My brothers and I grew up in the church, played in the church, went to school in the church, slept in the church and learned specific social skills in the church. The implicit mantra of our childhood was “if you couldn’t do it in the church, don’t do it all.” This meant as good Baptists we didn’t drink, dance or use dirty words inside – or outside – the church.
There were several rotten words restricted by our religious world that created an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not think about nor say aloud foul, forbidden words.” These unholy, heathen words have a powerful grip on groups of people, including those who have anchored their theology and behavior in puritan belief systems. God forbid that my brothers and I whispered in the house of the Lord or anywhere else words like bourbon or boobs or spoke about what happens in the privacy of the bedroom – or, worst of all, uttered the unforgivable “F” word.
Throughout my spiritual journey I have worked through layers of my own Baptist baggage. Today, as a Baptist pastor, I can no longer avoid the “F” word; if anything, I must lean into it, embracing it for the sake of the Gospel.
I know, this word creates a maze of sinful images in our minds. The Church historically has connected the “F” word with corrupt human behaviors that will send you to hell in a handbasket before you can even think about rededicating your life, let alone walking the aisle again.
“Faith is finding the courage to die, the courage to fail for the sake of future generations of the Church.”
The “F” word has so much power in our religious communities that in our efforts to avoid it we end up falling into it over and over again. We teach children to fear it, punish teenagers for trying it and live out our adult lives regretting it.
At this point you’re probably wondering if I’ve got the guts to spell out the-word-that-shall-not-be-named. Actually, I do. Today, the greatest fear of the Church is the infamous “F” word called FAILURE. (Did you have another word in mind? Please! People like my grandmother read BNG.)
The Church is terrified of failure. Church leaders, laity and clergy, are paranoid that people will leave their congregation or just won’t come at all. They fear members will stop giving and start considering the other church down the road. Congregations are also scared they won’t be able to meet some divine quota on saving people from hell and damnation.
The fear of failure is why the Church keeps putting new wine into old wineskins. In her ego driven desire for mega buildings, more butts in pews and bigger budgets, the Church has wound up wounding her people with worldly expectations of Christian success.
The fear of failure creates a constant consumption of more ministry programs, more church activities and special events and more to cram into our already busy schedules. Then church leaders become so bloated on the gluttony of church busyness that they become sick and burned out. Churches cannot keep pushing the pleasant pageantry of 1960s and 70s ministries that projected high Sunday school numbers, full parking lots and sanctuaries packed with young people.
Church leaders cannot keep doing the same old things from half a century ago expecting the same scale of successful numbers. The congregational model is changing whether or not our church leaders are ready or willing. Religious institutions are searching and striving for new wineskins for the sake of the future Church, and this means cultivating leaders who are willing to risk change, to risk failure for the sake of the Gospel.
Molly T. Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote about her experience on a team of clergy and lay leaders seeking a new model for congregations. She observed, “The ecosystem of congregations, institutions that prepare persons for ministry, and judicatories has been fraying across the denominational spectrum.”
As a pastor, I’ve learned that church folks are scared to death of change, horrified that they will be given a big fat “F” when they arrive at the pearly gates. Sadly, this fearful posture will ultimately put congregations in the grave. When did the Church start fearing death? Are we not people of resurrection? The Body of Christ has forgotten that failure is what lit the Gospel flame, igniting a movement that even powerful politicians couldn’t extinguish.
The Good News of Christmas begins with a bunch of failures. A teen pregnant out of wedlock. A disgraced man committed to a woman carrying someone else’s baby. A King born in a stable full of smelly sheep. A group of lowly losers who leave their livelihood to visit an infant.
“The Body of Christ has forgotten that failure is what lit the Gospel flame, igniting a movement that even powerful politicians couldn’t extinguish.”
Our Gospel begins with failure and only leads to more failure. The Christ child would become an adult who was unwelcome in his hometown, shunned by his family, betrayed by his closest followers and eventually lynched for a crime he didn’t commit. Jesus is a failure that people have been following for what feels like forever. The historic success of Christian communities is attributable to individuals and groups who embraced failure time and time again. Failure planted the seeds that have sown centuries of Christ followers.
Failing is critical to the growth of the Church. But if the Church is afraid of dying, then she is no longer living. Living out the Gospel requires faith, and faith is the assurance of things hoped for but not yet seen. Faithful living calls Christ-centered communities to embrace courageous failure.
Courageous failure requires us to fall upward, to borrow a phrase from Richard Rohr. Falling, like failing, feels counter intuitive to faith. But true faith is letting go of control, following Christ who leads down into the valley of the shadow of death where we must trust that the Way will guide us up and out into a new future. Faith is finding the courage to die, the courage to fail for the sake of future generations of the Church.
The Church of today must put to death ministries that are no longer working and religious rules that were once helpful but are now harming children of God. The Church must let go of success-driven models based primarily on bottom lines. The Church must remember that we, the body of Christ, are fools for the Gospel and will always appear like failures to rest of the world.