FAIL Month Finale: Failure Fail

June 11, 2010

For the last few weeks, I’ve been covering all the ways I can think of that the church is failing big time.

We fail at our ministries, we fail at having the right priorities.  We fail at preaching, at praying, at being relevant, and reacting to criticism.  And in general, we fail to be Christ to those around us.

I’m wrapping up FAIL Month with three final thoughts today.

 Ignorance is bliss.

I opened up this blog series because I’ve noticed a whole lot of Christian boasting on the internet about their churches and ministries, and not a whole lot of people admitting to failure.  Everyone loves to talk about how God “showed up” at church last week, but then we all cover for God when He’s tardy or truant.  Unsurprisingly, my one little blog did not make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.  People have not suddenly confessed all their disappointments to all the online world.

I also pointed out I don’t really like George Barna.  Nothing against him personally.  It’s just his work that depresses me.  I just want to tell him that if he doesn’t have anything nice to say, he shouldn’t say anything at all, because everything he says just frightens and saddens me.  Every statistic that he publishes shows that despite all our best efforts and “successes” we boast about, the American church is shrinking really fast. 

Usually after reading a bit of Barna’s statistics, I have to listen to about thirty minutes of Glenn Beck, just as a little pick-me-up.  Something about his ranting about the imminent end of the world that just makes me want to prance barefoot through a meadow of daffodils.Maybe I don’t really want people to tell us all about their failures, because that’s depressing.  Does being depressed help my ministry?  Does knowing that the church will be basically non-existant in thirty years do anything for me today?  I mean, if the church is going down, whatever we do, we might as well not be depressed about it, and just revel in what we have.

What if failure meant we were being successful?

Look, in all facets of life, you can do everything right, and still come up losing.  You can be a great parent and still have kids that let you down.  You can run a great business that still goes under.  You can do a great job keeping yourself in shape, but get struck by lightning.  It happens.

But what if the people leaving church was a sign that the church is really doing everything right, for once?  Think about this: Jesus preaches to thousands of people.  At the end of three years, his group is still at about twelve.  Sure, he attracted other people, but his message offended a whole bunch of people.  Same with the early apostles.  The people who accepted the message were the minority.  The rest persecuted them.  To the vast majority of people, the gospel was offensive. 

But somewhere along the way, things changed.  The church grew enough to become the driving force of Western culture.  And the key weapon of the church wasn’t always the gospel.  The church bought and sold nations, fought wars, and controlled peoples’ lives.  Most kings were Christian because it was a political tool.  Most peasants were Christians because they were compelled to be out of fear, not because they knew the song “Jesus Loves Me.”  In American culture, you were simply an outcast by not being a Protestant Christian.

But over the last couple of generations, the church has lost a lot of its means to control people through politics, fear, or domination.  Perhaps there’s one or two churches out there that have stopped waging a “culture war” and have started again to just preach the offensive message of the gospel.

It would make sense that if this happened, if the church stopped being able to control people and started concentrating on the gospel again, that people who had once been compelled by habit to go to church would leave.  What if the people leaving our church doors isn’t a sign that Christians are still lame or that Jesus is irrelevant, but it’s is a sign that our message is becoming offensive again, for the right reasons?

…Maybe it’s a long shot in our age of prosperity preaching, but you never know.

 Success will be in spite of us.

I had a totally amazing comment come in yesterday about my post on failed preaching.  It was a comment that I was hoping someone would make.

Kaybee said“Beats me how any preacher can say that his sermon failed.

If the Word, which is “living and active and powerful”, has been included in the sermon, who can know what the Holy Spirit has accomplished in a person’s life through it?  Seems to me we do God a great disservice by talking about failed sermons. And we certainly put ourselves up on a pedestal if we think it all depends on us and our presentation.

The seed was sown in my life by one of the most obnoxious Christians one could ever meet! But she used the Word, and it took root in my life and brought me to faith in Jesus.”

I totally agree.  Even though my post was about very obvious preaching mistakes, there’s no telling what I’ll discover is a very obvious mistake in my preaching a year from now. 

The point is this: we’re going to always fail.  We’re going to fail and not even know it.  But the church won’t fail.  God won’t fail.  God will succeed despite our best efforts.  If God weren’t real, the Israelites would’ve forgotten God a long time ago.  They wanted to forget about God.  But God wouldn’t let them forget forever.  The American church will shrink despite our laser light shows and cool youth leaders and relevant preaching, if that’s what God is going to allow to happen.  Or it’s going to grow, despite our having learned nothing at all, if that’s what God wants.  It’s not us.

So that’s it for FAIL month.  So let’s hear what you think.  Is failure a sign of success?  Is it better to anticipate failure, or work in sweet ignorance?  Does the church’s success depend at all on what we do?

I’m leaving on vacation next week, but fear not, gentle readers!  I’m not leaving you behind.  I’ll be sharing some special treats with you over the next two weeks.  Same time and place!

