The word “risk” carries differing meanings for congregations.
Appropriately, churches need to talk honestly and always about the need for “risk management,” particularly as congregations must have processes that protect minors from abuse and harm.
We benefit greatly from being “risk adverse” when it comes to church upkeep – reducing tripping hazards and other perils possible around our buildings and grounds, for example.
We benefit also from creating and enforcing policies that keep our ministry’s integrity high, and keep the potential low and beyond reproach regarding fiscal mismanagement or other problems that create chaos and the depletion of trust among our flock.
The work “risk” can also be a helpful and holy word when a congregation goes out on faith and tries something new for the sake of the gospel.
In this sense of the word, risk can become a taboo word, as it means an unsettling of the status quo or homeostasis is underway.
Often, churches will become “risk adverse” in the most negative sense of the term. We do not wish to rock the boat or even leave the shoreline for fear that the unknown might be the end of us.
A positive sense of “risking” is at the heart of the gospel.
The cranky old Baptist preacher and prophet Will D. Campbell once grumbled that our culture and churches often practice more of an ethic of “take up thy cross and relax” than ever letting such talk carry the fuller weight of Jesus’ saying about following him likewise.
I feel a greater sense of hope when encountering congregations who have stepped out in faith and embraced their neighborhoods, especially in a way that reflects more the needs of the neighborhood than the worries of a congregation being overly protective from anything that might shake things up.
Risking can become a holy practice where we put faith in the Spirit of Pentecost who is still carrying on like it’s that first day centuries ago when the faithful remnant left by Jesus actually realize the Great Commission says, “Go!” and not just to the next street over.
We claim a faith that is more “to the ends of the earth” than “Hmm … maybe,” yet we often operate with the latter than the former.
When churches feel more like circling the wagons than trying anything approaching adaptive change, it shows throughout their ministry and the way they share the gospel.
When churches find the courage to listen to the gospel, the building that is otherwise a millstone can become a place of welcome and also not the sole focus of the congregation’s funds and energy.
When lay leaders and pastors can be inspired by the scrappy “can do” missional spirit of a teen or elder in their midst, the Spirit might have more of a chance to move in the whole body of believers.
Risk will bring failure, if not a sense of things being more “trial and error.”
When churches have ossified around just a few areas of ministry (many more of them named “flower committee” than “discipling the neighborhood”), it can be hard to embrace failure as a growing experience and a way to increase innovation and other forms of ministry previously unthinkable.
Such risk reminds of that parable told by Jesus where the seed is sown all over the place. He acknowledges not all seeds will take root or flourish. It is strongly implied that the sower just keeps on sowing, without any hang-ups on what might happen.
Eventually, there will be new life and might be in the most unexpected of places: the local church.
Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. His writings can also be found on his blog, Preaching and Pondering, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission.