Unintended consequences

Sometimes things don’t work out the way we want them to work out. OK, that happens a lot. On this topic, I was interested to read Gizmodo’s “The 10 Greatest (Accidental) Inventions of All Time.” It’s a fascinating list of unintended discoveries. Some of them were new to me, while I had heard about a few of these. An example:

Before being found ground into the rugs of child-rearing homes everywhere, Play-Doh was ironically created to be a cleaning product. The paste was first marketed as a treatment for filthy wallpaper—before the company that produced it began to go down the tubes. The discovery that saved Kutol Products—headed for bankruptcy—wasn’t that their wall cleaner worked particularly well, but that schoolchildren were beginning to use it to create Christmas ornaments as arts and crafts projects. By removing the compound’s cleanser and adding colors and a fresh scent, Kutol spun their wallpaper saver into one of the most iconic toys of all time—and brought mega-success to a company headed for destruction.

Got that? Someone set out to create one thing and ended up with something entirely different. This required the willingess to see one’s work in a new way. I think maybe there are lessons for church leaders here.

These discoveries — unintended consequences — needed two things to come into fruition. First, there had to be some experimentation, some research. And then people had to be open to new possibilities for their work. The church is, sadly, not very good at either one of these. We don’t try enough new things. And when we do something, we rarely see beyond our intended goals.

I’m not talking about experimental doctrine here, or anything that’s really scary. I’m talking about the ways we do church. What would it be like to try running services without paper bulletins, for example? What about killing off that monthly newsletter that goes right into most parishioners’ recycle bins anyway? What about getting out of the real estate business and into the mission business? Imagine new ways of doing things — big and small changes. Fill in your own ideas.

What might we discover? Perhaps we would learn all sorts of things. Here’s one example from the parish I serve.

A few weekends ago, we read the whole Bible out loud (this was an idea we borrowed from the clever people in the Diocese of Kansas). We had hoped people this kick-off event would get folks a little bit interested in our year-long focus on reading the Bible. We had no idea.

For one thing, we learned that streaming video, even of our little church, has some traction. Maybe we need to stream more things online. For another thing, people found it compelling to be a tangible part of a large project. Maybe we need to take on more seemingly large projects and involve loads of people in discrete ways. Build a Habitat for Humanity House? To be really bold, maybe we build that house on our own as a parish? During our Bible-reading weekend, people were fascinated by some of the “difficult” bits of the Bible, way more interested than we had imagined. This probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, but when you get people reading the Bible — any of the Bible — they want more.

None of that is as cool as Play-Doh, but it points to simple ways in which we learn stuff when we try new things. I wonder what we’re NOT learning in our congregations because of our failure to bust out of our normal patterns. Don’t even get me started on church at the national level. There are PLENTY of Slinky things to be discovered there, I am sure.

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