Missions Catalyst 04.11.12 – Practical Mobilization

In This Issue: Being honest when you don’t succeed

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Succeed by Being Honest When You Don’t Succeed: The Humbling, Scary, Liberating Power of Admitting Failure

By Shane Bennett


I hung up the phone this morning and swore under my breath (just a Christiany “near swear”). The Athens trip was officially cancelled. Dang. I’d had high hopes about a small group of people learning about and loving the growing community of Afghan refugees in Athens this summer. I’d envisioned us hearing stories of hope and heartache, and spending hours trading thoughts on the lasting hope that Jesus promises. But it’s not going to happen.

Trouble is, I failed to find the people to go. That’s about it in a nutshell. It pains me to say it. I suppose part of me says it so some of you will say, “Oh, come now, it wasn’t your fault.” But it was, at least enough for me to say, “I failed.”

Truth be told, I’m not a total stranger to failure. In my notes for this article I have a dandy list of examples. Some would take too long to tell, some are too embarrassing, and some would simply bore you. I’m not proud of them. And I don’t talk about them often. I feel safer if I keep them to myself.

Admitting Failure

But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about failure, and not just my own. This was sparked by my recent preparation for some Perspectives classes. I was learning about community development and came across a video by a young Canadian engineer. Watching it would be a very good investment of 13 minutes of your life. He tells how his failure in India helped lead his organization to a much more open stance regarding their failures. They began to publish an annual report on them. Then, realizing no one reads annual reports, they developed a website. Admitting Failure is absolutely brilliant! It’s a growing depository of stories of relief and development efforts gone wrong. Anyone heading into that field would be a fool to not thoroughly digest the entire site.

Why We Hide

It’s easy to read about the failures of others, but why is it so hard for me (and maybe you) to admit my own? Last week in the car I asked Ann and the kids, “Why do you think it’s hard to admit failure?” Their answers were the same that you’d likely give: We’re proud. It hurts. People will define us by our failures. Admitting our failures will expose the falseness of the image we project. Ouch. It hurts. But it’s not rocket science.

Recognizing and confessing failure in our mobilization efforts is further hindered by the muddy complexity of what we do. Cause and effect in mobilization don’t always tightly correlate. What looks like your failure may simply come from the reality that those you hope to mobilize have not been able to escape the gravity of their own safe and normal world. On the other hand, over the years you may have forgotten the taste of that fear and really did fail to address it.

What about this diagnosis: “It wasn’t the Lord’s will for this project to succeed.” Sometimes true. Sometimes the lamest excuse of the year. One good thing about being an atheist is that that arrow’s not in your quiver!

What It Costs Us

It feels safer to hide our foul-ups, but really it’s much more dangerous. Think of what we give up by failing to share our failures.

1. The Chance to Learn from Failure

First, we diminish the chances that we’ll learn personally from the failure. And we’ll almost certainly prevent others from learning from it. Now you might intuit the inherent risk that goes with taking two pastors to four cities, in four countries, highlighting three major religions and eight major people-group clusters, all in nine days, even if I didn’t tell you how I made that mistake one time. But not everyone’s as smart as you! For me to admit that failure just might spark smarter thinking in others.

2. The Opportunity to Live without Pretense

Further, by hiding our failure we surrender an important opportunity to be real with each other. Some of my favorite people are those who say without pretense, “I’m a screw-up, from a race of screw-ups. But I know the one who’s making all things new and he likes me.” There is life in the twin discoveries that (1) we all fail, and (2) quality people – the really good ones – know this. They will stay with us even when we fail.

3. The Favor of God

Finally, owning our failure, not hiding it or diminishing it, puts us on the right side of a very important equation: “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble.” Solomon, Peter, and James all stress this dynamic. I don’t want God opposing me, so I’m opting for the scenic drive down Humble Avenue.

Out of the Dust

Added to our humility, we have this great good news: God causes all things to work together for the good. God masterfully works through our failures, redeeming them and knitting them into his grand design for the redemption of all things.

I’ve seen this work out in real life: I once spent three months with a research team in India. We failed our way through a convoluted series of bad choices, faulty decisions, messy relationships, hubris, sickness, despair, procrastination, and pride, finally pulling together a few dozen pages of information on Muslims in Mumbai. A Muslim who loves Jesus took the information, put it into action, and subsequently started a series of churches across northern India. God indeed makes beautiful things out of the dust.

If it’s not sacrilege to add to William Carey’s great aphorism, I would make it say this: “Expect great things of God. Attempt great things for God. Fail miserably. Admit your failure, learn from it, and try again.”

How about Admitting Missions Mistakes?

If you’re game to admit some failure in your efforts to mobilize, or really in any mission effort, how about this: let’s put together a page of failures on Facebook. It will be a collection of mobilization missteps, Great Commission goof-ups, and evangi-blunders! You get the point. We’ll call it Admitting Missions Mistakes. Go here and tell your story. We’ll all be healed and helped. God will be honored and he’ll lift you up.

Shane Bennett has served in missions mobilization since 1987, much of his energy going to recruiting, training, and sending short-term teams. He’s been on research teams in Bangkok, Bombay, and Turkey. He coauthored Exploring the Land, a guide to researching unreached peoples, and has written numerous articles.

Shane now works as a public speaker for Frontiers and helps his church, Commonway, follow God to the nations. He and his wife, Ann, have five school-aged children. They live and work in Indiana.

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