The Church of Trial and Error

By Paul Koch

I have been the pastor of exactly two congregations since taking my ordination vows. At both of these churches I was the sole pastor and neither of them were what we might call “large” on the buts-in-the-pew scale. They were very different congregations with very different histories and habits, and both of them I have learned to love more than I thought possible for a group of sinners crowded into one place. Though my 13 years of experience isn’t as grand or well-rounded as many of my colleagues, it has taught me some valuable lessons that are worthy to remember and hand on to others. One in particular is simply this – be honest about your errors.

I have made a lot of errors. A lot! I made decisions based on knee-jerk reactions without considering the ramifications to the families involved. I’ve caused hurt feelings and ostracized people who needed my care and compassion. I’ve stayed silent when I needed to speak, and I’ve definitely spoken when I should have kept my mouth shut. While I have regrets, these errors are important. They helped shape the ethos of the household of faith where I served. And it was beautiful.

My first congregation may not have been very big, but during my time there it was powerful. It was a place full of errors but also of love and forgiveness. There was an energy about that place that is hard to describe. There was participation and joy and a healthy defiance of ever wanting to be put into a box with limits. My current congregation has a renewed vibrancy that regularly surprises me. The ups and downs of our path forward is creating a fierce family that isn’t afraid of what lies ahead.

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Last Lent I was preaching at another congregation when an elder saint asked me what I was doing to produce such an exciting and growing fellowship. She was looking for a prescription, a model or formula to reproduce this ethos. I had nothing to offer. I think I said something trite about Word and Sacrament, but the truth is far more complicated. For while a congregation’s life is established and guided and even finds its completion in Word and Sacrament, there is a lot of trial and error along the way. And if we are not honest about those errors, then we will never be able to give a real picture of the church.

Yet the church following the example of business and academia has done the exact opposite. In an effort to compete in the marketplace of American Christianity we all want to know the prescription for success. And the prescriptions come. In the form of models for ministry, examples of the best practices out there and innovative approaches for today’s church, there is a whole smorgasbord to dive into. Yet these formulas usually come without the trial and error that went into it.

Let’s assume (and I hope this is a safe assumption) that all success in the church is a result of the application of Law and Gospel to the fellowship of God’s children. The actual killing and bringing to life by the Word of God is how the “whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2:21) That work, that application of Law and Gospel, is not a simple straight line trajectory. It is full of ups and downs along the way, full of errors as it is misapplied and corrected. If then I have success in some area and begin to teach it as a prescription without being honest about my errors, I create a false picture of things. In the end my model will appear fake to others because, well, it is.

Let’s not be silent about the errors for they are an important part of who we are and what we do. And if they were beneficial to us they just might be beneficial to others. After all, we have the joy of trial and error because our Lord’s grace is not limited by our practice.