We know what failure means when it comes to business. It means that the business did not make enough money. It means that the owner could not feed his or her family. And beside the financial cost, there is probably a big emotional cost to a failed business as well. People pour their hearts into something that they hope will succeed and when it does not, it feels more like a personal failure.
But what does it mean for a church to fail?
This last week, I saw not one but two blogs about churches that “failed,” meaning they closed shop, went out of business, so to speak.
My heart went out to the authors, because I’ve been there. I’ve been a part of a church that ended. And it is heartbreaking.
But at the same time, I ask myself, what do we mean by a church failing? A church is not a business. A church is not a corporation. So what happens when we define a church in the terms of a business? What happens when we define “success” and “failure” the same way Wal-Mart defines those terms?
I have made a realization in the years since my own church failed. What happens is that the church has not failed. We have failed to define “church.”
Church Building for Dummies
When we talk about a church failing, something remarkable happens.
Change out the word “church” for “business,” and the two conversations will be virtually identical.
Churches “fail” because they did not reach “critical mass.”
Churches fail because of inadequate “market penetration.”
Churches fail because of misguided advertising “campaigns.”
Ultimately, churches fail because their expenses outrun their income. They cannot pay the rent.
Switch out “church” for “business” and it’s clear that when it comes to success and failure, we are defining churches on business terms. We define success and failure in terms of dollars in the bank and butts in the seats (or customer engagement, if you will.) And that is a recipe for a whole lot of failure.
What a Church Needs to Succeed
The whole problem stems from what we think a church needs.
See, many of us know that verse where Jesus says where two or three are gathered, he is present with them. We know that verse, but we don’t believe it.
We think that a church has to have a heck of a lot more than two or three. It has to reach “critical mass.”
And a church, to be a church, has to have a whole lot of other stuff.
A “real” church has to have a kicking band with the best sound gear.
A successful church has to project success through professionally designed banners, mailers, and all the other little details that reinforce the company, er church’s “brand identity.”
A “real” church has to convince enough people to give enough money to pay for the sweet sound equipment, the professional design, not to mention the rent or a building campaign.
A “real” church has to have so much stuff that if it’s renting a space, it needs a big old trailer to haul its stuff to the worship site each week.
Yeah, we know that Jesus is present when it is just us and a few other people. But we don’t believe that church happens without a whole lot of extras. We fill our churches with stuff the way we fill our homes with stuff, and we define success and failure the way a business does.
The Real Reason Churches Fail
Churches don’t fail because they can’t pay the rent. Churches don’t fail because they don’t attract a lot of people or have a radio ministry or have eight worship services every weekend.
Churches fail because people fail to define church.
If a church can’t pay the rent, then the people have a choice. If they still want to be a church, then nix the rent and meet in each other’s homes. They can save their money and support a church in Sudan. They can adopt a family for Christmas. They can respond to needs they see without fear that they won’t be able to keep the lights on next week.
I’ve been a part of a church like this for years now. It’s kind of liberating. There’s a few of us, and Jesus.
Churches don’t fail because they are small.
Churches fail when the people no longer love each other.
Churches fail when the people no longer love their neighbors.
Churches fail when the people do not grow spiritually.
Churches fail all the time, but it’s not about size. Some of the biggest churches out there are also the biggest failures. They have already failed, even though their buildings are still full. And some of the smallest churches are the biggest success stories.
What do you think? Have you ever been a part of a failed church? Was it a failure because it closed, or it because it failed at being a church?