When I was in the fourth grade I wanted to ride a horse. So, I got my little brother Alan to lure one underneath a tree where I would hop on and take off bareback like in the movies. I remember being surprised by the width of his back beneath me and the violence of my crash to the dirt as the gray animal smirked a few feet away. Some may call that a failure.
But was it really? I learned lessons about courage, planning, and even the nature of skittish animals. Now I have a great story to tell for the rest of my life. I enjoyed sweet fellowship with my little brother.
That’s silly. Of course the horse ride was a failure. There is power in saying a plan failed. There is not a need to parse out whether or not I rode the horse long enough to technically be a success. And it doesn’t take away from all of the lessons I learned to say that I planned to ride a horse, and I failed.
A Story of Failure
In 2004, I left a very solid church in rural Oklahoma to plant a brand new church in Portland, Oregon. That church plant failed. After four years of trying, our family packed everything up and moved back to Oklahoma.
There are a lot of good stories that could be told about our four years in Portland, and there is a way to talk about it that highlights the disciples made, the new Christians, and even the thriving church that formed out of the collapse of the church that I planted.
But the truest version is that God’s plan was not thwarted, and the church that I planted failed. When people ask me about the church in Portland it’s clear that some have been conditioned to avoid asking about failure and success. Most often they ask, “Is that church still meeting?” The truth is part of that church is doing great and part of it is in ashes. But I think what they want to know is, “Did it work?”
“Did the church you moved across the country to plant take root? What happened? Did it occur? Or did it fail?”
Here’s what I’ve learned about failure.
When something fails you’re not changing anything by calling it something else. When something fails and you call it a success you’re actually threatening one of the pastor’s greatest tools—credibility. Everyone knows it failed. Don’t be the last person to say so.
Here’s what happens when a church planter won’t allow things to fail: the failure continues to take up time, money, and attention while not producing. This is how churches find themselves manufacturing energy for events and projects that no one believes in.
On the other hand, a planter with the courage to fail is equipped to fail fast. He can call a failure early in the process and move on to something that can be called a success.
It’s far better to allow things to fail, to allow things to fail fast, and to fail in the small things. The outreach event that was poorly organized. The Sunday sermon that didn’t land quite right. The new giving platform that no one uses. If it didn’t work according to plan, say so and say it quickly.
The courage necessary to fail comes from the knowledge that God’s plans will not be thwarted and his love for his children is not dependent on the attendance at your next Newcomers Dessert.
There is a kind of church planter that never fails. He finds the successes in all of the small events, projects, and ideas no matter their outcome. When everyone on his team thinks that something didn’t work, he spins it to show the lessons learned, the witness displayed, or just the “sweet spirit of fellowship.”
Some planters never call anything a failure right up until the failed church closes her doors (and sometimes not even then). An unwillingness to say that something didn’t work smells a lot like pride. We are not the people that never fail — we worship that person.