Failure to Fail
By Carl Thomas Stroud Gladstone
What if the problem with failure in church youth programs isn’t actually the failure itself? What if the real problem is how our faith communities grapple with, understand and avoid failure in their communal life and ministry?
In other words, what if we fail to fail well?
And, what effect does this have on the young people with whom we walk this Christian way?
A young person can go through intense moments of failure in school, or with a mission project that flops, and come out the other side still learning and growing from the experience.
Loni Fancher, Director of Student Ministries at Concord Trinity UMC in Saint Louis, MO concordtrinity.org/youth-ministry sees an amazing resilience in the young people she works with. Nine times out of ten, a young person can go through intense moments of failure in school, or with a mission project that flops, and come out the other side still learning and growing from the experience. This happens when that young person is surrounded by non-anxious adults who recognize the value in helping a young person try, sometimes fail, and reflect on all those experiences as a means of grace as they grow into their discipleship of Jesus Christ.
It’s the one time out of ten that Loni worries about. In these moments adults want to shield young people from failure at all costs. These adults would rather impose their wisdom on the youth so they “don’t make the same mistakes I did.” This creates an environment where any misstep, any wrong turn, any ill-advised attempt is seen as counter-productive, bad, maybe even sinful.
In the first scenario young people are encouraged to imagine new ways of doing ministry. They are commissioned for ministry adventures and are taught to listen to their instinct and the Holy Spirit for insight on how to move forward. They become missional innovators conducting experiments about how they can best connect their talents and interests with God’s needs in the world.
In the second scenario young people are encouraged to conform to the ways we already do ministry. They are expected to continue the ministry structures already in place. Their instincts are questioned and the implication is that the Holy Spirit already moved and they should just get with the program.
God’s witness is that failure cannot stop love’s success.
If we remember the witness of our central story, we should gain insight on God’s view of failure. By many human measures the witness of Jesus toward the end of his earthly ministry failed. The zealots didn’t get a conquering general. Judas didn’t begin a political upheaval by selling Jesus out. When the disciples lost their rabbi to the cross they ran and hid.
But God’s witness is that failure cannot stop love’s success. On Easter, Christ’s followers saw that failure couldn’t contain Jesus’ ultimate victory. If we take the cross seriously then we need to be real about the crucial moments of perceived failure in our own ministries and ask, “How might this experience propel young people into following Jesus in renewed ways?”
So, in our youth ministries let’s recruit adults who can help young people fail! Let’s practice resiliency in the face of problems by listening to and hearing our young people more than we offer them prefab solutions. Let’s learn how to be present with others in moments of failure. Let’s challenge ourselves to extend grace even when others fail us.
Let’s keep in mind God’s irresistible love that overcomes evil despite our flops.
Let’s fail well together in the missions and ministries young people and churches create. And, let’s celebrate the moments when God flips our failures into opportunities for youth to be reinvigorated for living in the way of Jesus Christ.