The Little Red Hen Effect

Certain stories have a way of sticking with you over time.

As children, we often enjoy the stories for the entertainment value, and we might even be able to glean a moral from the story. But I have found that the messages of some bedtime stories or fables become more poignant as we age and gain greater life experience. One story that seems to consistently come to mind is the American fable by Mary Mapes Dodge, “The Little Red Hen.”

The story is about a hen living on a farm with her chicks and a number of fellow barnyard animals. The original version included a rat, a cow, a cat, a dog, a duck and a pig. One day, while walking around the farm, the little red hen finds some wheat. She decides to make some bread with it. She proceeds to plant the seed, harvest the wheat, mill it into flour and bake it into bread.

At each stage of the process, she asks each of her barnyard friends if they will help her do the work. And each in turn responds, “Not I!” When the work is finally all done and it’s time to eat the bread, however, everyone in the barnyard eagerly gets in line to get their piece of the final product. The little red hen then reminds them that they declined to help her with the work and subsequently declines their attempt to share the bread.

As a pastor of a local church and a participant in a variety of local not-for-profit agencies, I find myself reflecting upon the truths presented in this children’s story with some regularity. I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life working in organizations that are almost entirely dependent upon volunteer engagement to efficiently and effectively function. It has revealed what I like to call “The Little Red Hen Effect.”

Much like the various barnyard animals in the story, people often want to enjoy the benefits of the outcome without exerting the effort necessary to achieve the end. At times, we assume we can simply buy the results we desire. And in some cases, we can. But there will always be a need for investments of time and energy to achieve the mission of sharing the good news of Jesus and providing compassionate care in our community.

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me when I read the stories of the ministry of Jesus in the gospel is how he constantly pushed his disciples to participate in the work. It would be understandable if the gospels read differently. Jesus is the perfect son of God. He knew his purpose and the plan of action to accomplish it. And he was about to do miraculous things through the work of his hands and the word of his voice. No one would have blamed Jesus for choosing to just do it himself.

Instead, much like the little red hen, Jesus regularly offered up opportunities for the disciples to engage and share the work with him. He gave them the authority to cast out evil spirits and heal sicknesses and sent them out in pairs (Matt. 10:1). He asked them to share their ideas for feeding a hungry crowd on a hillside, then invited them to participate as he miraculously fed thousands (Matt. 14:13-21).

He preached that there was work to be done in the proverbial fields and that people needed to get busy doing the work (Matt. 9:35-38). Then when his time on Earth was over, Jesus handed them responsibility and authority for the entire enterprise in his absence (Matt. 28:19-20).

This is the mission to which we are called today. The hurt, hunger, sickness, sin and hopelessness that plagued our world in Jesus’ day still exists in the present. And Jesus still invites ordinary men and women to join him in his mission to make an impact through our efforts.

We have the chance to help bring a little piece of heaven to Earth while helping those on Earth to find heaven (Matt. 6:9-11). But it will require effort on our part. The proverbial bread will only come to be if we plant the seeds, work the fields and invest our lives in the mission that Jesus left us.

I hear laments over the state of our world, our city and even our churches. I hear the complaints about what could, should, but is not being done. I hear a great many thoughts and ideas, many of them very good, about potential solutions to the problems that surround us.

In order for us to move the needle and see positive outcomes, though, we must be willing to move beyond words to action. Rather than responding with “Not I!” like the animals in the barnyard, we need to get out in the field and get work done.

The Rev. Jeremy Myers is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Seymour. Read his blog at Send comments to [email protected].