A culture of failure: Failure in ministry and in life—should it be avoided, managed or expected?

One of the greatest fears man has is that of failure. It invites scrutiny, accusation and mocking—but society’s greatest leaders embrace a culture of failure!

You can order Piece of Cake here: https://burton.tv/resources 

A culture of failure? Yes!

The goal isn’t to look like you know what you are doing, the goal is to experiment, try, fail, try again, grow, have epiphanies, gain knowledge, fail again and ultimately succeed!

I implement a strategy in ministry called “Rapid Prototyping.” Simply, the moment a concept is conceived, there are immediate steps taken to initiate it—fully understanding that early experiments will most probably fail, but the knowledge and experience gained are critical.

Here’s a chapter from my recent book, Piece of Cake. This book is in itself an example of rapid prototyping. I received the download of an idea, designed the cover and wrote the first few chapters within hours! The entire project from conception to having an edited, printed copy from the publisher in my hands was less than three weeks!

I encourage you to try, fail, try, fail and try again! Here’s the chapter titled, Sweet Failure:

Chapter Two

Sweet Failure!

imageSuccess doesn’t develop experts nearly as well as failure does.


Thomas Edison said,  “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” (attributed to Thomas Edison)


            Edison, when queried by a reporter about the seemingly incredible difficulties associated with his work on the lightbulb rebutted, “I have not failed 700 times. I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a lightbulb.” (attributed to Thomas Edison)


            If we understand the scope of our project, it’s actually quite insane to presume we will accomplish it without significant and repeated failures.


            In fact, the inventors of the famed lubricant WD-40 were so unintimidated by failure, that they actually included it in the name of their product. If you knew you’d fail thirty-nine times and succeed one, would you proceed?


            From WD40.com:


In 1953, a fledgling company called Rocket Chemical Company and its staff of three set out to create a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry, in a small lab in San Diego, California. It took them 40 attempts to get the water displacing formula worked out. But they must have been really good, because the original secret formula for WD–40®—which stands for Water Displacement perfected on the 40th try—is still in use today. (quoted from www.wd40.com)


            Yes, you are going to fail. Go ahead and wrestle with it now, you can’t avoid it. I don’t mean ultimate failure, of course. But, I do mean that you will pray much, do your best to gain insight from God, consider your best options, seek wisdom from others and then move out with at least a measure of confidence—and you will experience failure!


            Thomas Edison could have named his light bulb, Lightbulb–1000! Maybe you can name the church you are considering planting First Church–100! Failure should not intimidate you! People will presume you to be inadequate, confused or immature during your experimenting.


            Most young ministers crave for others to see them as successful and steady with a pipeline directly into the command center of Heaven. The reality? We see in part. We understand little. We have clarity on a small part of the big picture, and when we initiate action, others will watch as we stumble and struggle. Are you OK with that?


            Thomas Edison said, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.” (Quoted in Artifacts: An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley (2001) by Christine Finn. p. 90)


            Your job is not to be so careful that you avoid failure, it’s to be instant in obedience! In fact, failure is sweet when you learn how to handle the pressure it brings. Failure is an effective and desirable teacher. You may actually find yourself enjoying the various failures you experience, as a researcher would in a laboratory, in your pursuit toward efficiency and success. Really, the main thing standing in the way of the sweetness of failure is pride. If our goal is to impress people instead of developing ministries that set them free, we have no business even considering entering into a ministry project. We need to mature a little bit more first.


            I stumbled across a blog article that I thought was interesting. It does a good job of explaining how to quickly initiate and develop a project:


“We only win in the long run by getting out there and bloodied in the short run.” (attributed to Tom Peters)


This blog is an example of rapid prototyping.


One week ago this blog did not exist except for a few ideas in my head so I thought it would be helpful to show how I went from step one to launch for very little time and money.


Now I own about 25 film books to every business book I have, but I think I first learned about rapid prototyping from Tom Peters. Some have called Thomas Edison “the father of prototyping,” but I imagine it goes back to a time closer to starting the first fire or inventing the wheel.


