Failing Boldly—Teaching session AC2018

Failing Boldly—Teaching session AC2018

June 09, 2018

Church work is hard, Rev. Christian Coon told members of the Iowa Annual Conference Saturday afternoon at the Annual Conference Session. And sometimes via failure when trying new things in church ministry, we can still be an instrument of the Lord 

Coon is the co-founder of Urban Village Church in Chicago and author of Failing Boldly: How Falling Down in Ministry Can Be the Start of Rising Up. He told attendees of the plenary teaching session that ministry successes might not always be obvious at first and can come in unexpected ways.
Watch Rev. Christian Coon's Teaching Session | Conversation with Rev. Christian Coon

Coon, who hails from Iowa, opened with a brief anecdotal recap of his upbringing in the state, to help illustrate that even though his context is the city, much of what he planned to share is applicable, whether it be in a city, a county seat, or a farming community. 

He was approached to write a book back in 2014, Coon said, and he knew right away what he didn’t want it to be. 

Church-growth conferences can be both inspiring and a somewhat deflating, the latter when comparing oneself to another’s worship numbers. Coon said he wanted to write about that vulnerability and point out that taking risks and failing is not the end of the world. 

The book was published last year, and he also now has a podcast where he talks to people about their own failures.

Coon explained that Urban Village is not a megachurch. The multi-site United Methodist church has four locations throughout Chicago, the sites range in Sunday worship from about 50 to 120. The church does well reaching young adults, he said, but does experience the same heartaches and frustrations that everyone else does. 

Coon showed a promotional video for Urban Village with seven people speaking about their experience with the church. Just one person from the video still remains at Urban Village, he explained, and that was him. Some had moved away, including his co-founder, or simply moved on to other things. 

“So, I share all this to say that—church work is hard,” said Coon.

It can be inspiring and life-changing, he said, but it is also hard. 

People ask him the what is the most surprising thing about planting a church, and he tells them it’s that people are fickle, they don’t follow through, they don’t show up when they say they will. 

Citing the book, Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis by Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee, Coon explained that because they are emotionally invested in their work, clergy can experience a high level of both their perceived success and failure.

The current time makes church even harder, he said, with much said these days about church decline. 

“It’s tempting to want to go and hide and do all we can to just keep things as they are,” said Coon. “But, friends, we are in a time where now more than ever, we are called to do all we can to create difference makers in new communities of faith.” 

“And when you create,” he added, “there’s no other way around it, you will fail. And that is OK. In fact, it’s more than OK.” 

Coon cited the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, looking at how institutions develop good keystone habits. 

NASA is among those observed in the book, having implemented routines encouraging engineers to take more risks. Instead of feeling bad about failures, he explained, NASA engineers have now learned to celebrate them. 

“When unmanned rockets exploded on takeoff, department heads would applaud, so that everyone would know their division had tried and failed, but at least they had tried,” Coon recited. “Eventually, mission control filled with applause every time something expensive blew up. It became an organizational habit.”

Coon then joked about the analogy, “So when you risk, when you attempt new things, it might blow up on you. Can we get to the point where we applaud that?”

Coon talked as well about the need for creation in the church. 

A series of papers from Harvard Divinity School titled, “How We Gather” began looking at how millennials are finding and building communities of meaning, Coon told the Conference, but then turned into looking at a way that organizations are taking what the church has done in the past, particularly when it comes to building community and giving it meaning. 

He recommended one of the Harvard papers titled, “Faithful,” co-written by Gil Rendle, who has written many books on church life and church health. Another paper Rendle wrote in 2014 titled, “Waiting for God’s New Thing” had the same point as the “Faithful” paper, he said, which was the fact that Churches have spent a lot of time improving things—but they spend no time creating things.

Coon clarified that Conference members should not come away thinking he meant to say that improvement was unnecessary.

He asked Annual Conference Session attendees to discuss with those around them the top thing their church needed to improve. 

Typically improving hospitality only affects those who are already coming to church, he pointed out. Rendle and the Harvard authors argue that churches and institutions must start focusing more time on creating. 

“Creating means that we are trying to reach people who would have little to no interest in coming to a Bible study or to worship,” said Coon, then citing statistics on a significantly dwindling number of millennials who belong to a faith community in the United States. 

Creating means asking how to connect with a population that still desires purpose, meaning, and community, but who are otherwise disengaged with the mechanics of church.
“This is what I think the theme of this conference is getting at,” he said. “Are we creating new spaces and new opportunities for these folks?”

Coon then had the crowd discuss for a moment at what places people in their respective communities hang out. These are examples of where people need to be reached.

He offered for consideration from the “Faithful” paper that the Florida Annual Conference is giving out grants, making a significant investment to support new missional communities. 

