Have you ever watched a toddler learn shapes through playing with a shape cube? It’s an amazing trial-and-error process through which the preschooler actually learns shapes. During this failing-forward experience, the toddler bangs the shape box with the different shapes. As a consequence of trying to force the square into the circle, the hexagon into the rectangle, and the star into the oval, the child learns the proper shapes to fill those spaces.
I liken the process of following Jesus to this failing-forward kind of learning, and it has certainly been my experience in the Fresh Expressions movement. When I read the Scriptures, I am comforted to find that Christians have always failed forward. Our friend Peter probably offers the clearest example.
– Walking across a tempest-tossed sea, until, of course, he almost drowned himself (Matt. 14:28-30)
– Trying to cast demons out of Jesus (Matt. 16:22)
– Cutting people’s ears off with a sword (Jn. 18:10)
– Denying that he even knew Jesus (Mk. 14:66-72)
Albeit, at least Peter did the things the other disciples were too fainthearted to attempt. Nevertheless, it seems Peter was kind of an expert at failure. Of course, he was in good company, with tricksters like Jacob, murdering fugitives like Moses, adulterers like David, and terrorists like Paul. Oh yes, the great cloud of witnesses who failed forward epically, yet whom God used in incredible ways. And a great cloud of “forward failers” marches on!
In our Fresh Expressions Committee at Wildwood, we have an “epic failure fest” format in which we celebrate each other with applause and hugs every time we successfully fail. I find it interesting that every failure of a fresh expression always seems to produce a heavenly celebration (Lk. 15:7). Let me share one of the many stories that illustrate this point.
I remember it quite clearly. Nicole Pennington, chair of our Fresh Expressions Committee at the time, and now a United Methodist pastor, had that wild look in her eyes again. “I’ve got it!” she exclaimed, “Let’s go and actually live with them!” The “them” she was referring to was the population of people experiencing homelessness in the Wildwood area, people for whom she had great concern. Wildwood, once a railroad town, was a hotspot for those riding the rails and moving about the country from place to place in a kind of nomadic existence.
Our committee identified this group as a “micro-community,” and we had “insiders” already in place. We were trying to figure out a way to go and join Jesus by establishing an incarnational beachhead of love in their midst. Excitement erupted in the room, and as people on the committee began to buy in, I felt like I was dancing through the crossfire of ideas. In the back of my mind, as wonderful as the concept was, I also knew there was real risk. I had spent time in those camps distributing blankets and MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat); I had seen the potential for violence and danger.
“Folks, hold on a second.” I felt like such a party pooper as soon as the words left my mouth, especially since I’m usually the least risk-aversive person in the room. “I think we need to evaluate this one a bit more.” Now please understand something, there is no scriptural validation for a risk-aversive church, but there is a difference between calculated risk and reckless insanity.
I have received my share of hate mail over some of our fresh expressions–the ones that gather in tattoo parlors, for example–but even I know the difference between an insane risk and a risky, Spirit-led mission. Rampant drug and alcohol abuse, violence, rape, and even murder are common realities in those camps. Sending a team to do life there sounded like such an obvious Christ-thing, but ultimately I am responsible for the well-being of my folks.
From that meeting, I decided to go and personally evaluate the safety of the idea. Our insiders, a couple in our congregation who took food and clothing and hung out in the camps regularly, took me with them that week. We parked under the bridge and made the trek into the untamed woods.
Deep back, far away from access to local law enforcement, we found the camps dotting the trail. We sat down with one group, and they began to share their stories with us. Most of these guys and gals seemed somewhat content with their nomadic lifestyle of riding the rails, jumping trains, hanging out until they were arrested, and then moving onto the next place. One gentleman was not so content with his circumstances. We will call him Nile.
Nile began to share with me how he ended up at the camp. He was lured into the life through drugs and hadn’t been able to get free. His fiancé, we will call her Rosie, was currently incarcerated, and he was waiting for her to be released. He really just needed a place to stay, a job, and some basic necessities. I was able to secure those things for Nile, and, cautiously, he began to attend our church.
Here was this tall, lanky dude sporting dreads and a Metallica shirt showing up for worship. Although he had no experience with church, he reluctantly began to let people love on him. Nile began to become curious about this renegade Jesus who risks 99 sheep to seek one lost one (Lk. 15:4) and who sends his followers into homeless camps on rescue missions.
After an appropriate catechetical process, Nile responded to the grace of God by being baptized into the kingdom. A couple weeks later, we were leading our ministry team into the Sumter County Jail. There, several people came forward to receive Christ. One was a short, red-headed, quite pregnant young lady. When we were done praying, she informed me, “I’m Rosie. Nile told me all about you, and I’m coming to your church when I get out.” I was completely overwhelmed by the power of the Holy Spirit in that moment. On an Easter Sunday, Rosie was reborn through baptism into our community.
Ultimately, we decided the risk level doing life in the camps as we were was too high. This was one fresh expression that failed at the ideation stage. But this ‘failed’ fresh expression resulted in three people (Nile, Rosie, and their infant daughter) being baptized into a community of forgiveness and love by making Jesus the Lord of their lives. Again, the Bible tells us when that happens, there is a party in the throne room.
Even so-called ‘failed’ fresh expressions lead to heavenly celebrations. So we just keep failing forward like a focused toddler banging on a shape cube—crying when we miss the mark, break something, or watch a lost one head back to his/her old life; giggling wildly when we get a square in the right hole; laughing out loud when all the pieces fit and hugging and applauding each other when they don’t.
Most of the time we are playing as we learn, quite convinced that following Jesus is fun the majority of the time. Whether we get it right or wrong, we learn, and we find the great cloud of witnesses who have gone failing forward before us cheering us on! (See Heb. 12:1.)
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.