When it went wrong…and what we learnt: freedom to fail


Life doesn’t always go to plan. You get soaked on the way to work, despite the weatherman’s promises of a heat-wave; you burn the food for the important dinner guest; your compliment is taken offensively. Yet despite life’s clear message that things don’t always go to plan, we are often surprised when they go awry.

Missional communities, like many well-made plans, also go wrong. And that’s ok.

It’s important that we set a culture where there is freedom to fail. This is both a culture set by the church leadership, but also it’s important that as a missional community leader you give yourself the permission to not always get it right. Jesus didn’t choose the most qualified or well-educated to be his disciples: he chose those who were willing to follow him, knowing they would likely fail.

fire engine fail flickrMe and my husband often joke that we’ve learnt more through where we’ve got it wrong in missional community than where we’ve done it right. But we’ve been privileged to have leaders who continued to invest in us and encouraged us, so that we didn’t just give up after the first try.

There are too many ways that things can go wrong to name them all here, but in case you’re wondering, here are a few examples that I’ve experienced or seen…

  • Unbalanced missional communities – e.g. focussing mainly on the Up (relationship with God) and Out (relationship with non-Christians) elements of missional community, but having no focus on the In (relationship within community).
  • Using language without explaining it – e.g. sharing some of the Lifeshapes tools, but not giving members of the missional community proper bible-based teaching so that they can fully understand what it means. This leads to a disconnect between the leaders and the members of the community.
  • Lack of missional vision – with no clear focus on reaching the lost, missional communities can become inwardly-focussed, consumeristic and ‘cosy’.
  • Failing to clearly communicate the missional vision – people misinterpret what they’ve signed up for and either make difficult demands on the leaders, get bored/frustrated or leave.
  • Forgetting to raise up leaders within the missional community – the current leadership might be brilliant and this means lots of people join them, but there is no one ready to step up to lead new missional communities that might multiply from this original one.

In all of these potential failings (and many more besides) the important thing is to assess and reflect on what is happening within our missional community. This is why we use the Learning Circle: the process of observing, reflecting and discussing so that our perspective can be transformed by God, in order that we then make faith-filled plans which we are accountable for and take action on. (You can learn more about the Learning Circle and Lifeshapes tools at www.3dmuk.com)

This is a process of realising and responding to the weaknesses of ourselves as leaders and the communities we lead. The above examples can solicit a number of responses: sometimes the issue can be directly addressed and fairly quickly remedied; other times it takes a much longer overhaul of a community to bring things around; sometimes it takes a clean break, ending the community but then letting the leaders have space to process what happened and be ready to try again.

My top 3 tips for when it goes wrong…

Be thankful – in the midst of failure don’t miss the things that have actually been really good about your community. Remember the good things that God has done through it and the values that you have had which have been really positive. Particularly if you’ve decided to end the missional community, make sure you take space with the group to have a celebration of the journey you’ve been on.

Be honest – use the Learning Circle process to fully reflect on what it is that hasn’t worked. If you don’t have a good understanding of why things have gone wrong, you won’t learn from them next time and may overcompensate in an area that isn’t a problem.

Be brave – when you lead a missional community and things go wrong it can knock your confidence. Remember, Jesus put the responsibility of starting the church into the hands of Peter who’d just denied him and run home scared. We’re not called to be perfect, but we are called to ‘…press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ (Phil 3:14). Have another go – if it goes wrong, it won’t be as bad as the last time!

Jon and Helen Bearn


Helen and her husband Jon  live in Sheffield and are part of St Thomas’ Church, Philadelphia.  They’ve been part of and led missional communities for the past 5 years and are passionate about seeing young adults released into their missional vision.  Helen works for 3dmUK, a ministry which trains and equips church leaders in missional discipleship.


Photo from flickr