Titled, “New People, New Places, New Ways,” these grant projects must be highly relational and nearly always take place outside of church buildings, and they cannot by contemporary worship services, Bible study group or food pantries—all traditional church activities.

This would lead to the temptation of wondering such things as when those reached in the mission activities would come to worship and start paying apportionments, he said.

“These are safety nets,” he said of the activities, “things we already know how to do—not fishing nets that engage new audiences.”

This is at once overwhelming and a little exciting, he said.

What does innovation or creation look like? asked Coon, citing micro-communities of 10-15 people gathered for a form of community other than church. 

“Once you begin to look at how they gather,” Coon said, “then you can start to ask the question, “How can we now help them be healthy communities that are seeking purpose, meaning and Christ?”

Regarding the need to ask when they will come to church or join a committee, Coon said, “Friends, I’m sorry, we need to fight asking those questions.”

“This is a long process,” he explained.

Most who come to Urban Village don’t even know what United Methodist is, he said, but you can begin at some point to tell them about John Wesley, you just must build community first.

“Regardless of whether you want to take a risk that falls into the category of improving or risk, guess what?” said Coon. “Where ever you are, you will fail.”

“If you’re truly risking for the gospel, not everything you do is going to work,” he added. ‘When you risk, take chances, and experiment—you will fail. Or if you don’t like that word, you will stumble, skin your knee, take a wrong turn.” 

So how do we prepare ourselves? asked Coon. 

He described how English scientist and surgeon Edward Jenner in his experiments with cowpox and smallpox in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century used the technique of variolation, leading to Jenner’s invention of the vaccination. 

“The vaccination metaphor is the best one I can come up with to introduce a concept that may seem even more odd, especially to an American audience,” said Coon. “Integrating small failures—like the cowpox virus—into our ministries can help stave off more critical failures.”

So, what do we do to inoculate our ministries with small failures? Coon queried.

“What I also want to emphasize is that we need to destigmatize failure,” he stated, “particularly when it’s done in our attempt to risk, try, create.”

In addition to the earlier referenced NASA example earlier, Coon shared the parable of the sower in Matthew 13.

The point of the parable is that seeds are sown on fertile ground bear fruit, but it can also illustrate the idea of numerous attempts to sow the seeds, and perhaps result in the farmer thinking he’s not very good at his job, because so often his seeds don’t grow. 

“I love that he keeps on sowing seeds, no matter what,” Coon told the Annual Conference Session. “I say keep sowing seeds even if it’s not in the right place. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is too important for us not to do that.”

We also should get to the point where we celebrate failure, he added.

Coon also offered the example of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company in Vermont, which has an actual graveyard for its failed ice cream flavors.

“Ben & Jerry’s is known for outrageous, chunky, funky flavors,” he quoted from the company website. “But outrageous flavor experimentation comes with some risks, and flavors can meet their untimely end even without using a spoon. That’s okay with us, because ice cream flavors, like everything else, have a beginning and an end.” 

Coon said that the graveyard has about thirty-five flavors that have been tried and failed over the years. 

The other important thing about this example, he said, is that Ben and Jerry’s treats these failures with levity, with each deceased ice cream flavor having its own tombstone in the graveyard containing a humorous epitaph. 

“Because they know that when you try new things they’re not all always going to work,” Coon remarked.

He suggested that perhaps at a future annual conference session, failures could be celebrated to illustrate that even if church’s fail, they need to keep at it.

Coon explained that it's important to recognize that something that seems to have failed actually was an opportunity for God to do new and creative things.

He shared his church’s experience marching over the last several years in Chicago’s Pride parade, how the effort didn’t yield significant gains in church attendance, but rather ended being and effective evangelization training tool. This was because his church members had learned after going to the parade and telling strangers that God loves them, that inviting their friends to worship no longer seemed daunting—an unexpected success.

One of the big dangers of starting a new church is comparing oneself to another church, Coon told the gathering, which he conceded he had wrestled with within his own church.

“Do all you can to not compare yourself to what someone else is doing,” Coon said.

Coon shared that amid high suicide rates nationally, his congregation was not immune. Urban Village had lost a young woman who struggled with depression. Coon had saved text messages they’d exchanged prior to her death. And in one when he sought to offer her support, he asked what he could bring to her that would help her. 

She’d told him, “Just yourself is more than enough.”

“And that is a message that all of us can hold close to ourselves,” Coon said.

He acknowledged that going forth with the prospect of failure can cause anxiety.

But Coon told the Conference Session that the combination of Christ and “just yourself” is more than enough to maximize things in individual communities, even though things won’t always seem to be good enough.

He encouraged the crowd to try new things, go out on the edge and live.

“The power of Christ and “just yourself” is more than enough,” Coon said.