A Spectacular Failure
For the past several months I have been using this space to talk about the miracles that God has been doing among us, and that we are starting to notice and celebrate as part of our Transformation process. This month, however, I’m not going to highlight a miracle, but rather a spectacular failure. “Oh, come on, Pastor,” you may be saying to yourself, “isn’t this newsletter supposed to be inspirational? Shouldn’t we just focus on the positive?” But part of trying something new, and of trying to figure out who God is calling us to be as a congregation, is failure. In fact, if some of the things that we were doing didn’t fail, it would be a sure sign that we aren’t risking very much, that we aren’t willing to try something really new for the sake of God’s mission. We are called to try and fail, and sometimes to fail spectacularly.
The spectacular failure I’m referring to is our experiment with our weekly Thursday night “Club Akaloo” education event for kids from Kindergarten through 8th grade. The vision was there. Our Sunday School superintendent Christine Colestock had an inspired idea for a high-energy, multi age, educational experience—a dream that was to eventually unite our whole community with age-appropriate education for everyone and a spirit of togetherness as we gathered on Thursday nights to learn, fellowship, and worship together. As if by a miracle, the Lutheran Church put out a new education curriculum, called “Akaloo,” which was designed for exactly this sort of thing. And so Christine led us in this new direction, blazing a new trail, to see if this was where God was calling us. And our congregation cheered her on, remembering a time when our Sunday School flourished, when Bethlehem resounded with the energy and enthusiasm of young people. And, miraculously, youth education at Bethlehem tripled in size in just a few months, from 5 kids to 15, half of whom weren’t otherwise connected to our congregation. And these kids came week after week, and they learned about Jesus, and they experienced the love of God here, and they really enjoyed it.
But after a while, it became more and more work to keep Akaloo going. Christine had hoped that we could all get behind this new thing God was doing among us, that everyone in our congregation could participate in whatever way they could. But despite what seemed like widespread support for work with young people, week after week, Christine was serving alone, with only her pastor there to cheer her on. Like a campfire that refuses to start no matter how much newspaper and matches you throw into it, Akaloo wasn’t able to catch Bethlehem on fire, and slowly smoldered out.
I’m going to be honest with you, I was pretty annoyed by this at first. Christine (and I) poured huge amounts of energy into this project and really wanted it to be a gift to our community—to be a rallying point for us to get behind that would reenergize us for mission. With no one willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved, however, leaders become quickly tired, burned out, and discouraged—and when going it alone, no matter how hard we try, all our hard work leads to failure. And even more frustrating was the fact that it seemed as though everyone was behind it. But as I listened carefully to folks as they remembered the days when the Sunday School was thriving, what they remembered, really, wasn’t just an impressive Sunday School, but the feeling of what it is like to be connected to God’s calling for us. When everyone wants to get on board, and be a part of what God is doing among us and through us—that’s what gives us energy for service. Perhaps this “spectacular failure” is an indication that our calling isn’t to rebuild the Sunday School we had in the past, isn’t to reconstruct our congregation on old blueprints, but to strike out in a new direction. And we wouldn’t have caught this new vision in we hadn’t tried and failed.
When we tap into what God has in mind for us, things take off and fly as if they had a life of their own (we could say “inspired by the Holy Spirit”). That’s one of the ways God show us that we are on the right track. People can’t wait to get involved, all sorts of connections start to happen, we become inspired and energized to work our tails off in service to God (think of the miracles of the last several months). But God also offers course corrections. When things become extremely difficult and people serve only out of a sense of duty, or begrudgingly, or find a way to dodge when the sign up sheet comes around—this could very well be an indication that we are off course a bit, and that God has other things in mind for us. A little bit of resistance is expected, but when roadblocks come up at every intersection, we should pay attention. Even if something worked well in the past, even if it works well at a church across town or across the street, no matter how hard we try, no matter how committed we may be, no matter how great an idea might be, if it’s not what God is calling us to do, no amount of effort on our part can make it happen. This might sound fatalistic, but it’s really good news. Our job is not to create something out of nothing, or to continue to bail out a sinking ship, but to keep asking “Is this what you want from us God?” and giving things a shot. When we hit on what God has in mind for us, we’ll know it.
In the Book of Acts, the religious council is debating whether to let the new “Christians” continue in their work, or to try to get rid of them. The religious leaders were threatened by all the “new stuff” these Christians were up to—what would happen to their old traditions? And (more to the point) what would happen to their power? Gamaliel, a respected teacher, responds in Acts 5:38b-39: “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” And yet, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge what is and isn’t of God. The God who raised Jesus from the dead again and again brings new life out of seemingly hopeless situations. Our “spectacular failure,” has inspired a whole new ministry. Three Lutheran churches in our cluster have been looking for something to do together, and heard of our Akaloo experiment. We shared with them our vision, and suddenly our entire cluster of churches is involved—with a seven-church weekly Wednesday Akaloo event starting in September that really has something for all ages. (see the flier elsewhere in this newsletter) Our little Bethlehem dream, and spectacular failure, has evolved into an incredible ministry that we never could have done on our own.
Though we “failed” in what we set out to do, we really were just given a bit of a course correction. It’s as if God said “Try it on your own, and it won’t work. What I have in mind is something that all the churches can do together.” And instead of little Bethlehem Lutheran striking out on its own with little support, we are now part of something bigger than ourselves. Though we thought our calling was for a “Bethlehem Only Akaloo,” in fact God was using us as yeast for a much larger loaf. Will this multi-church Akaloo ministry take off? God only knows. If this plan or undertaking is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is of God, well, we might just see some more miracles. But we’ll only find out it we are willing to roll up our sleeves, get involved, and risk another spectacular failure that just might lead us to wherever God is calling us next. Isn’t transformation fun?