The fear of failure
To spend your life avoiding failure is a sure route to becoming a failure. This week I came across a fascinating article examining how Google conquered the world. One reason which caught my eye, is that Google encourages failure. “We're going to try things, and some aren't going to work. That's okay. If it doesn't work, we'll move on." That’s how entrepreneurs work. It’s not just having a good idea - you need to launch it into the real world. Failure is an essential part of the learning process. But what caught my eye is the importance of failing fast. Google teaches the imperative of recognising failure early. As soon as you know it isn't going to work, move fast. Pull the plug – and move on, no problem. They call that “good failure.” This needs to be said loud and clear, not least in ministry, for we have been long conditioned to play safe and avoid failure. But to avoid failure at all costs is to court inevitable disaster. So in CS Lewis’ Screwtape letters, the senior devil writes to Wormwood his pupil. He makes it very clear that in their Infernal Kingdom all devils, senior and junior alike, are valued only by their successes. He advises how to discourage Enemy (i.e. Christian) disciples: “When they feel inadequate, they will no longer attempt anything for the Enemy’s kingdom because of the fear of failure.” He means us. But as Christians we are secure in our relationship with God. On Christ the solid rock I stand; his achievement, his grace. He ensures my relationship with him is secure. Failure cannot faze us. Of course, there is failure which happens because we are badly prepared or poorly motivated, what Google calls “bad failure.” Even then God can act by sheer grace. But to use Google’s term, “good failure” is essential in ministry because any step of faith entails risk. And so early in my ministry I resolved that if I were to fail, I would fail properly. No half measures, no tentative steps. If I am going to rely on God, then I am going to place my full weight on his promises. In my sermon last Sunday I shared my experiences of starting the youth fellowship at our church in Heswall, how as I moved to Rochdale God provided leadership for this ministry, for the simple reason that it was his ministry . But it was a hard slog. Frequently I would arrive home following the Sunday evening service to lead this group of about 15 young people which had started out life as a confirmation class. The goal was simple – to produce disciples. I tried everything, pulled out all the stops – without any apparent result. But I refused to simply go through the motions or just provide an evening’s entertainment. It was discipleship or nothing. It was then that I said to Jacqui, “Well, if we are going to fail, we are going to fail properly!” The World Cup arrived, and the group just fizzled out, members dispersed to various holiday locations. And that was it. We gave it our best shot. Sad. Except no sooner had we accepted that we had failed, these same young people remarkably – one individual at a time – became Christians. And to our delight, that September we started again, to great effect. Some are now reading this blog. (If this is you, email me). But, of course, failure is at the very heart of our faith. For how else could you describe the public humiliation and cruel execution of Jesus? “The high priests, along with the religion scholars and leaders, were right there mixing it up with the rest of them, having a great time poking fun at him: “He saved others—he can’t save himself! King of Israel, is he? (Matthew 27:43) What the world counted as total failure was, in fact, the greatest success story of all time. And we have the privilege of entering into that victory and by faith count it as ours.