Editorial: Why don’t we talk about failure?

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The experience of a secular company that delivers talks about failure could provide a great template for churches willing to feature transparency and vulnerability along a path to hope and healing.

Failure:Lab sponsors evening events in which storytellers describe personal failure. They do not talk about lessons learned or who was to blame. They just describe the facts. After each story, the audience reflects and tweets what it means to them. Then an entertainer performs to “clear the air,” before another storyteller describes another failure.

knox newEditor Marv KnoxThe Faith & Leadership website, a ministry of Duke University’s divinity school, recently featured Failure:Lab. 

Jonathan Williams, one of Failure:Lab’s co-founders, described the idea. “It gives you hope when you see someone who looks so successful but the truth is, they’ve gone through all of these tough times just like you are,” he told Faith & Leadership. “It encourages you to say: ‘All right. If they can overcome it, I can overcome it.’”

Failure:Lab’s “magic ingredient” is its format, which focuses on describing failures without attaching lessons or blame, Williams said.

“What happens when you don’t justify or blame-shift what you did is you get people being very introspective, and they’re thinking about how the story connected in their lives.”

That introspection eventually surfaces in two primary venues. After each event—which typically features six stories of failure—storytellers and audience members attend a party, where they have a chance to talk and respond. More lastingly, audience members tweet their responses or write them in the program, and that information is published online.

A format for vulnerability

The transparency, vulnerability and refusal to cast blame provide an avenue for others to identify with the failure and not feel so alone in their own failures, Williams noted.

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“If you and I are sitting down, and you’re telling me about your success and your accomplishments, sometimes that can shut people down,” he told Faith & Leadership. “Maybe I’m going through a tough struggle, and I’m like, ‘Man! I am so far behind this person.’

“But with our format, … you’re being vulnerable. You’re being honest. You’re talking about some of the struggles that you’ve gone through. That’s universal. All of us have struggles.

“But what’s funny about humans is, more often than not when we’re going through a struggle, we feel like we’re alone. So that’s what we’re tapping into by not sharing those lessons—just leaving it out there. Instantly, that vulnerability goes around all of our defenses.”

What if church were more like that? What if Christians weren’t afraid to admit we don’t have it all together? 

Of course, some Bible study classes and small groups provide safe space for vulnerability and honesty about failure. Even a few churches do that on a congregational scale.

Unfortunately, they’re the exception rather than the rule. 

Talking about failure in the church

When we talk theology, we admit we’re all sinners, saved by grace. We confess, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We acknowledge, “There is no one righteous; not even one” (Romans 3:10). 

Most of the time, however, we use those Scriptures and similar passages to talk theological abstraction. We talk about sin in theory. We talk about failure as a concept

Leave it to a secular outfit like Failure:Lab to talk specifics. Leave it to a company outside the church to provide a safe place for vulnerability. Leave it to others to offer a mechanism for identification and redemption.

Now, I’m not saying every Sunday morning should feature a parade of failure and every gathering should include a litany of shortcomings.

Honest, transparent communities

But how many more people could we reach with the gospel if our churches truly were known as honest, transparent, vulnerable communities? What if people realized they don’t have to be successful before they walk through the doors of a church? What if people realized church is a fellowship where folks know all your disappointments and foibles, and they love you anyway?

Even aside from the evangelistic opportunity, how many church members could we rescue from despair if we all loved each other enough to share our failures and helped each other move ahead?

What if we were honest to God—and with each other?

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