What is rapid prototyping? In filmmaking terms, it’s Edward Burns having a meeting at the end of 2010 with the Tribeca Film Festival people and coming up with an idea that he should make a feature to show for the festival’s 10th year and a few months later the film is written, cast, shot, edited and premiered. In an industry where the typical film can be in development for 3 to 5 years before it gets produced (or dies in development) Burns’ Newlyweds is definitely prototyping.   Sylvester Stallone writing Rocky in six days is an example of rapid prototyping.


In the manufacturing world, a team of people may be put in charge of a project to design a widget quickly to meet a need in the marketplace.  Rapid prototyping is messy business as it tends to follow the motto “fail early, fail often.” Because in the failing is where breakthroughs happen. (Scott W. Smith, efilmmaking.wordpress.com)


            It’s always at least a little interesting hearing about someone else’s failures, and how they grew through them. When my wife and I moved to Colorado Springs to begin the process of starting a church, we honestly had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t have any money set aside for our church plant and we weren’t sent out by an organization. It was simply a boots on the ground venture. We showed up and started into the trial and error process.


            One of our first steps was to connect with the largest church in the area, a ministry that we absolutely loved. They had a massive, vibrant small group ministry, and we thought it would be good to at least connect there as we waited for clarity on when to actually start the church. So, we attended the small group leader training and started planning our new small group. We were excited! We weren’t starting our own church yet, but we didn’t care. We wanted to connect with some new friends who shared our values, and we wanted to support the ministry of that church.


            The weekend of the huge ministry fair came. This is where small group leaders were given a booth somewhere on the campus of the church where people could stop by before and after the Sunday services and get information about the various groups. Our booth was one of the best! We had looping video, excellent information and a powerful vision. It felt like a slam dunk!


            Well, since this chapter is about failure, you know what’s coming! We were given one of the rooms in the church to hold our small group meeting as we hadn’t gotten settled in our own home yet. We prepared for the group and arrived early to setup.


            When it was about 6:45pm, we had expected at least a few people to arrive early, but nobody did. At 6:55pm, we peeked down the long hallway to see how many people were walking toward our room. There were none. At straight up 7pm, Amy and I started to feel sadness rolling in, and by 7:15pm our dreams were fully crushed. At 7:30pm we packed up and snuck out with our tails between our legs, defeated.


            We mustered up the courage to do the same thing the following week, just in case some people got the news of our amazing group a little late. This time by 7:05pm, we exited the building and went out for a lonely dinner, just Amy and me. Sweet failure didn’t feel so sweet that night. The group ended as fast as it started.


            But, of course, we could not give up—though we did adjust our sails. We ended up launching Revolution Church a while later in our small living room with our family and a couple of other new friends. From there we grew into a 700 square foot building which held around 25 people, and then into a 2,000 square foot building where we peaked at 70, and finally into a 20,000 square foot building where we regularly ran around 100 in a very difficult region that was steeped in the occult. You see, in Manitou Springs, Colorado, at least 14 churches have started and failed in their first two years since the 1980’s. Revolution Church thrived.


Missing God


            One of the most prevalent issues that I come across on a regular basis as I talk to emerging leaders is the fear of missing God. Often people feel led to initiate a ministry, or to make a move in that direction, but they are afraid of being outside of God’s plan. This is a legitimate concern, but fear should not drive us. Wisdom should.


            There was a time when I was living the life as a youth pastor in a church in the San Diego area. It was amazing! I was at the beach every Thursday and had a stress free, invigorating position in the church. I had full liberty to develop the youth department according to my vision and ideas. After a year and a half in that church I was offered a position in a large church in the Dallas area. It was a completely different environment, and making such a move would be a huge decision. I felt I had confirmation and I was excited about the possibilities this new opportunity presented, but I was afraid of missing God.


            A good friend of mine gave me some of the simplest yet most profound and life changing advice I had ever received. He simply quoted scripture and said, “The steps of a righteous man are ordered of the Lord.”

