Creative LeadershipEngaging Culture

The Sacrament of Failure

A few years ago, I was interviewed in Dallas on the Daystar Television Network about my new book “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media.” One of the questions host Marcus Lamb asked me was about failure. As we attempt to be original and innovative in trying to communicate our message to the culture, what happens if we fail? Is it OK?

I responded with a resounding “Yes.” In fact, I told him what I teach our staff at Cooke Media Group. I tell them to “fail big.” I want my team to fail because they dreamed big, stretched too far, over-reached, or tried something new. I don’t want them to fail because of something they knew better, or because they weren’t paying attention, or because of arrogance. I want them to fail because they’re trying something no one has tried before.

I’m reminded of the scripture: “A wide door for effective work has opened,” the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “and there are many adversaries” (I Cor. 16:19). The potential for failure is certainly one of those adversaries. But I believe, as I read from Leonard Sweet, that because Jesus “…expects us to fail, and has provided us with a sacrament of failure, we can shake off the shackles that fetter us to success and be free to fail without guilt, without embarrassment, without timidity.

In the words of John Narrone, a theology which takes failure seriously “does not encourage fatalism, passivity, indifference to the world; rather it affirms that the man who cannot freely lay down his life is one whose ideals and values are already compromised. The man who cannot accept the possibility of complete, radical, personal failure in the carrying out of this Christian mission is not sharing that absolute poverty of spirit which characterized the freedom of Jesus to accept the divinely appointed means for his mission.”

I read recently on Beth Quick’s blog that: 75% of churches are dying or declining. 25% are growing – but 24% are growing from the alumni association of the 75%! It’s the “Walmartization” of American Christianity. 1% of churches, 3,300, maybe less than 2,000 even that are really growing. The 1% church.

That seems a small number from what I see out there. But the point is, are you reaching or recycling?

If we’re going to change that drift in the church, we’d better be prepared to try new things and be willing to fail in the attempt.

Again – Leonard Sweet: “Lacking the nerve of failure, we have suffered a failure of nerve – to dare to dream dreams, venture visions, and risk getting splinters that come from cutting against the grain.”

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  1. Phil, i couldn't agree more about 'Walmartization'!

    I looked across my church this sunday and saw a group of people all worshipping God, and enjoying it, now that is awesome, but i really felt the need for MORE people, and not a 'recycled' group (though i understand Christians do need 're-charging') we need people that are still 'effing and jeffing' (british term for cussing!), people that still aren't totally there, we need the druggies, the pushers, the pimps the prostitutes, the lazy and lonely, the down-and-outs and the rich and famous and the barely saved's. it's like an anti-venom needs the venom for it to work! i had a thought that wouldn't it be a great thing to meet all these people and have them as guests in our home? as i thought my mind was frantically thinking of ways to get people through the doors (give-aways, free buses, encouraging he church to bring, university parties, gigs etc), but everything drew to blanks of 'we tried that' or 'will that actually work… i mean who actually looks at flyers, i don't' (ha ha!) i feel the responsability weighing on my shoulders, as a media designer, as a human and Christian…

    we need to start failing some new ideas, and we need to do it fast. people are totally depending on you being their bible and communicating God. it's an individual thing, not just a church wide responsibility, we can't leave it to the leaders and new / young guys to 'bring in the bacon', we've gotta get real and get our neighbours round for meals, take families out to lunch, and not those that can pay you back with a meal, ones that can't do that for the time, or for the cost.

    man, 1%. that's it? wow.



  2. Often times Church Growth is simply moving the sheep from one pen to another.  Churches in growing areas may flatter themselves that they are growing for many different reasons.  Sadly, when you do the analysis, a lot of them are growing because of transfer growth of new people moving in to the area who are already church-goers.  Further, they're growing at a rate below the demographic growth in the region which means that they're really not growing in a manner that benefits the kingdom at all.

    It's an arbitrary number but, I've found it helpful to figure that if a Church's growth is not at least 30% from new converts, then it's not really all that helpful.  If a church in a high growth demographic area is not keeping pace with the area growth or channeling some of that growth into Church Plants, then they are impeding progress even if their numbers are going up.

    It's not enough to just put butts in seats.  Sure you have to start there and it has its part.  There has to be an awareness of what is going on around you in the community and a willingness to not flaunt numbers as success.  The types of numbers and what that represents for the Kingdom at large trumps all else in that realm.  Of course too, there are times when God's measure of success will be qualitative and not quantitative.  The Great Commission though clearly involves numbers.

  3. "Fail big"… I like it!

    I am currently in the initial stages of 'attempting' a church plant. Although I live in Australia I believe our church statistics are very similar to the US. It is very reassuring to hear someone as experienced as you encouraging people to dream big, even if there is the possibility of failure.

    I wonder whether our lack of trying new adventures stems from a lack of faith. If we truly believed that God loves us, no matter what we do, then we would be more willing to take bigger risks to help build His kingdom.

  4. probably a mixture of that and laziness, and over-busying ourselves. i can put my hand up and say i've been in all those categories! and yep, it's not just about bums on seats, it's depth and breadth, and that IS possible but at a lot of hard work. i forgot to mention this in my post, and you're most definitely right! all of these people need planting in a house that will grow them!

  5. this is a stimulating thread.  i have always thought we never really answer the  question of why we open the doors of our churches.  only when we can answer that question, can we design a service that reaches out, or design a ministry that is effective.


    the quote above "it's like an anti-venom needs the venom for it to work!" is an interesting thought. if we aren't living in the world where people are hurting and struggling, then we are just recycling people on Sunday mornings with different version of the same thing.  or with a 1% church, we are  truly rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  6. Phil, please answer a bigger question that comes to mind. How do we present and manage failure in the public eye?? This seems to be the issue Charismatics as a whole, and TV personalities specifically, have the hardest time with, Joyce being one obvious exception. I think her transparency disarms people who can relate to her in success and in mistakes.

    But, how do we convince our leaders and "personalities" that communicating failures or mistakes does not hurt their image, but may actually help it? The fear I think is that somehow admitting that anything doesn't go according to plan is a faith failure. 

    I would appreciate any input!

  7. Well Phil, i feel this message about the idea for change it really important if we are to have churches grow and Christians reaching out to the other non-believing poputlation.

    despite that fact that usually those in the "big positions " will be satisfied with the status Quo, in fear of losing their positions; i feel its better for failures to be exposed through communication because this will open our attention towards the sole cause of the failure and we shall be able to state new strategies towards effecting the new ideas that might have failed." the best way to stop a bad tree from growing is by cutting it from the roots" unless we realize the roots to the problems (failures) in the church we can hardly eliminate them or even integrate new ideas into the church.

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