As a pastor, I read a lot of books and articles about church practice.
I read about the new best way to organize governing boards and committees that do away with tired forms from the 1950s.
I read about the changes that Christian education programs require to thrive when families and youth have so many more activities competing for their attention.
I read about increasingly creative worship ideas to engage people who need something to stimulate them in ways other than the printed or auditory word.
I read about fantastic new mission and evangelism programs that “meet the culture where it is” and promise to be the next new big bold wonderful ministry to 21st century seekers.
Some of these are more concerned with big picture inspiration, calling the church to have the courage to think and act in new ways. Others are more practical, detailing how a faith community might pursue its goal to provide the envisioned model or program.
Far and away, a feature common to many of these writings is the success story.
“First Church in Omaha began offering our prayer station worship idea, and now they’ve doubled their Sunday morning attendance!”
“Christ the Redeemer in San Diego gave up Sunday School and started doing things like I suggest, and now their faith formation ministry is thriving!”
“St. John’s in Teaneck implemented our open door policy for their homeless population. Listen to all these wonderful life-changing anecdotes!”
These stories can do a lot to show the reader that what the author proposes is really possible. If they can do it, so can you, wherever you are!
Of course, these pieces never tell the failure stories. They never share accounts of when churches meet a wall of opposition or a black hole of apathy, encounter a strong start that quickly flames out, or sabotage themselves by trying too hard to do things the exact way listed in the book.
These stories of failure are better tucked into couch cushions or hidden behind corners. Don’t worry about those. The point is that what I’m sharing can work! You have to believe me! Just go ahead and do it!
I have plenty of my own failure stories.
I could tell you about the pub discussion group that enjoyed a few months of high interest before fizzling out.
I could tell you about the young adult group that ended after a few meetings because everyone became too busy.
I could tell you about the community mission that was too ambitious and disorganized to work.
I could tell you about acts of “radical hospitality” that only encouraged bad behavior and pushed me to the brink of complete burnout.
These stories caused me to go back and figure out what could have gone better. They taught me to keep striving on behalf of God’s kingdom, but to keep my head out of the clouds while doing it. They taught me about expectations and what to consider the next time.
I’ve learned way more about faithful ministry from stories of failure than those of success.
But nobody wants to tell those.
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and writer. He is author of the book Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday. He lives with his wife and two children in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves in ministry at Grace United Church of Christ. In his free time, he enjoys playing music, reading, and keeping up with Michigan sports teams. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture athttp://www.coffeehousecontemplative.com.