The story is a familiar one. A mainline congregation fell on rough times. The neighborhood that nurtured this downtown congregation in the 1950’s had changed. The congregation was once the center of social life for the neighborhood and its residents. But families moved out to the suburbs. Houses in the shadow of the church were subdivided into apartments; what was once a place to set down roots became more transient. Parking wasn’t an issue when most folks walked to church; now a common complaint was finding a spot near the building.
Congregational leaders were slow to react to these huge changes. Yet, react they did. Church suppers, ice cream socials, “Bring a Friend to Church Sunday,” and Vacation Bible School were all offered. Membership and attendance continued to decline. Talk to congregation members today and their frustration is obvious. “We’ve done all that we know how to do! No one wants to come to church anymore.”
As an outsider looking in, an observer would notice that congregation members, though sincere, had not “done all” they could do. Failure after failure of their events and activities had sapped them of their strength. They’ve become stupefied by fear. And that fear meant that few congregation members knew anyone in the neighborhood surrounding the church. Events were planned, sure, but the church leadership always waited for neighbors to come to them–on the congregation’s terms. When a visitor asked congregation members how the church planned on introducing itself to the neighborhood, she was met with stony incomprehension.
I think many great congregations have failed to tap their potential because the new world in which we are living requires a new understanding of failure. Congregations are used to planning social events or to planning who changes the church sign which says ‘Welcome’! What we have been poorly prepared for is to enter into a relationship with the neighborhood, and to deal with the myriad of failures such ministries will lead to.
A few years ago Tom Wujec, a designer, gave a TED talk about a leadership/design activity called the Marshmallow Challenge. Groups are given sticks of uncooked spaghetti, tape, string and a marshmallow. The idea is to make the tallest tower possible with the marshmallow on top. The groups that consistently do poorly on this challenge are recent graduates of business school. Some of the best groups? Kindergarten children. And why is that? Business students discuss, form plans, jockey for position and when the time is almost up build their structure. Children, on the other hand, begin to build and use the whole time to build one model after another, finding out what works and what doesn’t. The kindergarten children are not afraid of failure. In fact, the failure is an essential piece of what leads to their success!
I’d propose that the mainline churches have been operating with the first model for a long time now. We discuss, come up with mission statements, plan for what we are going to do, struggle to get our idea accepted and so on. That’s a lot of work! And when the results are poor–it saps our enthusiasm. Why try so hard next time when this time was such a disaster?
We could learn a thing or two from our kindergarten friends. What if we spent less time planning and more time engaging? What if we didn’t have a real plan for building a ministry but just went into the neighborhood with the intent of learning about our neighbors? What if we looked at failure as a chance to tweak or redo a model that didn’t work? Might a model for ministry emerge from the ruins of several other attempts? As shown elsewhere on this blog, a real key to evangelism may not be what we do, but that we do something! Isn’t this the essence of the Marshmallow Challenge?
So I encourage you to take some marshmallows out into your neighborhood and meet some of your neighbors. Find a way to know their names. Hear their stories. And remember, don’t be afraid if the candy tower collapses. That’s just a chance to rebuild again.
Rev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.