I’ve been experimenting with ways to grow my church. I know “church growth” is sometimes a bad word for us mainliners, but at its best, church growth is about making disciples of Jesus Christ. So I went with my worship leader, Jeremy, to Michigan State University’s campus and tried to hand out worship invite cards to students. This was way out of my comfort zone, but I was asking my congregation to push themselves, and I thought I ought to push myself, too. I found it a lot easier to tack the invite cards up on bulletin boards than hand them out to people, but we did both.
Our expectations were not very high. We hoped that after handing out a couple hundred cards that we’d get at least one person to show up. We waited anxiously on Sunday morning hoping our low expectations might be surpassed. The results: not one new person showed up! So much for growing our church through invitation.
Not so. What Jeremy and I realized as we walked around the MSU campus (with a growing sense of futility about our method) was that this was the very first time in my two years of being a pastor at this church that we had actually gotten out of our office and walked around the community imagining how to build relationships. We really hadn’t realized how inward focused we had become until we walked among these students on campus. Our eyes were being opened and our imaginations were being stretched, but the only way we got there was by risking failure.
And fail we did.
Failure is a key to growth. Joshua Foer in his book, “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” introduced me to the “OK plateau,” a place where we are no longer risking failure. We don’t take risks anymore, because we’re “OK” as we are.
Take for example our typing speed. Most of us plateaued with our typing speed a long time ago, because we got fast enough to accomplish our daily tasks with little inconvenience. But if you want to get off the OK plateau and increase your speed, you have to plan to fail. Set a metronome to a speed just slightly faster than you can successfully type without errors. Then analyze your errors and look for patterns of mistakes. Make appropriate fixes, and pretty soon you’re off the OK plateau and typing faster than you did before. To grow, you have to plan to fail.
With the MSU campus experiment, Jeremy and I were giving ourselves an opportunity to fail. We spent lunch time that day analyzing our mistakes and suggesting fixes. The next week I showed up on campus with a to-go box of coffee from a well known local coffee shop. I handed coffee out for free. While I didn’t pass out nearly as many cards, I did actually have several conversations with students and began seeing new possibilities that I hadn’t seen before. On my second week, I actually had a student give me his e-mail to send him information about our pub group meetings.
I don’t know where this all will lead us, but I’m doing my best at being OK with failing.
It’s the only way to grow.
Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.