if OC could model spiritual development off of these great commandments?

Summer began planning a new program for spiritual development, named Ethos, where students would be encouraged to practice spiritual disciplines in five dimensions: Community, Discipleship, Discovery, Servanthood, and Worship.  But how could the university pull off such a radical redefinition of its spiritual life and how could students be encouraged to adopt the new model?

One day, Summer realized that she was increasingly using her iPhone to discover and to track important things in her life.  In addition to YouVersion, she was daily using RunKeeper and the Starbucks app to track her progress towards important goals.  She realized that, for today’s student, their phone is like the remote control for their life.  There’s an app for everything, so why not an app for spiritual development at OC?

Summer engaged with the OC marketing team and used an online tool to mock up a beautiful Ethos mobile app for creating, discovering, and tracking spiritual development activities.  She showed it to the university leadership team who loved it and brought the IT team onboard as excited partners.  Next she took it to the university’s board who was cautiously supportive, concerned about the school’s traditions.  With the help of a champion on the board, in time, this group also became strong supporters.  A university donor stepped forward to provide funding for the development and launch.

Spiritual Transformation is the Real Goal

The IT team built the Ethos front-end using the Ionic framework to simplify launch on both iOS and Android smartphones.  The mobile and web clients interfaced with the API core backend, with databases for students, check-ins, etc. and interfaces to the university’s student information and event systems and to AD for identifying and authenticating users.

IT also gave Summer a tool for generating reports.  Who is attending which events?  What are the patterns by college, by class, by service club, etc.  This may not qualify as “big data” but it certainly started to provide insights that the spiritual life office could use to fine tune how to enable spiritual development for students.  But, Summer is quick to point out that students are already doing that fine-tuning themselves.  In the first year of operation, students attended over 4,000 distinct events, 1,700 of which were spontaneously created by students (and approved by the spiritual life office).

“For Christian universities, a graduate who can tell the story of how her campus experience transformed her life demonstrates the distinctive value of the Christian university,” Summer explains. “Ethos is not only enabling that transformation, but the software is helping capture that story for the student – recording the spiritual events and enabling the student to capture her comments on how it impacted her.”

Ethos is one of many examples of how God can use technology to change people’s lives, but it also is an example of how God can use an entrepreneurial leader to start a new ministry that can help “reboot” the spiritual heart of an established institution with a rich Christian heritage.  Summer is quick to thank God for blessing Ethos and enabling it to be a blessing to many.

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