Since 1915, Harvard University’s Cruft Laboratory has played host to leading-edge research and historic innovations. The lab was used to research antennas and batteries in the early days. During WWII it was instrumental in the development of radar and sonar. In 1944, the first electromechanical computer was assembled in the basement of Cruft. It was utilized by the Navy to solve complex mathematical problems, and later by the Manhattan Project to calculate the effects of imploding the first atomic bomb.

From the street it was impossible for a casual passerby to recognize Cruft’s innovative legacy. What you could see from the street was the accumulation of random ‘techno-junk’ piling up in the windows.

As the legend goes, by the 1950s MIT students had adopted cruft as slang for the trash and debris that accumulates over time. Since then, the term has quickly spread as jargon for anything unwanted or poorly constructed. In software for example, cruft is code that is obsolete, redundant or poorly written.

Even though the true etymology of cruft is hard to pin down, it doesn’t matter because the word just sounds right… it’s almost onomatopoeic. You might hear an IT professional exclaim, “What’s that crufty stuff stuck between the keys of my laptop?” It’s easy to infer the meaning, even if the word is new to you.

Wherever the word came from, the reality is that our churches are full of it. Maybe cruft isn’t stacking up in your windowsills, but take a look at your sound booth, backstage, closets, offices, equipment racks, and even on stage. The importance of our mission makes it easy to become like the researchers of Cruft Lab—too focused on the work at hand to notice the swelling heap of yesterday’s tools.

I can almost hear you thinking, “What’s the big deal? Who cares if I still have a few overhead projectors in storage?”

Let’s borrow another term from software development to help explain how cruft is inhibiting your innovation. “Technical debt” is the cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a more sustainable, robust approach that will take longer in the short term. This comes into play every time you replace a bad XLR cable on the stage or install an upgrade without a plan to deal with the parts that were replaced. Setting aside cruft to deal with it later is one of the fastest ways to incur technical debt.

It’s extremely difficult to innovate while carrying technical debt because just dealing with the cruft becomes a huge project. Who’s got time for upgrades? Instead of steady incremental steps forward, a giant leap is required to get anywhere.

And that brings us to the worst part of cruft; a catch-22 so insidious that you don’t notice until it’s too late: cruft is a culture. Churches with cruft in storage most likely still use cruft in their ministries because the piles of cruft serve as camouflage for the old processes and equipment that we’re depending on. How does an item become church cruft? How does the Sunday school flannel graph go from cutting-edge teaching tool to dust bunny condo in the basement? Eventually, things break or become so obsolete that they’re set aside. But sometimes the cost of continuing with the status quo is higher than the revolutionary upgrade that would bring fresh momentum. We’ve all seen cruft that’s still mission-critical long after everyone using it knew it was antiquated. In a cruft culture, the old axiom, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” is a lie.

In the long run, each church needs to build systems to proactively avoid cruft. We need to systemize our decision-making for retaining or replacing equipment based on cost analysis. We need to establish a process for upgrades, including steps for disposal or repurposing old gear.

But if you’re drowning right now, here are three steps to clear your church cruft:

  1. SORT—Make a pile of cruft that’s worth the effort to sell. Everything else goes straight to the dumpster. When in doubt, throw it out.
  2. SHARE—Before you sell anything, contact neighboring churches & ministries with a list of gear that you can give them. Make sure to explain that you don’t want to add to their cruft problem, but they’re welcome to anything that will immediately help. One church’s cruft is another church’s treasure.
  3. SELL—Use tools like Craigslist, eBay, Reverb, or Facebook Marketplace to list the remaining cruft. Decide if you will ship items or require local pickup. Use the proceeds to upgrade the seating in the sound booth or improve other spaces used by volunteers who serve your church. If the sound tech isn’t happy, nobody’s happy.