The Bible is a book about people who failed and One who succeeded.
- Adam failed to resist temptation (Genesis 3:6)
- Samson couldn’t stay away from prostitutes (Judges 16:1)
- David failed to honor another man’s wife (2 Samuel 11:2-4)
- Peter betrayed Jesus three times, not counting all the other times (Matthew 26:75)
- Paul almost despaired over the challenge of doing right and avoiding wrong (Romans 7:24)
- Demas failed to support Paul when he needed him (2 Timothy 4:10)
- John Mark deserted Paul and Barnabas on a vital journey to the large cities of the Roman Empire (Acts 15:38)
No wonder I love this book.
Some people (not many) think of pastors as living on a spiritual plane above human annoyances like failure.
If only that were true.
A few moments of reflection on our sojourn in Berkeley brings that “crash dummy” feeling to mind so easily.
Here are a few examples:
Armed with a real live Reggae DJ we scheduled a coffee house and promoted this event sure that we would pack the place, putting 360church on the Berkeley radar, while simultaneously doing a Tsunami relief fundraiser for Japan. What could go wrong? Nothing. Except that we chose 4-20 as the date. Everyone interested in Reggae was otherwise occupied that night. Good music. But “Reggae Night” now is a synonym for “bad event” at 360.
In the early days before 360 went public in Berkeley, our team started a simple Word Press website to get us online. Disregarding a complete lack of expertise, I volunteered to set up version 2.0 of this first site. Upon completion, I proudly offered the world something that looked designed by an immigrant from the pre-Google world. The site was so bad two of our team members pulled an all-nighter to replace it with something good. New rules: Earl never touches the website.
These two examples are typical of many more, including email campaigns that drove everyone crazy, supporters that never materialized, and a multi-cultural start-up team that never happened.
To do a start-up of any kind means lots of stuff isn’t going to work.
That sort of a thinking could make you feel awkward.
Our every fault and failing seems to be scrutinized as a source of potential online content. For example, lists of inaccuracies in television programming (e.g., “13 computer fails from 90’s TV” ) and film (e.g., “10 Historically Inaccurate Movies” ) prove that even those with millions of dollars at their disposal can’t get it right. If you don’t believe me just check out moviemistakes.com.
Viral videos of outrageous celebrity conduct or regular people doing foolish things have elevated failure to a genre and a media property. Whether you’re a college coach, a wayward government official or a pastor, your errors will be noticed and sometimes recorded on someone’s mobile phone.
But that’s enough bad news.
While failure is not to be recommended, it does have positive aspects. Here’s what failure has done for me:
1. Failure can be a comedy club
Many leaders I know are so tightly wrapped that their self-concept cannot survive even a small misstep. But after the first couple crash-and-burns, what did not seem humorous at the time become a “war story.” They say comedy is tragedy + time. I agree. Failure-free people are grim and unappealing. They spend too much of their energy guarding their .1000 batting average. However, those of us who have spent time strapped into life’s crash dummy seat have learned to laugh at ourselves a bit, and that’s grace from God.
2. Failure can be a heart transplant
An unbroken string of successes tends to give most people an “I know what I’m doing” attitude. I see this commonly in the Bay Area where we have a lot of very successful people (e.g., 137,000 millionaires live here). But a really big smoking crater forces me to take stock, to realize that I am fallible, to appreciate the contributions of other people and to depend on God more. In short, a negative outcome can give me a new heart in a way success cannot. Humility is failure’s child.
3. Failure can be a classroom
Debriefing an unsuccessful experience is the most powerful form of learning I ever experienced. Planning church events on top of Cal events taught me to check the academic calendar first! Success reinforces best practices. That’s important! But only failure forces me to do what I like least: figure out what went wrong and how to do better the next time. I like this least because it often turns out that I was at fault!
Recently I heard the “advantages” of failing described by Otterbox CFO Curt Richardson in a talk given at Fort Collins, Colorado. He built this multimillion-dollar company over many years of hard times involving multiple retreats “back to the garage,” as Curt puts it.
His self-effacing talk was funny, positive and practical for the church start-up leaders in the room—all the attributes we’re supposed to gain from triumph. Instead, Otterbox accumulated enough failures to succeed in the end.
Moved by God’s love, Curt’s philanthropy now makes a deep impact on his city.
Perhaps the best thing about failure, then, is it makes the triumph of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection even clearer. The Apostle Paul put it this way to a Corinthian church that was failing at so many things:
"Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” - 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, ESV
It’s not fun to fail. But it’s not the end of the world either.
In fact, in just might be the beginning.
Earl Creps is the lead pastor of 360church, a new congregation serving creatives in Berkeley, California. Along the way, he earned a Ph.D. at Northwestern University, serving as a university and seminary professor, and completed a D.Min. at AGTS. He enjoys the Pittsburgh Steelers, coffee and the movies.