Fail->Safe Studios: Part Two

Last week, on the blog, I told the origin story of Fail->Safe Studios. I explained that the Youth Ministries had a grant-funded research team dig into the struggles, hopes, and fears of our community and found our teenagers motivated by a suffocating fear of failure. Or more accurately, a fear of anything other than absolute faultlessness, a fear that kept them from the healthy experimentation of interests natural to adolescence, which motivated them to any-means-necessary thinking, and which severely damaged their mental health. I talked about the role that adult role models play in unintentionally shaping those fears and how sometimes the desire to give children the very best means that they grow up believing only the very best must be acceptable.

I explained that it was the teenagers on our research team who came up with our solution. If I’m honest, it’s one I would never have thought of and one I might have dismissed if we had been doing any other project. They suggested that the way we could help teach teenagers that it was ok to fail was to let them fail on purpose at things that didn’t matter and have adults fail alongside them. The idea was Fail->Safe Studios.

A consequence of this fear of failure is that teenagers didn’t feel safe to try new pursuits. They were afraid to try things they thought they would enjoy or which would be beneficial to their mental and emotional well-being because all of their pursuits were so evaluated and commodified. While it is not particularly unusual for adults to play instruments or do amateur photography for fun, teenagers can’t explore those activities without facing the pressure to compete with them or figure out how to make a career out of them. Adults can go for runs; teenagers are expected to race.

For our teenagers, they articulated that this mentality meant that even the things they would do to relieve the anxieties and pressures they faced at school wound up only increasing the pressure they felt. Teenagers have extra-curriculars they compete in, not hobbies they do for fun. They didn’t want a program to teach them about how failure was ok or a series of speakers. They wanted a space to try new things, for fun, with no expectation they would be good at them.

They envisioned a space where they could try out lots of new hobbies and activities, just for fun and be bad at them. They imagined a sacred pocket where they weren’t expected to compete or perform, but to just honestly be creative and expressive and have fun, without anyone judging it. They imagined adults would be there alongside them, trying things new things just as freely, and perhaps mentoring, but never judging. They imagined they could connect with adults in a way that wasn’t dictated by their capacity to perform well at something. It would be where they could create, learn, breathe, grow, figure themselves out, and have fun — a place where they could fail safely. So, Fail->Safe Studios it was.

Then there was a pandemic. Our whole team went home. Confined to houses, scrolling TikTok and Instagram, a strange phenomenon emerged. When the pressure came off for a few weeks, when classes were pass/fail, when there were no sports to compete in, what did we all do? We created.

We all saw it. People baked sourdough, planted gardens, remodeled their house, tried new recipes, picked up crocheting, learned silly dances. Teenagers in our community started baking, painting, making short films, writing music, sewing, and in one case, building paper Mache mythical monsters.

In an insane proof of concept none of us saw coming, space where the competitiveness evaporated, when time was no longer an issue, when there was no one to judge, created itself all at once for a few weeks. And teenagers showed us just how capable of creating they were. I mentioned in the first blog that research indicates that there was a window of time where teenage anxieties decreased in Spring 2020, at least anxieties around success and failure.

But, of course, over time, the wear of pandemic and the move to virtual, hybrid, or significantly altered school in the fall, brought all the same fears back into play, now exasperated by youth having just as high expectations but less capacity to realize them. Mental health outcomes for young people plummeted. We recorded a series of interviews with young people in January 2021, where we asked them to sum up their 2020 in their own words, and we heard repeated refrains of hopelessness, isolation, and fear.

Fail->Safe Studios still seemed important. In the Fall of 2020, I suggested a prototype, a little piece of Fail->Safe that we could do while we were virtual-only, which just maybe would provide a breath of life. We called it Quarantine Craft Time. You can read about it here and even check out the videos on our IGTV page! I couldn’t create a shared physical space, and I couldn’t provide supplies, but I could joyfully learn and fail. So I did. And then Matt did the following week. And then Gabby. And then volunteers, and then kids, and on and on, we just never stopped thinking of things to try. When so much of our days felt dark, when the Sanctuary and the Justin felt so empty, it was something that had just a little bit of light.

Now, we’re back in person. We’re back in the Sanctuary. We’re back in the Justin. Teenagers are in finals for a year of classes in which many of them would articulate they didn’t learn a whole awful lot. We’re talking about summer, about a full-scale fall, about vaccinations, even for teenagers. We’re’ talking about normal.

So it seemed like the right time to run a pilot test of Fail->Safe Studios. This Sunday, at 6 pm in the Justin Youth Building, we are putting up finger-painted signs and encouragements like “Winning isn’t Everything” and “Failure is Always an Option” and, right in the middle of the doorway, “No Perfect Beyond this Point.” We’ll spend some time talking about failure, about hope, about who we are: people made in the image of a playful, creative God. Then we’ll fail together, having volunteers and teenagers lead stations where youth and their families can bake, and build, and play, and make balloon animals. We’ll have a gallery of all of our badly done projects, and we’ll celebrate in creation, in experimentation, in having fun for its own sake, together.

We’ll pilot the studio this weekend, and we’ll have people reflect on their experience and use the feedback to make tweaks, and come fall, Fail->Safe Studios will become part of what we do here in the Justin.

Because Fail->Safe Studios is a silly thing, but it’s done for a serious reason. It’s done because our research suggests that it could be vitally important for the success and mental health of teenagers. But that’s not the only reason, of course, because we’re not a research institute. We’re a church. And we do this because it’s a way to remind us of who we are. And who God is.

Because hope matters. Because being ok with being human, being flawed, matters. Because freedom, and creation for its own sake, and being abundantly alive, is the good life promised us in Jesus. We deserve to model to our children that there is a life worth living that is more than making money, buying stuff and dying, and this is part of how we show them how. Because we still have a chance to change. Even as adults. Because we deserve to experience life lived this way too.

We were called to a life of freedom in Christ. We were called to create, to laugh, to enjoy being alive for its own sake, to rejoice in the love of our Creator, and who that Creator created us to be. Failures included.

Join us Sunday,


Kat Bair
Director of Youth Ministries

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