Recently, I preached a sermon and wrote a blog post called “Failing to Understand Success”. It’s a play on words. We get a better sense of what success in God’s Kingdom really is by failing. It’s so tempting to believe we can go forth and accomplish good things for God. That’s a common – albeit flawed – missional line of thinking.
Jesus really meant what he said in John 15. He’s the vine. We’re the branches. Apart from him we can do nothing. Nothing is really not very much. Because God loves us, our attempts to do great things for God result in many frustrated efforts and missed goals. God created us to be in a right relationship with himself. To achieve “success” without God would miss the point of walking with God. But personally, I am so stubborn that if I feel like I’m succeeding at things, I’ll just keep pressing on and will probably grow prideful in the process. Allowing me to fail is like a tool God employs to humble me and draw me back to a place of depending on him. I am grateful.
But what do we do when the moments of failure arrive?
I find it’s tempting, (and easy) to freeze and do nothing. Actually, we can even rationalize doing nothing by calling it “waiting on God.” God does call us to wait, but in the waiting, we’re still called to put forth effort. But toward what?
It’s tempting in another way to assume that if we failed at one thing, we should just go back to doing something that worked previously. For example, if I trying to get people to come to a Bible study through incarnational contact work and fail miserably, I’ll just give up and advertise in the paper to see who shows up. Knowing what has worked in the past does have value. It’s great to be able to pull out a tried and proven idea – and “it” might work. But I would encourage seeking missional solutions to missional problems, to depend less on “it” and more on God.
Just as a reminder, by missional, I mean that God has a mission and sweeps us into it. It’s God’s mission and ultimately the success or failure of the mission is on God. The mission’s outcome is not on us.
So, when we fail, rather than freezing or going back to old ideas, we can pivot to something better by putting the responsibility for the mission’s success back on God. Don’t just freeze. Turn. Go back to God and ask him what his mission is for this place, people, and time.
Do you remember the Kairos Circle – the Learning Circle? The central skill for the learning circle is discerning when God is near. When God comes near, we repent, which involves turning, or pivoting, from our planned path to pay attention to discern how God is leading and what God is saying. I have found that when I encounter frustration and failure, going back to that circle helps. I have also discovered that God is near during the difficult times. Have you encountered a difficulty in mission? God was there. Good news. That was almost certainly a kairos moment, a time when God had come near. So it’s time to do some work to answer two questions: What is God saying? What will you do about it?
First step. Make observations: What exactly were we trying to do? What do I observe about the frustration, roadblock, or failure? What happened? Who was involved? What have I been learning through scripture, circumstances, and the church? How have I been feeling? Why? What were other involved saying? What were they learning? What was going on in their lives? Recently, I hit a road block in leading the Wednesday night group. I had a nice plan for reaching out in my neighborhood and when I helped form the group it was, in part, to get a community organized for that mission. They were supportive and willing. We actually did a little neighborhood praying and connecting. But as a group, we began to be limited by health problems, family challenges, distance apart, and time. And really, God pulled this group together for those things. We needed each other. Building relationships in a neighborhood takes time and consistency and we couldn’t get a rhythm going. I could have pushed through, but when a leader does that, the leader can often end up walking alone! That kind of defeats the community part of missional community. So I choose to try to pivot.
Second step: Reflect: What ties the observations together? What do they mean? As I reflected on the observations above, it struck me that we have more natural concern for the next generation than for our neighbors. We are pretty well connected in the community, and several of us have experiences with Young Life. It just so happens that Young Life in our area needs support.
Third step: Discuss and Pray: Talk it over with the people who’ll be involved. At our last meeting, we talked about how to move forward with mission. Ahead of that, I’d had some formal and informal conversations about this with group members. We are at a place where we need an “Out” – a dedicated direction for mission. I still haven’t given up on reaching out to my neighbors, but that’s gone in a different direction and now involves a different group of people altogheter (That’s another pivot story).
Fourth Step: Ask: What is God saying about himself, about us, or about our relationship with him? Well, I believe God cares about kids. I believe he’s heard our prayers for our kids and their friends. We’ve been praying for them for years. God has been opening doors for Young Life in this area – I believe his hand is in that! Finally, I believe God is saying he cares about kids a lot, and he’s telling us that we are here to be a part of expressing his love to the next generation.
So what will we do? We’ve already started. We’re praying for Young Life. We’re encouraging the Young Life Area Director, and we’re making plans to raise financial support.
That’s what a pivot looks like. What will we do, though, if we fail? Hmm. Pivot again.
I find a lot of grace there – in these pivoting moments. I find grace because, often, flowing out of these failures, I get to learn more of the height, width, depth, and breadth of the love of God.
But what if we fail really bad?
Well, if the failure is really big, God’s grace is bigger still!