How Not to Burn Down the Church & Other Failures

We went from a quiet prayer-filled reflective room to one with giggles & a thick cloud of smoke. Ah, the joys of youth ministry.

For over a decade I’ve been putting together some really cool prayer station worship experiences for teenagers, youth workers, and regular lay adults of all ages. I was apparently pretty good at this – so good that I had some CDROM project created through Abingdon Press some years back. But all those great experiences and still two failures haunt me.

1. I was a new junior high guy to a large methodist church. This worship stuff was part of my hiring so I talked the senior director to let me set up a worship space. She agreed, so I set some of the youth into the motion of setting up sacred space. One prayer station had a cross & candle in a glass baking pan and the idea was to write on some sheet of paper and burn the paper. Yes, totally not creative, but it’s one of the stations the kids wanted to do so I tested it out. It could work. Worship starts and the youth & adults are moving through the space no problems. As things moved along I saw a sudden bright light out of the corner of my eye. One of the kids lit his little paper on fire & dropped it into the glass pan. However, his burning paper missed the pan and landed on the rest of the papers. So, being brave he picked up all the papers and dropped them into the pan. Now, instead of some smoldering papers we had a decent bonfire (ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration). We did have enough of a fire to melt the candle so now we had oily wax floating in the pan. Then comes in another brave teenager with a cup of water to douse the flames. So with the introduction of cold water to a hot glass pan (you may know that physics does not appreciate…) and Boom! there goes the glass. Thankfully that did get the flames out, but there was quite a bit of cleaning up to do.

2. We had Lent series one year and, as was customary with our Lent services, we tried to some ‘different’ type of stuff for worship. For some reason there was a lot of permission given to play with Lent (just don’t touch Christmas & Easter). We were exploring an Exodus scripture where the Israelites were ‘pitching their tents’ at the base of the mountain and God had these clouds of smoke on the mountain. So I had this great visual idea of setting up a mountain scene with a tent at the base. How cool to generate some smoke as well! So I proceeded to set up a large cooler in the choir loft, draped fabrics and papers down the sides to give a mountain look. Then set up one of my camping tents at the bottom, just behind the altar. It looked great! Just as service  began, I put in the last step, dry ice put into the cooler with some water!  A little smoke generated as worship started, “This is going to be awesome!” I said to myself.  Then, nothing… Still nothing… Worship came and went and it was very far from awesome. Dejected, I looked into the cooler, wondering “Why?” and saw that the dry ice had totally frozen all the water in the cooler. Now it was just a big block of ice. Apparently using to much dry ice can do that.

I share these perceived failure moments in my years of ministry because they are just that, perceived. People actually liked the mountain & tent visual. They didn’t know there was something else supposed to happen. I even apologized to our lay leader for not creating smoke. She graciously & honestly said, “It was great, I don’t think God needed the smoke.”

That smoky Sunday school classroom where we almost burned down the church was no longer a calm contemplative worship space, but it was still sacred. You can bet that over seven years later that is one of, if not the, most memorable moments in worship as a youth. It also became bonding moment for the group.  From that incident on, when planning worships together, there would inevitably be a statement “Let’s not burn down the church this time,” with a collective laughter following. I still think of those two instances in ministry, and that is my own issues at play. I know in my heart they were how God imagined them working out.

May you create and take risks in ministry. They might not go how you imagine it, but they will go how God imagines.

Gavin Richardson is Digital Community Builder for YouthWorker Movement and the Short One at YouthWorker Circuit.  He has been in youth work for almost two decades now, has been a writer and consultant on numerous internet and published projects for the church. He’s often a speaker around the country on church communications and community building. His current projects are working on developing online Youth Disciple Groups and finishing a new book “Sticky Sheep.” He is the part time youth guy at Good Shepherd UMC in Hendersonville, TN.  If you ask, he will say that he is a “misfit” of the church. He lives in Nashville with his wife Erin, son Brooks and dog Crimson. You can connect with Gavin (and he’s totally cool with that) through

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