Discerning Mission

Missional Lab

Missional Lab: Failure Is a Necessity

By Brigitte Leininger

The corporate world is learning to embrace failure, turning it into a positive exploration of opportunity. This article explores the newfound mentality of what it means to fail in the secular workspace, and what that same type of failure means for the church. Is it possible to look at failure in the same way -- a source for new opportunity, or is it simply another way our sinful nature is manifested in our work?

Failure: Opportunity or Human Brokenness?

Failure. Defeat. Catastrophe. Inadequacy. These are all words that, as humans, scare us into being determined to succeed. 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? 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? Should the church and the secular world accept failure in the same way?

It’s important to begin by looking at the changing position of failure in the business world. In Poke the Box, Seth Godin 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. True risk-taking knows failure is a real possibility. On the flip side, if you go into an endeavor attempting to avoid failure, you’re being counterproductive.

The first question I asked myself when I started thinking about failure as a whole -- is the church held to different standards than a run-of-the-mill Fortune 500 company? 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 be constantly focused on God’s mission, and how we can work together within that missiology. But how do we tell if an idea we have is God-centered?

Discernment. It 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. Discernment happens when 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. 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? If something fails, was a church acting against God's will? Does God's will always succeed?

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. These commandments have inspired 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. Intentionality is a major piece to this failure puzzle, and deciding how to approach it in our given communities. Churches can 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 reserved for the goings on outside of the church. We, as the church, can still take a failure and turn it into something that thrives and is life-giving. 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 that we’re here to take part in. 

About the Missional Lab series: In Spring 2013, members of Mary Sue Dreier's "Transforming Congregations for Mission" class launched a deep and broad conversation about how to better follow Jesus in a new era -- an era where the church is losing privilege and nothing can be assumed about the people who go or don't go there.

The blog posts in this Missional Lab series are drawn from those papers. Thanks to the contributors, to Prof. Dreier, and to Luther Seminary's Center for Missional Leadership.
About the author: Brigitte Leininger is a recent Luther Seminary graduate with a degree in Congregational Mission and Leadership. She spent her summer as a member of Jon Acuff's Start Experiment and is currently developing a strengths based leadership development curriculum. She has a heart for people, the Gospel, and Minnesota sports.

Image: Failure
(Creative Commons image by 4rilla on Flickr)

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