Learning from faith formation failure
Learning from faith formation failure

El Camino Real

When I think of faith formation, I used to think only of programming: Sunday school, Bible study, forums, discussion groups, books, curriculum, and outlines. I tend to get so caught up in designing what I think will be a great program, that I am surprised when no one shows up!

I’ve been working on a ministry re-plant in a small, rural, low-income town in California for the last three years. While the ministry itself has not taken off, I’ve learned a lot about showing up, listening, and relationship.

When I first arrived in Gonzales, with the hope of starting a bilingual emerging church, I thought a natural place to begin would be to offer a Bible study. A team of volunteers helped me canvas the neighborhood and find out the needs and the joys of the community and what the neighbors wanted to see the church doing.

We passed out fliers about the Bible study and had a bright, youthful banner hanging from the empty church building. The Bible study began, but only one person came.

It was time to try something new, so I got a booth at the farmer’s market, and I took my Bible study banner and hung it from the table, and people would pass on the other side of the market to avoid my table. I was an unknown person in town, and while I had met a lot of people, I had not yet built relationships.

I seemed to have hit a dead end, so I took the advice of a mentor, and I replaced the Bible study banner on my farmer’s market booth with a simple poster that said, “May I pray for you?” in English and Spanish.

I was shocked that first day when people started to come by and talk to me, not a lot of people, but certainly more than none! And as the weeks went by, I took the advice of others and added free coffee, coloring sheets, and crayons to my booth. With excuses to stop by my booth, conversations started, and my contact list of people interested in the ministry grew.

Robin Denney

People who stopped by my market booth were very interested to talk about the Episcopal Church, and there were a number of people who wanted me to pray for them: some right there in public and some on a written list.

The experience also changed the way that I felt about the town. Having spiritual discussions with strangers made me start to feel like I was a chaplain to the market, and maybe even to the wider community. I was emboldened to ask for meetings with city officials to get to know the community, and I joined the community collaborative committee.  I became a substitute teacher and got to know the staff and students at all the schools.

But still, no one came to my Bible study.

Another volunteer had the idea that we hold a free community barbecue to expand opportunities to engage in conversation with community members.  So we did, and from that event we got a few more people on the list.

After repeatedly calling or visiting people, or setting up coffee meetings, it came down to just a handful of women who were really interested, and I had them over to the church for lunch to get to know each other, and see if we could try to start a Bible study or a study about the Episcopal Church, since clearly they were interested in learning more.

They got along well, most of them spoke only Spanish, and one was bilingual. Though my Spanish skill was not great, I felt like we had a good discussion, and they seemed really interested when I suggested we start a Bible study.

So I set a date for the Bible study—and no one came.

No one came to the second meeting either. Finally, one woman came to the third meeting. I sat down with her and got out my Spanish Book of Common Prayer, and I opened to the catechism, thinking this would be the perfect place to start.

I looked up expectantly at her, and she immediately looked uncomfortable.  I gestured to the page, and she said in a rather embarrassed tone that she did not know how to read. I wondered to myself, how anyone could be an Episcopalian if they could not read along in the service. After two no-show meetings, and this unexpected and seemingly insurmountable barrier, I was utterly deflated, and out of ideas.

I thought about it for a few days and wondered if we could do the Eucharistic service with repeat-after-me for all the long prayers, to eliminate reading. So I went and visited her.  She told me more about how isolating it was to not be able to read, and how she wanted to set a good example for her children. She told me that one of the other ladies also did not read.  I asked her if she wanted to learn to read, and her face lit up.

I began to research options, and found that there were no classes for Spanish literacy for illiterate adults anywhere in the county.  So, with much doubt about my ability, I offered to teach them how to read, if they would help me learn more Spanish. The Presbyterian pastor in town joined us too, and the school district provided us with teaching resources in Spanish.

robin teach

The two women joined us weekly for ten weeks, and they learned to read and write, and we talked about life and occasionally about God and church. By the end, they could read stories to their children, and make grocery lists, and write notes to their husbands. They built skill and confidence, and their voices grew stronger.

They helped me to improve my Spanish, and they taught me that gathering people might be about finding a way to make space for people to explore and strive toward their passion and longing.

I don’t have a dramatic success story to end with.  I still don’t have a Bible study. Though we have monthly bilingual (repeat-after-me) services, a worshiping community has not taken shape.

I have heard it said that failure teaches us more than success, and I grudgingly agree. I can be thankful that the experiments we tried did not produce the results we hoped for, because it meant that we got to keep trying new things, and gathering ideas from even more people.

I believe that we scatter seeds of the Kingdom whenever we engage in deep and spiritual conversation with people in the world.  Perhaps in these changing times, we are called to fail again and again, and thus, in ever more varying and creative ways, reach out into the world and speak of the transforming love of Jesus.

It may not look like spiritual formation, but it is an important first step. Perhaps we are the ones being formed.

Robin Denney (@redenney) served in Liberia with Young Adult Service Corps and South Sudan with Volunteer for Mission. She currently works as a lay pastoral leader in the Diocese of El Camino Real.

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