In his book, “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure,” Tim Harford brings the disciplines of psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, physics and economics to make a profoundly simple argument: life cannot be lived well if all we seek are easy solutions or even expert opinions. Our world is too chaotic and complex for such facile approaches or an over-reliance on ivory tower pronouncements. Harford rather contends that it is all about how we adapt and respond to our failures through trial and error.
Harford’s basic lesson is this: We have to design our efforts to make effective use of our failures. We have to design into our life’s efforts ways to experiment with trial and error.
Most efforts, he argues, succeed by stumbling and adapting, not by meticulous planning or grand schemes. He lays out a three-point process: (1) Discover new ideas and new ways of doing things; (2) Try them on a small scale so if you fail you can survive the consequences; and, (3) Establish a feedback loop so you can find out what is failing and what is working. He argues this process works in almost all contexts from business to war to writing.
The author is an economist, so he doesn’t write about the spiritual practices and disciplines we need to live with trial, error and adaption in the church. But if we translate some of his terms into our language of faith, then he describes a useful road map for people trying to live as faithful disciples in the world as it really is. In our congregations, as we seek to develop faithful efforts at evangelism and thus fulfill the Great Commission “to make disciples,” Harford’s approach is right on target. We have to be willing to try new approaches to reach people with the gospel that we have not reached before. And we will have to be open to failure in these efforts because some of them will fail.
But failure is not the problem. The problem is not learning from failure through a feedback loop.
What would our congregations be like if we opened ourselves to more trial, error and adaptation? My hunch is we would be less concerned with phrases like: “we never do things that way here” or “we tried something similar ten years ago and it didn’t work.” We rather would be constantly trying new approaches, learning from how those approaches worked or didn’t work, and then trying new variations on our successful efforts.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting a new gospel. The one we have now is perfect in every way. So the content of our message is without flaw. It is our approach to sharing the message that needs constant scrutiny and a willingness to adapt as we learn from our mistakes.
This is an exciting and stimulating approach to our common life and ministry. Clearly, making disciples in the 21st century will require our best creative efforts. I believe the success we will have will be directly related to our willingness to listen to people like Harford, for he and others have a lot to teach us about how we will achieve success in making disciples.
Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.