We need to talk about the ‘F’ word: failure. (No, I wasn’t going there!). One of those memory pictures came up for me recently on Facebook. It was a picture of a church plant where things were going well. This church plant happened to be one I was involved in, leading, and starting. The photo was taken on a good day – the room was full and I remember it being one of those days we got lots of new people. However, 7 years later, we made the decision to shut the doors.
Was it a failure? Yes. The point is that we started out to develop a viable church. We did not achieve that goal. Lots of good things happened. Lots of people heard the gospel that may not have had a chance to hear it as clearly as we made it for them.
But all the good things that happened does not change the fact that we started out to achieve a goal and we did not achieve it. This is a failure.
Am I a failure? No. One of the reasons, I believe that we don’t like using the word failure is that we attach a sense of personal worth to what we do. I can’t do that as a Christian. My personal worth has to come from Jesus and what he has done for me (1 Peter 1:18-19). So, no I am not a failure, the church plant was.
Nevertheless, when I referred to this photo on Facebook, there were a lot of comments that people didn’t think that ‘failure’ was the right word. Now, I may be reading into this, but it was like “we must not use the word ‘failure’, that is a bad word”. But I think we do need to use the word failure. Here are 5 reasons why we shouldn’t be afraid of using the word ‘failure’:
- If we are under grace then our performance is irrelevant to our salvation. As I have mentioned above, the church plant was a failure. I am not a failure. If we start to connect our self-worth or identity with what we do, then we will be afraid of the word ‘failure’. (Some of you in ministry are leading successful ministries and you may be falling into this trap, be careful!). However, I think we need to use the word ‘failure’ when something doesn’t work to remind ourselves that we are not measured by performance.
- If God works through the good, the bad and the ugly, then he can work through failures too. One of the most common responses to the idea that our church plant failed is that God still did great stuff. He did and he will. But this is different to the church not failing. If the implication is that God can only work through things that work then we have a God who is not truly sovereign, some big questions with some parts of the Bible and we are in a lot of trouble. God also works through failures.
- If we are taking risks, then some of them will not work. This is part of the concept of ‘risk’. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t work. We need to learn from failures, both ours and others. We need to try and avoid failures. But we need to face that risks don’t always play out. The parable of Matthew 25:14-30, I think implies it is better to risk than to play it safe because you are afraid of the consequences.
- If a particular ministry or event fails, it does not mean that God’s plan has failed. This may be the other reason we dislike the word ‘failure’, it somehow implies that God himself has failed when something we are doing for him does. God’s plan does not fail, but there are things that don’t work out and fail. These are separate things. I think we need to be using the word failure to illustrate the difference between these things.
- If we think failure is the end, then we don’t know the story. In some ways, this is the flip side to the previous point. To say that one thing has failed does not mean that the story of what God has in mind for some of the elements of the story (read: people’s lives) has ended. This is why we need to stop and ask the question “why did this fail?” If we aren’t asking that question then there is nothing to be gained from the failure as we step into the next chapter. But failure to call a failure a failure means we are in danger of not assessing it as such and therefore learning from it.
Some people could argue that we can hold all these ideas as true but still not like the term ‘failure’. But I hope you can see by using the term ‘failure’ for ministries that don’t work we are forced to see them more theologically, rather than fearfully.