Someone once told me they admired me because I keep trying new things when other ideas fail. This is an aspect of embracing failure that I’m quite proud of: I don’t give up trying new things. Ministry is, as I have said on more than one occasion, the work of the Holy Spirit, or, in other words, it’s throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.
It reminds me of that scene in Friends where Rachel and Joey are throwing wet paper towels at the wall and seeing what sticks the longest. It’s when Rachel decides she likes living at Joey’s. That’s the Holy Spirit at work—seeing what sticks the longest and deciding that you like living in that place of working with what sticks and shrugging off what falls.
I’ve been at my current church for four years. We’ve tried so many things: Pub Theology, two versions of Dinner Church, Hybrid Bible Study (even before Covid, online and in-person, one at lunchtime, one in the evening), Family Movie Nights, and then since Covid—online Bible Study, Book Discussion Groups, Zoom parties, Outdoor Harvest Art (having outdoor art supplies available such as sidewalk chalk, rock painting, etc.), and the latest, Wild Church, as part of the Wild Church Network, meeting outdoors once a month.
All of these have failed or have dropped to the point one or two are participating at the most. And there’s a number of reasons: Zoom fatigue, burnout, Covid, health and safety concerns, and the list goes on. But I believe that the biggest reason these things are failing is that church as we know it has to change. We have to move outside of the building, we have to turn away from what we have always done, and we have to rethink what our priority and purpose is. What is the point of it all, really? If it’s to get more people on the roles and more money in the plate, it’s time to stop. Those measures of success are worldly measures of success. Something to think about: despite the fact that Jesus fed five thousand people (really, just the men, as the women and children weren’t counted), despite the fact that Jesus ministered in all those villages and cities and even in Jerusalem, after his death and resurrection and ascension, Acts 1:15 tells us that “the family of believers was a company of about one hundred twenty persons” (Common English Bible).
Talk about failure! All of that—all that Jesus lived and died for and rose for—at one point was one hundred twenty people.
But it’s so easy to take failure upon ourselves. As I posted the first week in this series, we often jump to definition number four of failure and make it our identity. We believe we have failed. Not the activity or event—we take failure upon ourselves.
For example, our Wild Church ministry. It’s easy for me to be discouraged that of our eight gatherings, only three have had people beyond my immediate family. One of them, however, had several people, and they all said they enjoyed our time learning about the ecosystem, our connection and impact to the land, and that they would return. Maybe they will.
However, what has happened is that once a month my family gets outdoors for a long walk along the Ship Canal in Seattle. We learn about our environmental impact, we listen and look for signs of creation doing something new, we discuss how we might live better with creation. We are out there, rain or shine, and we end with a picnic lunch of PB&J’s. Once a month, our family has church in nature together, even if we’re the only ones. Some failures are beautiful and turn into something you didn’t know you needed.
This last Saturday, we gathered at the picnic tables where we usually do. I invited the congregation, I had posted about it on social media, I encouraged new students that we had met at the local Christian college to attend. At ten after our starting time, no one else had showed up. So I opened my Green Bible and read the quotes about creation care and relationship with God that I had selected, and the part from Genesis 1 about how we were created to care for the earth the way God cares for us. We prayed, and then we walked along the canal, taking note of places where our Parks and Recreation department was caring for the land (It was National Public Lands Day as well, so I incorporated that). We noticed the benches and fences protecting the vegetation from erosion. We crossed the Fremont Bridge and watched the kayakers float underneath. We stopped at the Theo Chocolate Factory for some fair-trade organic chocolate, and on the return across the bridge, received an “Ahoy!” from the pirate ship (yes, there’s a pirate ship in Salmon Bay). We picked up some trash, ate our picnic lunch, and enjoyed our time outdoors as a family, caring for God’s creation and our relationships with one another. If I’d given up and not participated, I’d have never noticed all the ways our Parks and Recreation department in Seattle are working hard to upkeep our trails, our benches, our waterways—all our public spaces. And I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the delicious salted caramels I purchased.
Embracing failure is recognizing that the true failures are our preconceived notions of what success ought to look and feel like. Instead, we allow those to fail, and for the new fruit to flourish. The measures of success we often look to are worldly measures. We aren’t looking to what God is doing in our hearts, perceiving what God is doing in our world around us, and drawing closer to God and creation if we are only concerned about gathering bodies and dollars. Because of Wild Church, our family is growing closer in our relationship with God, creation, and one another. Because it has so far been a failure—in terms of my preconceived notion of what it would take to be successful—it’s turned into a wonderful blessing for me and my family.