Failure. Defeat. Catastrophe. Inadequacy. These are all words that, as humans, scare us into being determined to succeed. When working towards a goal, think about what it is you’re really afraid of- success and praise? A promotion? Pride? No. Humans are wired to be afraid of failing at something and disappointing the people around us. Sometimes, we get so caught up in this fear of failure, and the repercussions, it paralyzes us and we are unable to function. Our society has taught us that we must always be pushing for success and perfection. Whether it’s the perfect job, successful salary, perfect body, desirable lifestyle, we are convinced that unless we have success, we will be unhappy.
What would the world be like if we changed this mentality- what if failure was considered a positive outcome? This is hard to wrap our minds around, but in some circles, failure is praised, and embraced. It’s time to give failure a new purpose in life, and determine the consequences of what that might mean. One question that we need to be asking ourselves, though, is how should the idea of failure be dealt with in the church world as opposed to how it’s encountered in the corporate or entrepreneurial realm. This article will uncover some of the mentality shifts on failure, mostly in the corporate sector, and then translate that into what it means for the church in this pivotal time of change and transformation. What does it mean to be the church, and how does sin affect our ideas of failure? Should the church and the secular world accept failure in the same way?
It’s important to begin by looking at the place failure has in our society, and the shift in mindset the business world is currently experiencing. In “Poke the Box”, a book by Seth Godin, he discusses the important role risk plays in success. In order to succeed, especially if you’re working on something new and exciting, you have to embrace risk-taking. If you’re not taking risks, you’re essentially not attempting to get anywhere new. By attempting anything new, you have to risk something. What makes it a risk? Knowing that failure is a possible outcome, and unfortunately, most initiatives fail. True risk-taking knows failure is a possibility, and not being afraid of it.
Godin is very enthusiastic in his writing, with ideas like “Don’t start- Leap!” and “What would you do in a world with no rules? Go and do it!” These are zealous statements, especially knowing that most of the times you’ll leap, you’ll fall flat on your face. But, if you go into an endeavor attempting to avoid failure, you’re being counterproductive. Recognition of failure is at the core of risk-taking. If failure isn’t a possibility, it’s not a risk. Try to remember that the goal has never been to succeed, but instead to continue taking initiative and taking risks. By doing this, failure will take on a new character in our lives.
Dr. Henry Cloud, a leadership consultant, wrote an entire book about the importance of endings. “Necessary Endings” covers everything from personal relationships to professional endeavors. Dr. Cloud uses this book to explain that although endings are always eventually necessary, these endings don’t mean that anything has been a failure, although it might be hard to see it as anything but defeat. His main theme throughout the book is that an ending is not a failure, but simply an open door for other opportunities. This is a very optimistic (some may say naïve) view of failure and how we let failure function in our lives. But who has ever said optimism is bad? What would the world look like if we weren’t terrified of failure, and really embraced it as a jumping off point for something new?
In “Necessary Endings”, Cloud uses the imagery of a rose bush. He discusses how it’s necessary to prune and cut back the rose bush to let it blossom to its full ability. This means getting rid of buds that won’t bloom, or branches that are hindering a full blossom, and even those buds that have blossomed, but not as full and rich as the others. This image encourages us to get rid of anything that is holding the bush back from being 100% of what its supposed to be. Take, for example, a blossom that hasn’t produced a perfect flower. If the gardener were to leave that blossom in tact, the rose bush as a whole would not be able to fulfill its purpose, and be the most beautiful rose bush in the garden. But, if the gardener were to take a risk by getting rid of that one rose blossom that seems to be holding the integrity of the bush in itself, what could eventually come of that? Could the bush produce something more beautiful than he could have imagined? Would the bush all of a sudden be lacking a integral piece of its beauty? This is a risk the gardener would have to take, hoping for the best, but recognizing the possibility for the worst.
What does this mean for the church? So many of these ideas are heavily entrepreneurial, and for young hotshots, looking to make the move on that next big idea, and make a lot of money. Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and even our good friend Seth Godin are all examples of what this looks like in the public, secular, business world. But the church is a different place. The church embraces same goals, same mission, and same gospel, and lets those things be the driving force of the wider church, so how do we use this new mentality of failure, knowing what we know from scripture, including the idea of sinfulness, and the work of evil in the world?
Is the church held to different standards than a run-of-the-mill Fortune 500 company? This was the first question I asked myself when I started thinking about failure as a whole. The answer I came up with was: no. However, there are other factors that we recognize as acting agents. We call it sin. That’s not to say sin isn’t present in business practices, but in the church we have a name for it. As a church, we claim to constantly being focused on God’s mission, and how we, either as individuals or congregations, can work together to work within that missiology. But how do we tell if an idea we have is God-centered?
The power of discernment has become central to our transforming church culture. Prayer and listening have become the first step of many congregations’ “move forward” strategies. They listen to those around them, their communities, and hopefully they’re listening to God. What does it mean if we engage in these intense listening, praying, and discernment practices, but our ideas either never seem to take off, or simply just fall apart?
