The other day, God was very clear with me about discipleship in my life. As He spoke to me, I wrote down this statement:
Our fears are a significant threat to the discipleship movement of God.
I could give you a list a mile long of the fears that have held me back from discipleship for many years. These fears have basically kept me from living out the Great Commission in so many ways. And fear of failure has always been the biggest factor.
How many times have we heard “Failure is not an option!” (As if that is supposed to be a motivating factor in anything we do.) “Whatever you do, don’t fail.”
Is that crazy to anyone else?
A few years back, while I participated in training for churches developing discipleship and missional communities, I heard this quote: “If it is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”
The teacher said it, and you could hear a collective pause among the participants as it sank in. Although the quote originally comes from G.K. Chesterton and it didn’t originally have to anything to do with discipleship, a thread of truth runs through it and causes quite a reaction among church leaders today.
In that moment, I heard that I had permission to fail. The revolutionary thought was that discipleship didn’t always have to go perfectly for it to be purposeful. My immediate reaction was, “So you mean to say that I don’t have to think of myself as being good at something before I start doing it?”
That rocked my paradigm, because I had so many discipleship failures under my belt at that point. I couldn’t believe that any of them could add up to being worth something. I had enough failure racked up by then that I told myself I wouldn’t do it anymore. I was done putting myself out there, done giving my time and energy to women only to find them continuously not calling me back after a few months.
As a part of this learning community, one of our assignments was to read Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. The entire book is devoted to the study of success and how much of it has to do with opportunity. His research and observations led to a lot of interesting findings, but the one that struck all of us was the idea it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any arena. That’s when the light bulb comes on.
In all of those times and all of those places where I had only seen failure, now I was beginning to see redemption. All those moments of frustration when a girl stopped calling me back for seemingly no reason were actually part of a path that had purpose. It all added up to something greater. Chesterton’s words seemed to take on a new life of their own, granting permission for failure. And Gladwell really got it when he said, “We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail.”
For once, I began to give myself the grace and understanding necessary to try again.
In 2009, I got a call from one of my former interns asking if I would mentor or disciple his girlfriend. He had participated in our summer internship that year, but I had yet to meet his girlfriend. My initial reaction was fear, quickly followed by the overwhelming desire to say no because I couldn’t risk failing one more time. So I did the only thing I knew how at that time — which was to tell him that I’d meet with her once and see if we hit it off. It seemed simple and non-committal, just what I was going for.
Going into that meeting, I knew things had to be different than before. Disappointment reigned over all my former experiences, no matter how I tried to reason the results. I knew that I couldn’t let this opportunity slip by if it was something God had for me, but I also knew old wounds had a habit of keeping me from trying again.
I couldn’t be more thankful that I said yes to that initial meeting. This young gal turned out to be the one that turned everything around, the breakthrough moment. She’s the one you want to tell everyone about, because at every turn she accepted a challenge and stepped up to the plate. She invited me into her life, and I invited her into mine. We shared what we were learning in Scripture and prayed for one another. She let me lead her though some really rough times in her life. She confessed her fears and yet was willing to engage with changing them.
All those prior experiences with women taught me so many things that now made sense. So many factors can effect success or failure, particularly in discipleship. There is timing, the assessed hunger of the person being discipled, availability, schedules matching up, the desire to learn and grow, the ability to take on challenges, a passion for reading God’s word, a readiness to be obedient to the Lord… the list goes on and on. This girl even became an intern the next summer, taking our discipling relationship to an even deeper level.
That discipleship path lasted just shy of 2½ years. Last week, we got together to check in, and she told me of her new visions and desire to see the Good News spread. She just got married and has plenty of new life things she will learn, but all the while I could see the fruit of all our time together. I know she will multiply the life of Jesus into others. She’s asking the right question at 22 years old. Through the process, we both have been given a fresh vision for the discipleship movement.
Did I do it perfectly? No way. But for once my measurement of success wasn’t defined by what worked and what didn’t. Of course, both are measurements to learn from. But the measurement of success isn’t how well I did or how well I led her. Instead, the measure of success is the fruit in her life that comes from Jesus, regardless of whether we met for a few months or 10 years. She is living a multiplying life, and that’s what continues the movement into the future.
Jesus teaches us this in Luke 8:4-15. Verse 15 says, “But the seed on good soil stand for those with a nobel and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a good crop.” I think in the end, it doesn’t matter what all the scholars say. Jesus Himself gives us an example of a realistic success rate. One in four will hear the Gospel, remember it, and obey it. That’s a 25 percent chance of the Gospel taking root in a potential disciple’s life. Not everyone is ready to hear when we are ready to teach. Sometimes we are amateur farmers and can’t identify the different types of soil. Sometimes we have to be active learners of His ways and not our own.
Whenever I am with leaders who are asking questions about discipleship, I remind them that failure is indeed an option. You don’t have to be perfect before you start sharing your life in discipleship. The point is to try. It’s worth it. And if it’s worth it, it’s even worth the moments we end up doing poorly.
Failure isn’t just an option – it’s a necessity.