Failing as a church planter is hard. Church planting itself isn’t particularly hard. It is not more intrinsically difficult than pastoring a church, or working as a Christian shop assistant, hair dresser or bank clerk. It is no more likely to end in failure than the Bible study group you lead, the friendships in church you invest in or the Alpha course you run. It is certainly not more difficult than family life, friendship, evangelism, work, illness, or a host of other things.
Failing as a church planter is particularly hard, though. Or maybe it isn’t so much that it is hard, but rather that it is stark. It is the stark, brutal nature of failing at planting a church that forced me to think about failure. So this is not about church planting, it is about failure and I hope it will help you see Jesus in and through your failures, however they rear their bitter-ugly heads.
But failure in church planting is distinctively flavoured by two bitter herbs. The first is that it is obvious. If a church plant fails, then no church is established. Whatever definition of viability you use – numbers on a Sunday, people saved, small groups launched, finances or a mix of these – there can come a point where a church plant fizzles out, or the leaders decide to end things before things end themselves.
A couple of years ago, 2011 through to 2013, I looked this failure in the face. I was part of the team that planted a church in Manchester in 2004. That church plant had ‘succeeded’, the church was established and had grown. People were saved, people grew in Christ, people even left to become missionaries. The church (now called Grace Church) is thriving. And a couple of years ago I wished that I had never left because I wished I was still the pastor of that church where things seemed so good (although I did have a sneaking worry that if I hadn’t left, then things there wouldn’t be so good!)
The church plant we had moved to Norfolk to establish in 2009 seemed to be failing. Or, to be more accurate, I wasn’t sure if it was going to fail or not. We were not really growing, we were not really seeing people come to faith, and we were running out of money. I tasted the bitterness of obvious failure. But it was the second herb that was all the more bitter.
It was my failure. I had to admit that if the church plant failed then it was my fault. I couldn’t blame the last pastor, because I was the first pastor. I couldn’t blame the way things had been set up, as I had set them up. I have a wife who points me to Christ and is the perfect helper to me in my ministry and it certainly wasn’t her fault. The Lord also gave a godly, wise, lovely bunch of people to plant the church with me. We are far from perfect, had plenty of issues and still do, but I knew that it was a better core team than many. When I looked at it honestly, the failure was mine and not theirs.
The potential of BroadGrace failing as a church was bitter to me, because it was obvious and it was obviously my fault. It made me bitter, angry, sad and threw my view of God into question. Because the only other person to blame, apart from me, was him. Jesus had called me into this ministry, led me here and was now hanging me out to dry. Had the Lord given me a ministry I was not equipped for, not gifted for, not called to? Had he set me up for a fall? Had he deceived me?
I meant to write this essay then, when it was unclear whether BroadGrace would succeed or fail. It is too late for that. Now, in August 2014, things are more established. Not certain (the finances are still ropey) but I would be surprised if this church is not around for a while. So the danger is that this story is robbed of its force because it might become one of those rags to riches, triumph against adversity, feel good tales that made me spit with envy a couple of years ago. And I want it to help failures.
But the truth is that I still feel like a failure. And I think this assessment is right. The struggle I am still in the middle of is to find joy in Christ and his success in the church, in my life, in my family rather than finding it in my success. I am a failure, and here is what I have learnt.
We so easily get drawn into similar models of success as businesses, social enterprises or schools. We look for things that can be measured or counted. In church this means we look for numbers. It can be numbers of people there on a Sunday, numbers of friends or followers on social media, numbers in the evangelism course or at the event last week. It might be the number of elders we have trained or missionaries we have sent. If you are a glass-half-full temperament, you might look at the good numbers – over 80 guests came to the film night and talk last week. If you see the glass half empty you’ll stew over the fact that none of them signed up for the Christianity Explored course.
We know that growth in Christ is important too, but it is hard to measure. And we know that Luke did record numbers saved in Acts (Acts 2v41; 4v4). So it is not wrong to count numbers, is it?
Well, it is according to the Lord’s reaction against David numbering the fighting men of Israel. In response to this order, Joab protests, ‘May the LORD multiply his troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all my lord's subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?’ (1 Chronicles 21v3).
