Placing items in the Museum of Failure - why we need evangelism that fails and learn from it

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

A new museum in Helsingborg, Sweden, is devoting itself to creating a catalogue of failure. Dr Samuel West, the organisational psychologist behind the Museum of Failure believes that “innovation requires failure. Learning is the only process that turns failure into success.”1

The Museum of Failure highlights those products and design faults that despite good intentions and a lot of investment did not connect with the market. An example of this is a beef lasagne made by Coldgate. I can understand why. Coldgate is associated with toothpaste and that doesn't mix with beef lasagne. The brand and the product don't mix well. Consider the Blackberry phone. It was the market leader, the Apple of its day. However it refused to change which led to its demise.

I have tried all kinds of evangelism that just didn't connect with the right people in the right place but the key is to give things a try. Some attempts surprised me because they had a small but significant impact.

I love to study Paul's evangelism strategy in the Book of Acts. There is one example which people often highlight as a success story but I am not so sure. It is in Acts 17, when Paul addresses the Athenians on Mars Hill. Paul's strategy to this point had been to visit a city, go to the Jewish synagogue and reason with them from the scriptures. When he reached Athens he changed tactic because as a Jewish Pharisee "his spirit was being provoked within him as he observed that the city was full of idols" (Acts 17:16). The historian Peterronius said that is was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. You can understand why Paul was moved to do something. The word provoked in Greek is paroxynō where the word paroxysm come from, which means to exasperate or burn with anger.

Paul had a strong emotional response to the false idols in the city. I can imagine what happened next. Paul's passions were stirred and he got into strong debates with the locals. The English translation of the text perhaps doesn't do justice to the strength of feeling Paul was showing. It says:

"he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be present." Acts 17:17

Paul began to dialogue with the Greek philosophers. "And some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers as well were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What could this scavenger of tidbits want to say?” (Acts 17:18 NASB).

The word conversing sounds very polite but the Greek word symballō means to dispute with one another. I suppose calling him "a scavenger of tidbits" should give us a clue about the tone of the conversation. Paul is also described by others at the same time as “a proclaimer of strange deities —because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection." Paul's message had not changed but his tactic had adapted to reach out to the Greek philosophers.

What was the result of this new tactic? It wasn't a complete failure. In Acts 17:33 it says "some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris." According to tradition Dionysius, a member of the council of the Areopagus became the first bishop of Athens and went to Jerusalem to find Mary, the mother of Jesus. There was a small but significant impact.

However the reality was that most of the philosophers were just not willing to listen. They just wanted to argue and dispute with each other. For example, the Epicureans believed that only the material realm existed, they were the equivalent of modern day atheists who lived only for pleasure and the moment. The Stoics in contrast thought that apathy was the highest virtue of life, not allowing themself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or by the fear of pain. They were the fatalists of their day accepting the lot they are given.

Have you ever had this experience when you are trying to convince someone who just wants an argument? I have, and it never ends well.

What is my point? I think we need to try and reach out to all kinds of people, the materialists, the atheists, the apathetic. However sometimes when we change tactic or try a new approach, it doesn't have a big impact. Does that mean it is a failure? In one way, yes. However we can learn from what didn't work and grow in our ability to connect with people and share the good news.

What is in your Museum of Failure? Don't hide it away but display it as a trophy of grace. God grows us in the place of failure, and that growth turns into determination, faith, new skills and wisdom. If we are going to learn how to share Christ in a post christian culture, this is an essential part of the journey.


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