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Embracing Successful Failures

Apollo era Flight Director, Gene Kranz, famously called the Apollo 13 mission to the moon a “successful failure.”

As you know, Apollo 13 experienced a mechanical failure which caused the mission’s landing to be aborted. That was a failure. Yet, the determined men and women working at NASA in Houston worked day and night to ensure the safe return of the crew. This was a success.

Though probably not as dramatic, everyone experiences “successful failures.”

I had one recently.

A few weeks ago on Wednesday night, we launched a new service, IGNITE. I launched this service attempting to answer one question: Is the lack of Wednesday night attendance in churches a Wednesday night problem (people are too busy and tired) or a programming problem (what’s happening isn’t engaging)?

Learning from others, I thought a mid-week worship service, rather than topic or textual studies, might be the answer. I had dreams of a high-energy, uplifting, raise-the-roof-service. That plan, like landing Apollo 13, was aborted. Key people in our band and worship team were unavailable. Their back-ups weren’t available. We couldn’t pull it off.

That happens in church life. You deal with it.

We adjusted our service to fit our capabilities.

We rearranged our seating and decorated our sanctuary with candles to create a different mood from Sunday morning. To generate a different kind of energy, we sat in the round and dimmed the lights. Our worship leader, Chris, prepared an incredibly thoughtful worship set and I wrote a short essay about silence and stillness.

But that was the problem. I wanted high energy and electric. I planned contemplative and reflective.

When the night was over, I left the church building feeling like I had woefully missed the mark. I feared I had even missed contemplative and reflective and hit sleepy…and on a Wednesday night to boot. People were tired when they got there.

That night, like many nights, I lay awake in the bed wondering where God was leading me and our church and how we could introduce non-Christians to the gospel. Our first IGNITE wasn’t going to do it.

I felt like a failure.

But I’m not the only voice I get to hear.

Living in a smaller town, during the week I routinely run into church members. On Thursday, one after the next mentioned to me how meaningful the service had been; how they liked the change of pace from the weekend.

I’m glad they enjoyed it. I really am, but the night was a failure…but a successful failure.

It was a success because God is good and the Word of God never returns void. It was a failure because I had not delivered on my vision or the branding of the event. This confuses church members and confused church members don’t invite friends.

So, how can you avoid successful-failures and have more successful-successes? Here’s what I learned:

1. If You Can’t Deliver on Your Promise Change It: Through branding, I had intimated what kind of service we were going to have. That’s not what we ended up having. It wouldn’t have cost me much to tell my congregation that we needed to change dates, move our service back one-week and deliver what we said we were going to.

2. Explain What You Want. I love services in the round. We arranged seating in the round, but it was new and strange to most people. Over half the church sat directly across from our worship leader. It’s hard to have the effect of antiphonal singing if we aren’t sitting across from each other. When people didn’t sit where I wanted them too, inwardly, I was kind of tweaked. Along with some others, I had spent a good while rearranging chairs only to have people sit in one clump behind each other instead of in front of each other. But I never asked them to do otherwise. Why should I be surprised when people do what years of church conditioning had taught them to do? And, of course, there were some folks who showed up and sat on the back row like there was a prize for it.

3. Do It All With Excellence.  What made IGNITE successful to the degree it was (other than the Spirit of God) was that our worship leader Chris, our decorator for the event, Beverly, and I all brought our “A” game. Though it couldn’t be what we hoped, we didn’t phone it in. Chris and Beverly are extremely talented, and I wrote something that I felt good about. By doing so, we gave God something to work with. Too many times, when we can’t have everything we want, we fail to do everything we can.

IGNITE, in my view, was a successful-failure, but it’s not something I feel badly about…anymore. God was exalted. People were blessed. Leaders learned what to do better.

What stories do you have of successful-failures?


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  • Kirk

    In my opinion the lack of attendance is both a factor of less engaging services and the fact that it’s on a Wednesday night. However, I would say that extremely engaging well done Wednesday services can become a priority. Ugh I feel like I’m dissing you and that’s not my intention whats so ever. I just mean well, my youth group does a Wednesday night activity called Huddles. Generally we have 35ish people come, which is occasionally more than a Sunday service. This stems primarily due to its sociable atmosphere. Its a place we come to hang out together while also getting a Bible study, and seeing friends. It becomes a priority to our group because we see each other. Does that make sense? I hope so. I hope that IGNITE becomes a complete success, but I also hope your ready for those successful failures, as I know you are 🙂

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