David was wrong to count the army because he wanted to know how mighty his army was, how mighty he was as a king. Joab saw this in his reply – may the Lord multiply the troops, because they are his troops. They are the Lord’s troops, not David’s, so who does David think he is to measure his greatness by the size of someone else’s army? When we look to the size of the army, we have forgotten that the battle is the Lord’s. There are good reasons to count numbers, and there are bad reasons. I have stopped, as far as I can, because it does no good to my soul. The numbers lead me to pride or despair (inverted pride in this case). They do not drive me to prayer and to Jesus.
In Manchester, my sinful dependence on numerical success was masked because we had growth. In itself, this is dangerous, because our growth was mainly Christians moving into the city and then joining the church. We have not had this in Norfolk. A few families have come deliberately to join us, but there is nowhere near the amount of movement in population. Of course, it is great when Christians come and join your church, but the contrast between Manchester and Norfolk showed up the extent of my proud dependence on numbers instead of a humble dependence on Christ.
Numbers don’t matter to Jesus. People matter. Numbers speak of power, success, fame. Numbers only matter when they have faces, stories, hope, dreams and fears. Luke recorded those saved because each was a person made in God’s image and brought back to his or her Saviour. Numbers in themselves never mattered to Jesus, he has only ever loved people, not fame or success.
John 6 is a strange chapter. After feeding the five thousand, Jesus teaches in a way that pushes the crowd to confront the reality that he is God. He is not content to let them stand amazed at his miracles or sit enjoying the meal. He gives himself to them. He tells them ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’ (John 6v51).
This is the invitation and challenge of the gospel. Jesus offers himself to us, but he offers nothing less. It is him or nothing. And that puts off the entire crowd. By the end of the chapter ‘many turned back and no longer followed him’ (John 6v66). His response is not to become downcast, but to offer the twelve apostles the chance to leave as well. Jesus concern is to serve his Father well. He loves his Father, and he loves people too much to use them for his glory.
Success is not numbers. It is love.
God our Father does not want our achievements, he wants our hearts. I am not concerned at how many pictures my children paint, or how good they are. I am delighted that they want to show them to me, to paint them with me and to enjoy being together. God does not need our work, but he delights in our love. He is our Father, and we serve him as children just like Jesus does. And children serve with, from and through love, just as Christ serves us.
That is why failure hits at the very heart of who we are. When we fail at something, it exposes how much our self, our identity, our worth, our hopes and our dreams are tied up with that thing rather than with being children of such a kind and generous Father.
Being a pastor and a church planter is ridiculously important to me. I fear that I am failing at the very thing that is my glory. I am genuinely encouraged when people praise my preaching or wisdom or planning. And I can be so bound up in my ministry that I am destroyed when they don’t praise it, or dare to criticize it. This is dangerous.
I am glad that I have looked at the real possibility of failure, because it has showed me how much I value being seen as a success by other pastors and church planters. It has raised the question of who I am. Am I a child of God, or am I a church planter?
In one sense, the answer is that obviously I am both. But the issue is which defines me and which merely describes me. There are many ways I can be rightly described – a husband, father, pastor, slow jogger, bad DIYer and so on. But they do not define me equally. It matters a lot more to me whether I am a good husband than whether I can put a shelf up straight (and it should!). But what defines my importance, my worth, my self-image? Crucially, is it something I achieve, like being a successful church planter or a good husband? Or is it something that is given to me, like being adopted as a child of God?
Paul is clear that the Spirit-led person is a child of God:
‘Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’ – Romans 8v12-17
If you have the Spirit, then you have the Spirit of sonship, the Spirit of adoption. If you are a Christian, you are a son of God. The point of calling us sons (v14) as well as children (v16) is nothing to do with our sex, it is to lay the ground for the amazing claim in verse 17 that we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are those who inherit God, and we share the inheritance of Christ. We are son because we are like the Son.
Our Father makes no distinction between how he treats us and how he treats Jesus, between how he loves us and how he loves Jesus. We share in everything with Christ, counted worthy of sharing his sufferings and honoured to share in his glory.
Of course we fail. We fail often, and sometimes spectacularly. We have a sinful nature that will not be destroyed until Christ returns for us and this means we fail in the worst of ways. We sin against our Father, deliberately and with a high hand. But the danger of failure is not the failure itself, it is the importance we attach to it. We are right to see our failure as significant, our sinful failure is a stench before our mighty God. It cost the death of God’s Son to pay the price for our failure. It is cosmically significant, but it is of no significance in telling us who we are. The problem is that we let failure tell us who we are, rather than Jesus, who makes us sons of God.