22 responses to FAIL Month Finale: Failure Fail

  1. Thanks for the FAIL month. You’ve given us some thought-provoking stuff, and this last post is no different. God is sovereign, though we often forget this in practice. I’m going on vacation too, but look forward to the promised treats.

  2. “What if the people leaving our church doors isn’t a sign that Christians are still lame or that Jesus is irrelevant, but it’s is a sign that our message is becoming offensive again, for the right reasons?” I so hope this is true. Jesus preached an offensive message, and the Word also says that the gospel is as a stench to those who don’t believe (paraphrased), so I suggest that we create a Stink for Jesus! Of course, remaining open to those who are searching, and having answers for them which aren’t all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. ‘Cause the clouds with the silver linings are storm clouds usually. And so often, the ‘gospel’ is preached that says follow Jesus and your life will become easier. Sorry, but it doesn’t. It gets harder, and harder to follow at times, but is so worth it (more so than L’Oreal).

  3. “Jesus preaches to thousands of people. At the end of three years, his group is still at about twelve. Sure, he attracted other people, but his message offended a whole bunch of people. Same with the early apostles. The people who accepted the message were the minority. The rest persecuted them. To the vast majority of people, the gospel was offensive.”

    Is failure a sign of success? In the back of my mind, I’ve wondered that from time to time. But I never developed the thought as well as you did, and never thought of it in the context of Jesus and the 12 disciples.

    You’re right, it’s not us. It’s God. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I am with you and I am not. If people leave a church, or don’t go because of the Gospel message, I am with you. No matter what we do, folks may never see their need for Jesus until the end – or sadly not at all. Both my parents got saved when they had terminal cancer. There were no laser shows, no worship team, no sermons, just loving Christians surrounding them day and night. (Both their stories are on http://www.fireandgrace.com under the Cancer tag)

    If people stop coming to church because it is no different than the world they are looking to get some relief from or feel significant in, that makes me very sad.

    How is it that there will be a great falling away, and that our love will grow cold, or that God would spit us out for being lukewarm?

    Sure God is sovereign, sure God has a will, sure God knows how it is going to end, sure God can use the most vile, the most demonic and have it all play in to His hand. But He has chosen you and me to carry out His will. Thank God for grace: that means we can make mistakes, but it is love that covers a multitude of sin.

    Jesus said that all we needed was the faith of a mustard seed. Paul said of faith, hope and love, love is greater than faith.

    I am all for letting God cover our fails, but I have seen way too many kids, newbies, and desperate folks stand in lobbies, while the greeters talked to their friends.

    I think that is the worst fail of them all. Without love we are just a clanging gong.

  5. We say we want to obide by God’s standards of success and not the world’s, but so many of us keeping going back to the world model over and over again.

    Great thoughts here, as always Matt. Have a great vacation!

  6. “I am all for letting God cover our fails, but I have seen way too many kids, newbies, and desperate folks stand in lobbies, while the greeters talked to their friends.

    I think that is the worst fail of them all. Without love we are just a clanging gong.”

    Yep. Well said.

    Enjoy your vacay.

  7. If failure is a sign of success, then I’m the Donald Trump of ministry work.

    I’ve seen God work in unusual ways through the pain and failure of my life. So I agree that failure doesn’t always mean complete failure. God can use and do anything, right?

  8. I really enjoyed fail month. It gave me lots to think about and lots to be happy about since I’ve finally found a church home that has limited failures…

    Have a great vacay.

    Oh, and the image of you dancing through a meadow of tulips made me spit my coffee at the monitor. Thanks for the laugh :-)

  9. great month Matt…..yeah, failure as success, man I hope so! Following a call from God I moved to a drug infested ghetto to create a ministry. The ministry was originally my wifes idea, and she was enthusiastic. My church said local outreach was a top priority. They gave me limited support for a time. I met with all the black churches seeking partnership with them to overcome the heart breaking reality in the neighborhood, to do stuff with the kids. I pursued and tried to resource their ideas. I invited the white church to come into relationship and care about poverty ( the bible says stuff about doing that…) The black church mostly covertly opposed me, the white church ignored me and would not come to the ghetto, which is 10 minutes from their nice churches. My church cut me off because they saw no success, even though they never came and only reviewed my reports. My wife left and filed for divorce. Quit the ministry, still live in the ghetto, can’t find much work. I see more Christlike hearts in the bar and alley than in churches. Don’t do church anymore. Seeking God anew, and actually somehow believe he can make all things new, mostly me. So, I am counting on God using failure.

    • @Jeff – All I can say is, been there, done that, got 2 t-shirts and a hat. You are in good company: Moses, David, and Peter.

      If you are looking for friend, let me know and I’ll get you my contact info.

      Thanks for sharing how it really is sometimes.

      God bless you.