            The revelation was instant. If I was living a righteous life, and was making righteous decisions, God would order my steps—even if and when I made a misstep! The fear and pressure of making a right versus a wrong decision lifted off of me! I have used that counsel countless times in my life since. When I feel led to make a decision, I ensure I’m living in righteousness and am doing my due diligence through prayer and seeking counsel, and then I step! I trust that God will direct my steps, and if I’m off track a little bit, he will lovingly guide me back. It’s really a glorious way to live!


            As I do this, I am fully confident that a lot of sweet failure is ahead of me, and I learn how to stay joyful and teachable as I learn from every ministry experiment.


            Keep in mind, I am not advising a haphazard life. That will only cause you unnecessary frustration. Measure your decisions and step according to wisdom as you live in the spirit, and refuse to fear knowing that both temporary failures and ultimate victory are both ahead!


            I’ve heard it said that we should make quick, pretty good decisions as opposed to calculated, perfect ones. Using this book as an example, I could have pulled out various resources, created a perfect outline, pondered it for a few months and eventually start writing. But, instead, my quick, pretty good decision has resulted in writing chapter two just one day after I started designing and writing the book. If my schedule allows, I can have this entire book written, in less than perfect but fully acceptable form, in just a few days! I’m literally sitting here in the prayer room unsure of what I will write next, but that’s OK. My goal is to pour out my heart, get the message out and move on to the next project sooner than later.


            I have no fear of failure. Many will enjoy this book, many won’t get past the first chapter and many will think it’s a ridiculous concept and never pick it up. That is OK! There are people who will be unlocked into their destiny and that is all that matters!


            I’ll share another failure with you. I value the advance of the Kingdom through church and house of prayer planting. I personally love the process of starting with nothing and watching God build a ministry that truly touches lives.

            While leading Revival Church in the Detroit region, my family and I moved about thirty minutes north into a more rural area by the apple orchards. It is a different environment than where our church is, and I felt the birthing and planting bug start to buzz in me again. So, we planted Revival Church North in my living room.


            We met for several weeks on Sunday mornings and drew a handful of interested people, but, I could sense early on that the necessary traction wasn’t there. Just as quickly as I decided to plant the church, I punted. It was fourth down and we could go for it or we could admit failure and move on to the next project. If I was walking in pride, I would have fought to keep it going, but, rather, it was easy for me to let it go. That plant failed. So what? Clearly it wasn’t meant to be, or the timing was off, and that’s OK. Believe it or not, I lost literally zero emotional energy through that process. I woke up the next day and refocused, prayed more and talked to God about next steps. There was still much burning in me and there are missions to attend to.


            Thomas Edison said, “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes.” (Statement in a press Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh (conference (1929), as quoted in Uncommon Friends: Life with 1987) by James D. Newton, p. 24)


            If there is a need that you are picking up on, get to work! Trial and error are both your friend! Don’t allow an insecurity to keep you from being the one that God wants to use to bring transformation, whether it’s in leading a Sunday School class, developing a Kingdom business, starting a church or doing anything else God is leading you to do!


            Remember Gideon? All he knew was that he was the weakest and the least, yet all God called him was mighty man of valor! Gideon was cowardly, as was his entire community. They were in hiding from their enemy, afraid of losing their crops, their livelihood. They were experiencing failure after failure and their confidence was gone.


Judges 6:14-16 And the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” And the LORD said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”


            This is God’s call to you! Don’t fear opposition! Don’t fear failure! God had ordered your steps you mighty man of valor! Don’t wait for others to affirm you–you will be waiting for decades possibly! Don’t wait for the perfect plan. Gideon advanced with one percent of the army available to him and told them to blow their trumpets and smash their jars. That doesn’t sound like a good plan at all, but it was what God led them to do. God has a Gideon’s army waiting for you to have the courage to respond immediately as an insignificant person with an insignificant plan and an insignificant army to lead them into their destiny! Those who perceive themselves to be insignificant are but a moment away from initiating a move of God that will be felt throughout the city!


Remember that failure is an event, not a person. ~Zig Ziglar