The strange thing is that the greater our success, the worse the damage that failure does. It is as I have grown in maturity as a Christian and in my ability as a minister of the gospel that failure becomes more terrifying to me. When I was a clueless assistant pastor in my twenties, no one expected me to get anything right, the bar was low, and so I was not worried about messing things up – I expected to, everyone else did, and so I was just pleased when things went ok. Sure I sinned in loads of ways, but as I got older, I thought, I would grow out of these. Now in my late thirties, having spent nearly half my life in full-time, paid ministry or training for it, I have higher expectations of myself, and so do others.
In some ways this is right – I do not want to denigrate the work the Spirit has done in me or the gifts he has given to me. But that is the point. It is his work, his gifts, his achievement. I have no success of my own, and it is silly to think of myself as a success or as a failure. To define myself in terms of either success or failure is simply wrong. These are not defining categories. Whichever might be wrong or right, these should never define me. I am a child of God. But I still find it so easy to define myself as a church planter.
When I see myself as a church planter, and fear that I am failing, this makes me run. To be honest, it makes me run all over the place like a headless chicken! It makes me run away – not literally, although I think I understand how some people snap and just run. For me I run away into comfort and distraction. I count the hours until an evening with my wife, or a Friday night with a beer, pizza and movie. I count the days until a holiday. I surf blogs, kidding myself that I am reading what other Christians write for the good of my soul, when I am simply distracting myself, avoiding doing work that I don’t feel very good at any more.
This can get more serious. I know plenty of Christians who find their real joy and meaning in a hobby rather than Christ. If I can’t be a successful, known, lauded pastor, then maybe I can be a successful photographer. If the church never appreciates my preaching, at least I can be sure that the others in the amateur dramatics group will encourage me and applaud my attempts. It can feel so much more rewarding to pore over photography magazines or read acting blogs than search the scriptures.
It can turn into more extreme escape. I don’t have any personal experience of drugs, but there are real dangers there. Alcohol and pornography are much more easily available to anyone. When you are working harder than you need then a couple of beers, an open bottle of wine in the fridge, or a decent glass of whisky are an easy way to unwind. With a few more glasses, you can even believe that you are something special. When you are working later than you need, then easy distraction is only a few clicks away. Learn to clear the Internet history, and no one needs to know.
Failure also makes me run towards productivity. Maybe I would be a success if I could just get more done. Some start work earlier and finish later. Others come to realise that Jesus only made the Sabbath for weaker people. Really able people can get a few hours done before they start their day off. And no-one ignores their smart phone these days. If I just get the perfect ‘to do’ app, and a newer, smarter computer and tablet, then I will be as productive as I need to be.
We can also run towards denial. If I feel like a failure, then I can seek out people who approve of me and will commend me, telling me that I am a success. Or I can make sure I do what will be seen as successful by those around me. People want to hear complex teaching on the end times? Fine, then that’s what we’ll do if it means people tell me that I am a good teacher.
Denial can also take the form of shifting the focus of ministry. If people aren’t being saved and things are hard, then a building project or a community initiative can seem like a more certain, concrete way to measure, and demonstrate, success.
Some of these things are bad, others can be good, but none of them are the right place to run.
This instinct to run is a good instinct. It is simply the direction we usually get wrong. The place for failures to run to is Jesus. This is the way to avoid all three of these dilemmas that failure throws us into.
In Genesis 12v8 Abram builds an altar at Bethel and called on the name of the Lord. He then spends time in Egypt where he fails to trust the Lord to protect him, instead trying to pass off Sarai, his wife, as his sister. His failure to trust God leads to him risking his wife and his marriage. He realizes his sin and in Geneses 13v3-4 we see him return to Bethel, where he had built the altar at the first, and call on the name of the Lord again. When he saw his failure, he went back to the Lord and to the altar of sacrifice. When David’s sin was exposed he wrote Psalm 51, asking that God would purge him with hyssop, with the blood of a perfect sacrifice.
To see yourself as a failure is right. And the right response then is to run into the arms of Christ, spread wide on the cross. We are failures. Jesus defined true obedience to God when he was asked a simple question:
‘“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ ” ’ – Matthew 22v36-39
To succeed in God’s eyes is to love him perfectly and completely and to love others. I fail all the time. My failure to love makes my failure as a church planter look insignificant. I am a failure. I fail my wife, my children, my church, my friends and most of all I fail my God. Some of the failure is because of circumstances, some is because I lack ability, wisdom or strength and most is because I sin. It is not because I am tired, burdened, misunderstood or a victim of circumstances. It is because I am a sinner.
