(Long Live Pub Group)

By Eddie Pipkin

Ah, let us pause to memorialize those innovative church ideas that did not survive the pandemic.  For instance, pub group.  Pub groups, for churches seeking to be relevant, were the cutting edge rage five or six years ago.  Folks would gather in a non-threatening space to trade ideas, ask questions, and share their stories over a brew or two.  And some pub groups are still going strong: those whose context give them a lasting, relevant vibrancy.  But for churches who were simply trying on the latest trend or grasping at any available straw to stay connected to the millennials, the pandemic shutdown pushed these experiments over the edge of viability, and pub group won’t be coming back.  What is the difference between trends that stick and trends that don’t?  And how can we look for new ideas for our own context beyond copycat formulations of the latest fad?  How can we embrace change for the good that lasts?

Let’s begin with some caveats:

  • I have participated in some pub groups and enjoyed them immensely. They have a loose and casual, freeform feel that is inviting and without the baggage of the church building.  (I’m not participating in one now – which is a testament to their transience.  More on that later.)
  • We at Excellence in Ministry Coaching (EMC3) are all for paying attention to the latest trends and what other ministries are doing. The key is that, as we do so, we are focused on finding ideas that resonate with our unique local context as a church.
  • We at EMC3 are all for temporary experiments and non-permanent projects. I’ve just written recently (again) about the value of designing things to be temporary.  So, the failure of an idea (or better stated, the time-limited success of a given idea) is no reason to hang our leadership heads.  However, there’s a discernible difference between something intentionally designed to live only for a season (that therefore ends on a high note) and something that feels like it’s supposed to be a permanent addition to our programming menu but flails around for months before finally being mercifully euthanized.

Churches tend to be herd animals.  We tend to see what others are trying (and making look ever so cool) and then decide to try it ourselves.  This is ever so much more common a practice than a scenario in which churches empower their local talent and homegrown imaginations to formulate truly unique approaches to their unique contexts.  This is true for a variety of reasons:

  • We like cool stuff when we see it. Most of us aren’t designing our own clothes either. We buy items off the rack, often selecting what we’ve seen others wearing (or what marketers have planted in our brains as trendy).  It is a natural process to see what’s happening in other places and immediately want to try it on our own turf.  It’s important, though, to give serious thought to whether the conditions that make an idea work in one place are the conditions in which we are now trying to launch that same idea.
  • We’re really hungry for something innovative that’s going to make us relevant. We’re really tired of the same ol’ same ol’ and that feeling that we’re just spinning our wheels.  We desperately want to juice our reality.  This is probably the single most relevant factor in getting us to hop on trend bandwagons.  The success and energy we witness in other places is alluring.  We want to replicate that same level of energy and enthusiasm.  It is worth adding here that, unless we participate in something in person, we should remember that hot trends that we read about in social media or online articles are subject to the same glossy production values as everything else on social media – what we view is presented in the rosiest, happiest light, with no problems noted and no complications highlighted.
  • We’re lazy. It’s a lot easier to adapt someone else’s trendy idea than to generate our own fresh ideas.  It’s the equivalent of getting that “meal kit in a bag” from the grocery store rather than taking on grandma’s 47-step, cook-from-scratch recipe.  This strategy can absolutely work if we’re thoughtful about our approach to it.  But there’s nothing like home cooking.  One of the issues with hopping on the trend wagon is that we will likely be doing a version of a thing that seven other churches in our community are doing a version of.  In that sense, if that is what is attracting people, we can end up in a kind of competition in which people who are drawn to the current trend are sampling who’s doing it best.  On the other hand, an organic, fresh, homegrown idea, which grows out of our local context, sets us apart as different.  It reinforces our unique identity, rather than just lumping us in with all the churches doing similar versions of the trendy thing.
  • We don’t know how to develop our own creative ideas. We like this concept of creating our own unique contextual ideas, but we have no idea how to initiate and manage such a process.  That’s okay.  It is part of the hard work involved in undertaking the ‘fresh set of eyes’ challenge posed below.  For local churches, one of the exciting parts about the ‘fresh set of eyes’ approach is that it probably involves people who aren’t currently serving in your standard leadership structure.  It probably rests heavily on engaging some new people in new ways (along with the exciting parallel of re-engaging some old burned-out standbys in new ways).

I’m using the ‘fresh set of eyes’ phrase because I saw a hopeful and inspiring article in the Orlando Sentinel this week, called – you guessed it – “A Fresh Set of Eyes,” about a theater class at the University of Florida in which teams were assigned to develop creative new ideas for Orlando’s highly regarded Fringe Festival.  The teams studied everything they could about the three decades of the Fringe Festival, which is a yearly celebration of unique, independent theatrical performances by artists from all over the world.  These students workshopped and presented their own ideas for ways the festival could be enhanced and then shared those ideas with festival leadership – plus they got a grade for their work.  The resulting ideas were innovative and outside the box, some practical and some wildly impractical,  but all viewed from a fresh perspective that was valuable to the people who are responsible for putting on the festival:

“I just put my head in my hands and said, ‘Why did I never think of this?’ ” [Brian] Sikorski [the Fringe’s marketing director] said.

