Recently I heard a campus minister speak about some of the unsuccessful ideas her students had experimented with, in their attempts to reach young people and invite them in. She said that they had come to view “failure as redirection.” Each failure was a learning experience that brought them closer to figuring out what really works; with each attempt, they more closely approximated, rehearsed, learned, and adapted their way toward effective and fruitful ministry. This reminded me of the pastor who told me about his inner city mission initiative with youth. “We fell forward this year,” he said, and then went on to describe what they had learned after stumbling through several unanticipated setbacks.
Both of these persons provide wonderfully fruitful leadership and ministry while also reminding us of the importance of risk, uncertainty, experimentation, and adventure in ministry. Failures are part of the learning process, steps on the way to effectiveness. These persons have learned to fail successfully.
To speak constructively of initiative, failure, and learning does not take the sting out of the experience of falling short of expectations. We all want our work to come to fruition and we feel passionate about the mission we serve. We’re heavily invested in the work we love and we hope for results that are pleasing to God. And yet, many of our critical, cherished, and ambitious undertakings do not succeed. How can we learn to fail successfully?
I served nearly sixteen years in one congregation and during that time we enjoyed significant growth in mission, outreach, programs, attendance, and financial strength. Year by year we’d add one or two new programs, and as the years went by the numbers of these new ministries and their impact proved significant. When my time came to leave, it was tempting to see success as a straight-line phenomenon, all upward momentum. In fact, our successes were the result of many, many failures, false starts, short-lived initiatives, and experiments that didn’t work. We tried a Wednesday evening service that never had more than a dozen people, a Sunday breakfast that ended in disaster, numerous new Sunday school classes that fizzled away as quickly as we started them. We bought land for parking that we later had to sell, replaced flooring in rooms that we later decided we couldn’t use, repaired homes that we discovered were owned by people who could have paid for the work themselves. Some ministries lasted a year or so, and then died away. Some reached people for a few years, and then abruptly became obsolete. There were great ideas that people had poured their hearts and souls into that died for lack of support. Failure played an essential role in the process of learning, growing, adapting. We had to leave many of our darlings behind, to let go of programs we cherished but which were not working. Our path upward was strewn with mementos and markers of good intentions, dedicated work, and abandoned projects from which we’d learned and profited in our attempts to serve God and others faithfully.
Jesus calculated failure into his teachings about ministry and fruitfulness. His stories and parables help us understand how to fail successfully. “Failing successfully” sounds like an oxymoron, the coupling of two words that are intrinsically contradictory. But in fact, failure and success are intricately intertwined in Jesus’ teachings. They are part of the same spiritual walk, interwoven experiences on the journey of following Christ. Failure figures significantly in Jesus’ teaching: three-fourths of the seeds sown by the sower fall on rocky ground, get gobbled by birds or choked by weeds. Jesus tells of wheat and chaff, of branches that need pruning for the strengthening of the vine. He tells his followers to wipe the dust from their shoes and move on when the great ideas they are living don’t take hold on those around them.
Did Jesus ever fail? That’s an interesting thought to consider. What about the rich young ruler who heard what Jesus said, and then walked away? We feel Jesus’ sadness as he watches the man walk off down the road. What about Jesus’ weeping over the hardness of heart of Jerusalem? What about having someone among his closest circle conspiring against him? We now look back on these events as irreplaceable links in the story of salvation. But while they were being lived, they must have felt like failure to those committed to following Jesus.
Many great turning points in the history of the church result from failures. Martin Luther’s revolution of thought and spirit was a response to a failing and corrupt church in his day. The failure, complacency, and insulation of the Anglican church provided John Wesley’s motivation for taking bold and outrageous action. Many of the church buildings we now inhabit were built with funds derived from other previous churches who closed their doors. Sometimes failure awakens passionate response and renewed vision.
The hardened path where the seeds cannot penetrate, take root, and grow represents the hearts of people resistant to the offerings of grace. Sometimes the seeds don’t take. There are people we fail to reach despite our best efforts, and ministries that fail to grow to fruition despite our best work.
Nevertheless, in these various stories told by Jesus about mission, fruition, and failure, the message seems to be: If we’re going to fail, then fail successfully. Learn. Keep sowing. Move on. Don’t give up. Try again. The harvest comes. The harvest does come.
Yours in Christ,