Bill Hybles, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois is very well known for his work at Willow Creek, and has also written numerous books on leadership. One of his recent works, “Axiom”, is a collection of leadership proverbs, touching on everything from communication to personal integrity. His tenth proverb is entitled, “The Value of a Good Idea.” In this short chapter, Hybles is very clear on how he feels about ideas: allow them to happen. Bill encourages people to constantly be coming up with ideas, even ones they are completely unsure about. His strategy is simple: “In order to land one good idea—one breakthrough idea that will kick your organization’s activity into high gear—you have to allow for hundreds or even thousands of mediocre ideas.” Even with this hopeful mentality about developing ideas, there’s still a possibility that you take an idea, and let it soar, and gets absolutely nowhere. The first question people will ask is, “Whose fault is it?” Is it fair to say that God is not involved in the discernment around those mediocre ideas?
In the past couple of years, my home church has been attempting to start a young adults (20-to-30-somethings) ministry. In order to do this, the point person on this project talked to all the young adults he knew and could think of. He put up announcements before church, in the bulletins, on the website, and all over social media. The group started with an average attendance of five to six people every week, some weeks more, most weeks less. He tried to jumpstart this ministry twice, and both attempts flopped. He tried for weeks, and months to figure out where he had gone wrong. Eventually, I told him that what he’s been doing wrong was attempting to market to a demographic that wasn’t present at the church. Our church has a fairly vibrant aging community, and the rest are young families. There are very few newlywed couples without children, and even fewer single, post-college adults. Essentially, he was hitting all the right marketing outlets, but there was no one there to care about them.
His idea was strong, and he was passionate about it, which made it harder to admit defeat. To look at this situation from a slightly cynical perspective, one could say that he probably wasn’t seeking after what God wanted him to do, and instead was giving into his own selfish desires. He had an idea, but how God-centered was his idea if God allowed it to fail? To look at it from the other, more optimistic or naïve perspective, you could say that this wasn’t a failure at all. This was simply an opportunity to realize that the group he was trying to reach were not currently in the church, and so now he’s been given the chance to get outside the church doors and see what he, with God’s help, can make happen out there.
The problem with this situation in particular is the focus on the ministry, and its purpose. The focus was purely internal- he was trying to get people involved in this programming, without considering anything outside the walls of the church. His intentions were great on a human level- he wanted to create a program for a group that hadn’t been tapped into in our congregation. But he didn’t use his resources efficiently. In “Missional Renaissance”, Reggie McNeal talks about refocusing resources. First of all, the man attempting to start this ministry used what was easy for him to grab hold of- marketing tools inside the church, people who hung out at church, social networking followed by mostly only people who attend the church. What he failed to do was take the extra step to reach outward.
I believe the biggest mistake he made was in his discernment process. He saw something he wanted, and he went after it without consulting God. McNeal says that prayer is the most “untapped and underused resource available”. In the case of my home congregation, this was very clear as we saw what could have been a booming ministry wilt without ever really reaching a peak. But what about those churches that are spending time praying, and in discernment? How should they react when something they’re passionate about never takes off, or does take off, but then goes belly up?
These two situations are very different, the key factor being the place of prayer and discernment. If a church is truly willing to enter into a time of exploration, growth, and missional renewal, and they are intentional about seeking God’s direction for them. Somewhere along the line, they may hit a bump but God never said, “Go out, and create the perfect ministry model, and do everything perfectly without a hiccup.” Instead, God sent Jesus to send us out, making disciples, with a to-do list of two things: Love God, and love your neighbor. This has contributed multiple shapes of ministry in different settings, and cultures. Of course we’re going to make mistakes, and experience problems. That’s what makes it fun! We are human, and we are bound to do things wrong. We can’t do anything without our sinful nature getting in the way. But if we earnestly seek out the Holy Spirit’s guidance and prayerfully discern where the Spirit is leading us, I can’t help but think that eventually God’s will can and will be accomplished.
Is failure the same, overall? I believe so. I also believe that failure isn’t always negative. Just as if an executive were to make a selfish move, causing the collapse of a program within a business, if a pastor begins preaching based on selfish intentions, something will fall short. Intentionality is a major piece to this failure puzzle, and deciding how to approach it in our given communities. Churches can still find opportunities in failed attempts at ministry, programming, discipleship- you name it, and we’ve failed at it at least once. The important thing for the church to remember is this overall concept of “failure equals opportunity” is not solely designated to the goings on outside of the church. We, as the church, can still take a failure, and turn it into a thriving, blossoming rose bush. In order to do that, we need to trust that God will guide us through that process of discernment, failure, and recovery, and not lose hope in the mission we’re here to take part in.
 Godin, Seth. Poke the Box: When was the last time you did something for the first time? United States of America: Do you Zoom, Inc., 2011.
 Cloud, Henry. Necessary Endings. New York, NY: HarperCollins Books, 2010.
 Hybels, Bill. Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. (p.43)
 McNeal, Reggie. Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. (p. 67-70)