Students in the class, taught with adjunct professor Brittany Gacsy, split into five teams to design their projects.

“I didn’t know what I’d get,” said Grant [the academic who designed the project], who was pleased the students ‘came up with some really neat ideas.’ Because it’s an interdisciplinary class — with students who have studied hospitality, interior design, planning, architecture and civil engineering — the teams approached the assignment from different angles.”

It’s rare to hear of a local church doing something like this.  Certainly, I’ve been a part of brainstorming sessions that tried to come up with creative ideas in the moment, but the thought of teams working together over time to fully think through some creative approaches with ‘a fresh set of eyes’ – that would be downright revolutionary.  It’s such an exciting idea that I will make this offer to you: if your church wants to try such an experiment in creative planning and you’d like someone to help you think through how to lead such an initiative, send me an email at pipkin.eddie@gmail.com.

One of the things that stuck out to me was the composition of the teams.  They were interdisciplinary by design: people with different competencies and passions joined together with a common task.  (The whole UF program that instigated this project stems from the high concept idea of designed immersive environments – like the kind you see in theme parks – it is an intriguing possibility for ministries that can find ways to think about the opportunities for churches to provide such immersive, all-encompassing environments – isn’t that what worship in the large cathedrals always was, for instance?).  Churches, when they are building creative teams and when they are building visioning teams, tend to clump “creatives” together.  What if we built more interdisciplinary teams for such initiatives?  Not just interdisciplinary in the sense of different kinds of creative artists, but interdisciplinary in the sense of all the kinds of leadership represented in our churches?  What ‘fresh eyes’ might we be missing?

But back to pub groups.  The reasons that trends lose their sticking power and fade away is that they often ignore some of the basic rules for what matters and lasts for a healthy local congregation:

  • The trend isn’t true to our core identity. (Analyzing whether any event, program, project, or current trend is true to our core identity can be confusing if we are unclear what our core identity is – whether this core identity is our “story,” our organic, naturally evolved identity as a faith community, or in a more formal scenario, a clearly articulated vision for the future that we hope to build.)  If, however, we know what our core identity is (or what we’d like it to be), the trendy thing should be clearly aligned with that identity.  If not, the idea starts in a deep hole to begin with.
  • They trendy thing does not have passionate and committed leadership. This is the scenario in which a pastor or leadership team decides we need to try out a trendy thing because Church X has had success with it, so they cajole an ambivalent volunteer into taking it on, or they assign a staff member to head the effort.  This can work for a season, but it rarely works long term.
  • The trendy thing doesn’t build in depth and accountability. This makes the trendy thing optional and disposable.  A bunch of people sitting around and trading their opinions on a topic is not necessarily the same thing as intellectual and spiritual growth.  It’s not a pathway to becoming a better person.  It’s just a social time of people having some occasionally entertaining and provocative discussion and enjoying one another’s company.  But people have lots and lots and of options for hanging out in similar environments.  We need to go deeper, challenge people to change, and offer a framework for ideas that moves beyond talk radio style discourse.  That’s when people become invested in what we’re doing together.
  • The trendy thing doesn’t build significant relationships. Successful ministry is all about building relationships.  Pub group can be a great way to meet some people and make connections, and sometimes those are serendipitous relationships that lead to other things happening beyond the pub group gathering, but if there is no sustained effort to promote and extend those connections, there is no relationship glue that holds the group together as a cohesive, supportive group long term.  Pub group (or any trendy thing) becomes just a place where I see those acquaintances for a sometimes interesting hour, with no deeper connection.  Whether something deeper happens is connected to the reasoning behind the formation of such a group.  In many settings, we start the pub group (or other trendy thing) as a hopeful conduit to get people to come to church – if they connect with us here, they’ll join us there – this is our ultimate motivation.  This is a very different motivation from starting a group that exists solely to build meaningful relationships within the framework of the group itself.  Confused motivations can lead to unfocused priorities.

Whatever trend we pursue needs to do all of these things listed above.  A trend, a fun idea, can be cool for a season and do none of these things, and that’s just fine.  But if we are building for growth and for the future, these deeper values are the characteristics that any new project must include to be long-term healthy and sustaining.

How about your ministry?  What trendy ideas have come and gone?  Why did the short-lived ones fade out so quickly?  What was true of the creative new ideas that had lasting impact?  How does your organization generate new ideas and stimulate creativity on an ongoing basis?  Share your insights and suggestions in the comments section.