      • david
        thanks for reaching out, I do feel quite alone sometimes, because all my church friends haven’t done anything like what I have done, and just can’t relate. I would like to talk, not sure how to exchange contacts in this forum…pls. advise

  10. Even if we keep quiet the rocks will cry out!

    nicodemusatnite.blogspot.com

  11. I would be on board if we had evidence of actual churches losing members citing the “offenciveness of the Gospel” as their reason for leaving, but the fact of the matter is that we’re seeing the natural result of churches in the US over the last 20 years growing only through the maternity ward. People are leaving the Church not because they find the message to be an affront to them, but because of the fact the Church is not meeting their spiritual needs. As a result, the tradition of church with the context of social situations becomes less important and people can do without it. In my last church, there were plenty of families who only went to church because their parents (and in-laws) went to the same church, and they only go to keep the family squabbles to a minimum.

    After all, if there was a direct correlation between people leaving churches and the directness of the Gospel, churches like Mars Hill in Seattle would have never gotten off the ground. ;^)

  12. This has been a great series Matt. It strikes so close to home for most everyone.

    We live in a country that almost celebrates failure. Courses are actually being offered at the graduate level in most business schools on the subject of failing to success. Our bankruptcy laws are the most lenient in the world.

    In our spiritual lives, we shrug off person failure as ‘only being human.’ The word failure is closely tied/associated with the word judgement…and we all know what the Good Book says about that word. I agree with David’s last line so very much. God loves us through our failures. Shouldn’t we reflect Him in all things?

    Jeff…brother I just said a prayer for you. Anytime you want someone to pray with…just let me know.

  13. Personally, I like Barna because he highlights Christian illiteracy, but I agree with your point. Churches should explode in membership because spiritual needs are being met, not because they “feel good.” We shouldn’t be discouraged when we lose people because they are challenged, but we should feel sad for them and pray for them. Success/failure can’t be measured the same way the world does. We need to keep an eternal perspective.

    Thanks for the insight. Now I need to catch up on the rest of the month.

  14. (Coming out of ‘lurking’ again – glad my comment was useful,Matt)

    I am probably, at the very least, 30 years older than your oldest visitor, and you’ll never know, till you reach my age, just what a perspective that puts on the subjects discussed in your recent posts (but I am going to try and tell you!).

    I’ve evolved through many aspects of spiritual life (there are, I am sure, many more yet to come), to the point where 1 Corinthians 1: 26-29) means more to me than it ever has before. God has chosen the foolish things, the weak things, the base (insignificant) things, the things that are despised, and the things that are not – to bring to NOTHING the things that are. Why? So that no flesh should glory in His presence. It’s not that He opposes intellect or education, but He does oppose an independence from God — self-sufficiency; pride and self-glorying.

    Jesus Himself is the prime example; He was the supreme failure, as far as the world was concerned. So totally dependent on God that He would do or say nothing until He heard from Him. He grieved for them, but didn’t stop those who walked away from Him. His companions were ‘no-bodies’, He owned nothing material, not even a home. He couldn’t even hold an audience (congregation?) unless He fed them! He did some great things for the Kingdom of God, but got judged and mocked for them, and He died a complete and utter failure.

    But His failure did mean success!! I am so grateful that I am at the place in life where I can be free to succeed or fail, as long as I am doing His will.

    Jeff, you were ‘called’ to the ghetto — but what if He intentionally called you to fail (in your own eyes), to teach you complete dependency on Him. Won’t you be surprised and thrilled, when you get to view the ‘replay’ of your life and see just how much He did through you there in the ghetto, without you even realising it — so that only HE would get the glory.

    I think, if it’s really all about Him, then it shouldn’t matter what happens to us and/or ‘our’ ministry. As long as we are fully surrendered to His will, He will take care of us and it – and He will be glorified.

    Ok, going back to lurking now – just don’t post on such interesting topics, Matt. Enjoy your vacation!

    • Awesome! Honestly, if we are in God’s will, our life is none of our business, now is it?

    • thanks for that kaybee…I have been staring to wonder if the last 7 years have been for exactly the purpose you mention….dependency through brokenness…what a concept, especially when, as Matt has initiated this month, the church seems to care more about ” success” …just got back from walking around the neighborhood, I know so many people here, and these little kids run up to me and hug me, I just didn’t create a successful organization….gotta remember this

    • Kaybee, please don’t just lurk. I want to hear what God has taught you.

      After three decades of ministry, I can honestly say that all our successes started as failures. And each time, the situation seemed completely hopeless. It was only when we let go of our sincere efforts, done in obedience to His calling, and handed it all over to God that He was able to redeem what should have been His all along.

      We need to stop measuring success by worldly standards, but rather by obedience and faithfulness and love.

  15. Thanks for all of that hard work. There have been some inspirational things I have taken away.

    Luke 6:38
    Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
    Let that beautiful verse sink in and surf on over to http://www.hybridhondas.com. Please click on a link or two when you’re there. It costs nothing and by doing so you’ll be helping a fellow brother out so he can continue helping others.
    Please spread the word to other brothers and sisters. Be blessed and thank you

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