And Jesus came for sinners. The wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that the more truly I see myself, the more it drives me to him. He is the only refuge in the storm of my sin and failure. He is the only rock where I can stand. He is the only one who knows us completely and yet delights in us.
In Psalm 45 the sons of Korah write the wedding song of a King who is both an excellent man (verse 2) and also God (verse 6). They then tell us how this King feels about his bride, the Church, in verse 11, ‘the king is enthralled by your beauty; honour him, for he is your lord’.
When we run into the arms of Jesus, we do not receive a reluctant welcome. We do not run to a boss who is displeased with our achievements. We do not run to a disapproving older brother or even to a gracious friend. We run into the arms of one enthralled by our beauty. One who did not die for us reluctantly, but with joy, to rescue his beloved bride. As he died he took our sin, our failure, our guilt into his body and killed it with him. He took our place, our hell, our guilt, our death. And he gave us his own Kingly righteousness, his warm and smiling loveliness, his bright and radiant glory. So when he sees us, as we run to him, he sees his beloved and he opens his arms in welcome.
I have grown to be happy with seeing myself as a failure, because it makes me turn to Jesus. When you look at yourself, or at a screen, the bottom of a bottle or even at your successful, thriving church plant you miss the chance to look at Jesus. The wonderful thing is that he is the Light of the world. It is not hard work to look to him, because he draws my gaze with his lovely, shining glory.
The more firmly my eyes are fixed on Jesus, the less concerned I am about being a failure. As he increases, so I decrease. It doesn’t matter whether I succeed or fail, because he has won. He has conquered death, hell and Satan. He has bought us with his blood and he will live with us for all eternity. To have my eyes on Christ means that I am not concerned about whether I succeed or fail.
This is not a surprise. What is a surprise is that I have realised that the more I look to Christ, the more successful I am. The thing that made the difference for the church plant here in Norfolk was that we decided to turn to Christ. We saw lots of opportunities for the gospel around us, but we were too small, too tired and stretched too thin to take them. So one of my friends in church suggested that we should pray for the Lord to send us five more households within a year. The suggestion was a total shock to me. It made me realise that I was so prayerless, trying to do the Lord’s work as though it was my work.
We prayed as a church and the Lord kindly answered with five households joining us within the year. Knowing that we cannot do what the Lord asks of us in our own strength is hugely important. Knowing that I do not have the resources to do what the Lord has called me to, seeing my failure when I rely on myself, makes me depend on him. This is the only way we can do anything for Jesus – if he does it in and through us.
Knowing that I am a failure has also freed me from the fear of taking risks. I am by nature a risk-averse person. Doing an entrepreneurial assessment to see if I had the right temperament to be a church planter, I scored poorly. This hasn’t stopped me from being a church planter, though, because it doesn’t feel like a risk. Knowing that I will fail means I don’t need to fear failure. It is Christ who works in us and through us, so I can trust him and do what he has put before me. I will fail, but he will succeed in and through me. Jesus doesn’t guarantee that the church plant will flourish, but he does promise that ‘I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’ (Matthew 16v18), that his word ‘will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’ (Isaiah 55v11) and that finally ‘I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am’ (John 14v3).
I can risk everything, because in doing so I risk nothing. All that matters is mine in Christ and so it is not mine to risk. The risks I take church planting are the same as the risks my little girl takes when she jumps off the sofa with me holding her hands. A far greater Father holds me, the everlasting arms have me held tight and he will keep me from falling (Deuteronomy 33v27 and Jude 1v24).
Seeing myself as a failure can make me curl up in a ball and do nothing, or it can make me run to Christ, and achieve far more than when I am ‘succeeding’ without him. This is not a reason to own being a failure – Jesus is not a means to greater church planting success! No, he is the Lord of the church, the one who will build his church. He is the end, never the means, he is ‘before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1v17). Jesus is everything.
I am John. I am a church planter, and I am a failure, but neither of these defines me. I am loved by Jesus, part of his bride and adopted as a son by our Father. This defines me, and may I simply live as I am, a child of God. I pray the same for you too, you failure.