A Lesson in Failure? Not Really.


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.  Ecclesiastes 3:1

In the fall of 2006, a group of six church people met weekly to discuss Velvet Elvis together and dream of a church for people who would never come through the doors of our traditional sanctuary.  Several of us had been talking about this for a while.  The two rules for our planning were:  1) this wasn’t about us and the kind of church we wanted and 2) God could do whatever God wanted to do with this community.

On the first Sunday in Lent 2007, Holy Grounds was born.

While I was recovering from knee surgery, a team that included a submarine contractor,  a former Christian Educator, her boyfriend who wasn’t a part of our congregation, a decorator for Starbucks, a local musician, and assorted other volunteers built, painted, and organized the space that would become the gathering place for Holy Grounds which would meet in the lower level of a traditional PCUSA church building.  It was providential that I was incapacitated for the final preparations because I didn’t want this to be my thing as the pastor of the traditional congregation.  If it was really going to happen, we needed buy in.

Holy Grounds  shifted and changed over the next five years.  We started with a worship experience that used the same sermon as the 11 am service albeit with images on a screen and a more laid back ambiance.  We sat on sofas found on the side of the road, but our espresso maker was state of the art.  We occasionally enjoyed potluck dinners on Sunday nights – our regular worship time.  Worship was varied:

  • conversations in a circle with one person leading the content
  • prayer stations
  • book parties
  • film clips
  • music clips
  • a first year anniversary concert
  • a fundraiser for Haiti
  • commissioning people to go out and do ministry in faraway places

The group was always small and transient.  Exhibit A:  one of the services provided was moving friends from one apartment to another on Saturday mornings.  It was done so often that we had our own moving equipment.  The nature of DC is that nobody stays for long.  We sent people to Jordan, Germany, and Thailand, to Iowa,Texas, Ohio, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Illinois.  We came to perfect the notion of offering multiple portals into the community.  In fact several communities blended together occasionally.  Holy Grounds connected with Common Table and Convergence and Simple Way and the DC Community of Communities and the Community Coalition for Haiti.

But alas, the Sunday night gathering became smaller and smaller.  A paid staff member was not replaced after leaving in 2009. The rest of the community – filled with exceptional leaders – could not make the plans and the relentless connections needed to keep replenishing a community that lost people when they moved away.  The decision was made last weekend that HG will no longer meet on Sunday nights by the end of the summer.  This is not about blaming at all; it’s about the changing of seasons.

Personally speaking, I’ve never known a community of faith quite like this one.  Some of the Holy Grounders had been wounded by previous church experiences.  Some had no former church experiences.  Some had MDiv degrees.  Some were missionary kids or pastor’s kids.  Some just wandered in and wandered out again.  We even had people who are considered part of the community who rarely – if ever – came to the Sunday night gathering.

It was a community based on vulnerability and you can’t have community unless you are vulnerable.  (Do yourself a favor and watch this.)

Someone from the traditional congregation (the upstairs church) once expressed a concern that I spent too much time with Holy Grounds but the truth was that I spent 90% of my time with the traditional congregation.  It’s just that the 10% with Holy Grounds went a long way.  Worship was shared and so I rarely led worship.  No one worried much about appearances and so, if the candles had been moved or someone spilled a little coffee, it was not a problem.  When our content included lessons on how to care for someone when he/she is grieving or how much money should we be contributing, nobody got offended.

I remember one night when a new couple attended for the first time and the talk was about contributing money to the church, and somebody said, “They’ll never be back” but they did come back.  And they became leaders.

I remember the night two Holy Grounders got married and as we were all dancing at the reception, I looked at Matt and said, “Look what God did.”  The most wonderful feeling.

I remember baptizing Joanna in the Potomac River, which was so gross and yet magnificently beautiful.  (Note:  we had to walk halfway to Maryland through the muck to get to deep-enough water.)

I remember sunrise services on Easter with communion on that same spot at the Potomac.

I remember hilarious White Elephant Christmas parties.

But mostly I remember relationships.  That’s what a church is about really.  And those relationships will continue globally.

So, here is my long-winded message to all church people:  don’t be afraid to start something new.  Even if it “fails” it won’t be a failure if even one person was transformed.   By that measure, Holy Grounds has been an enormous success and blessing.

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2 responses to “A Lesson in Failure? Not Really.

  1. It was such a blessing to be a part of this community. I miss it. But the idea behind it remains and will be replicated all over the world– hopefully specifically in Dallas!

  2. We had a similar experience when we stopped our alternative Sunday evening service ‘Song in the Night’ last year. It was sad, but we were thankful we were able to end it intentionally before it simply faded away or fell apart.

    PS Thanks for the TED talk link. It hit a little too close to home and I’m still kind of reeling (but in a good way).

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