Sometimes a new look at an old tradition can hit a nerve and get some attention

Innovation is often confused with invention. And that is a good thing for a faith community that has been around for a few thousand plus years. Whatever we try has probably been tried before so we can surely let ourselves off the hook for not having coming up with something completely new. Innovation is synonymous with change, alteration, revolution, upheaval, transformation, metamorphosis, breakthrough … I have learned that sometimes a new look at an old tradition can hit a nerve and get some attention.

At my previous congregation, Calvary, Clifton, one change/alteration that I found effective in terms of generating enthusiasm and participation took place on St. Francis Day. For years I would bless the animals at 5 p.m. and oh, maybe 10 or 12 people would show up.  Now I’m not the sharpest pencil in the engine but I came up with the idea that we would bring the animals inside the building on Sunday morning during regular worship times.  And I’m sure that this is done in other parishes, but it was new approach for our parish, and the upheaval was immediate. Remember innovation and upheaval often go and in hand.

The Altar Guild pitched a fit, the modified Morning Prayer service sent the ‘Eucharist or nothing’ people into a frenzy and the cleaning crew threatened to quit. Oh the pain! But press on we did, and the morning of the big day the strangest thing happened. Crowds. Big crowds.  With animals everywhere – dogs, cats, parrots, snakes, ferrets, fish, gerbils, hamsters, lizards, and even a spider. And the pride on the people’s faces was a clear as the morning sun. The dull roar of the wildlife blended with the organ and choir singing “All creatures of our God and King,” and one by one the people and their pets came forward for a blessing. Yes there were frenzied cleanups in the middle of the liturgy, and the lay readers and intercessors had to be extra loud. But you could feel the joy in the room and the number of animals blessed was close to triple digits – a huge leap from the annual Sunday afternoon dozen.

Attendance on St. Francis Day grew and grew and in a few years was right up there with Christmas and Easter, and the addition of a canned food drive for a food pantry at a neighboring parish furthered our purpose and sense of mission for the Lord and the kingdom.

The dull roar of the wildlife blended with the organ and choir singing “All creatures of our God and King,” and one by one the people and their pets came forward for a blessing.

Invention? Nope. St. Francis Day celebrations go way, way back. But a little change, a subtle alteration and some upheaval resulted in a downright religious experience – and a whole lot of fun.

So if you don’t mind a little chaos … and remember that God is usually found on the edge of chaos … take a look at the traditions in your community that have maybe grown stale or could use a fresh expression.  A little innovation and some persistence, and before you know it, the kingdom will be so close that you’ll be able to reach out and touch it.

The Rev. Jason Leo begins his ministry as the Missioner for Congregational Vitality for the Diocese of Southern Ohio
on January 1. Contact him at jleo@diosohio.org.