Failed Or Fruitful?

vine and branchesWhat’s the difference between a failed church plant and one that is fruitful?

That’s a question I’ve pondered over the last few months as it seems that by most church planting standards I am a failed church planter.  Before you read on,  you must know that I am aware that what I’m about to write could be considered ” a failed church planter’s attempt to redefine failure in his favor.”  And, knowing myself as I do, I confess there is in me a resistance to admit failure, but alas, such resistance is futile.

A Goal Worthy Of Failure

Two years ago I left the staff of a large, suburban church to plant Riverside Church.  About six months into the project it became clear that our chosen model would grow slowly and that our money would last longer if I were a bi-vocational church planter.  Over the next year I searched high and low for other work that would help supplement my Riverside salary and help make the money last longer.  I found several excellent part time jobs, but together they were not enough to keep us at Riverside.  Add to that the economic crisis and it soon became clear that our little church plant could not support me as it’s planter/pastor anymore.  So, I am now in transition to another church position in another city.  Several of Riverside’s families have left, but Riverside will continue to meet as a house church under the care of an ordained man who is truly bi-vocational;  Riverside will not have to support him as he is gainfully employed elsewhere.

So, by many accounts, our church plant failed.  In the sense that I was not able to plant a church that grew enough to support itself and me financially which resulted in the departure of many of its participants–I am a failed church planter.  This failure can be attributed to the fact that I did not do many of the things that church planters normally do:  build a large core team of “go-getters” who will then build a group that ultimately launches an inaugural worship service with 200+ in attendance.  There are other steps church planters typically take that I didn’t take due to the nature of what we were trying to accomplish: a family of house churches who would meet monthly together for large group worship and weekly for worship in home churches.  But by today’s church planting standards we have not been successful.

Truthfully, though it hurts to have hopes unrealized, I am OK with failing as long as I remember what the late Ralph Winter has said, a quote that I have held onto since before Riverside was born:

“If I weren’t willing to fail, you’d have to call me crazy.  If I were to say that I knew [this project] would definitely succeed, it would be nuts.  I’m not sure it will succeed.  I only know it is worth trying.  Risks are not to be evaluated in terms of the probability of success, but in terms of the value of the goal.

My interpretation:  Any goal that is worth a successful attempt is worth a failed attempt.

Re-defining Success and Failure

Now, we could say that Riverside has not failed if we consider what the goal of our project actually was.  If our goal, like many church plants, was to plant a church that would grow in numbers and become a self-sustaining and on-going institution (in the healthiest sense of that term), then by that standard we failed.  But if our aim was to see those of us participating in the life of Riverside transformed into the image of Christ “from one degree of glory to the next” by the power of the Holy Spirit through the gospel (2 Corinthians 3:18-4:6) and as a result begin to make disciples among our neighbors, the nations, and the next generation (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8), then we were successful.  Perhaps it’s the difference between pursuing the goal of “making something happen” (especially a God-glorifying thing like a growing church) versus aiming to be people who are “conforming to the image of Christ” whether or not we add souls to our church’s rolls (thanks to Larry Crabb for pointing out this distinction).  If our goal was to make something happen, we failed.  If our goal was that we and others would be more conformed to the image of Christ, then call it success.  Please do not hear me saying that these two goals cannot co-exist.  It is certainly the goal of most church planters to do both: establish a growing, self-sustaining organization that exists to help its people mature in Christ and make disciples.  We would have loved to accomplished both goals at Riverside, but one had to take priority over the other.

Biblical success is fruitfulness. So, the question is have we been fruitful? Again, it all depends on how you define fruitfulness.  Sometimes in our western, production-oriented culture we church folks assume that fruitfulness is the same as productivity, that the fruit must mean plenteous people in the pews, more programs, bigger budgets, and the need for multiple staff.   Surely fruitfulness can include such organizational growth, but perhaps there is a fruitfulness that should pave the way for and take precedence over swelling the size of a congregation.

In John 15, the famous “vine and branches” passage, Jesus equates “abide in me” with “abide in my love,” so that His love is that which flows from Him to and through the one who abides in Him.  So, the fruit is love.  This is why He goes on to say in verse 12, “love one another as I have loved you.”    When we abide in the Vine the love that’s in Him will flow out of us. What kind of love?  The kind that Jesus has for us; the kind of love that lays its life down for its friends.  John Piper explains that a community that loves one another this way may well see people begin to come and convert to Christ:

But probably in the mind of Christ these two meanings of the fruit-bearing merged into one. If the fruit is the out-cropping of the love of Christ in our lives for the nourishment and refreshment of others, then surely among the benefits received from that fruit would be conversion. John 13:34,35 gives one example of how this happens: “A new commandment I give you that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The most winning and powerful witness we can give is the reality of love. So the fruitfulness of obedient love and the fruitfulness of winning people to Christ are really not two different things. They are one. And that is the aim of all your ministry.

This kind of fruitfulness is the goal that we set for Riverside when we said that we were not just about “making something happen” but rather about each one in our community making progress in “conforming to the image of Christ.”  The key to becoming like Christ is to abide in Christ.  That’s what we set out to do, to fill up on the love of God in Christ until it overflows with Spirit-empowered love for God and for our neighbors, the nations, and the next generation.

Riverside: Failed or Fruitful?

So, has Riverside been fruitful in the sense Jesus talked about in John 15? We invited all who had ever participated in Riverside to join us on Pentecost Sunday (May 31, 2009) for a special worship gathering to celebrate what God has done in and through Riverside and to send each one out to new kingdom ministry.  Take a moment to read the stories that were told that night and see if God did not harvest a crop of fruit over the last two years.

Were there any conversions?  Not yet.  If you go to the link I’ve provided in the previous paragraph you’ll read about an international couple who was drawn to  the fruit of Riverside’s loving community and is being drawn to believe in Jesus as they hear His Story explained from the Scriptures and see it lived in the lives of new friends.  That’s the thing about fruit–it takes time to grow.

My conclusion?  Riverside has been fruitful. The people of Riverside have been moved from one degree of glory to the next by the Spirit of God.  But the people are leaving and the organization is shrinking.  Yes, the Divine Vine Dresser does what He wants with the fruit He produces.  Sometimes He gathers three thousand fruit bearers in one place in a day (Acts 2:41), and sometimes He scatters them far and wide so that they may bear fruit in barren fields (Acts 8:1).  This time He has chosen to scatter many and leave a few.

To God be the glory, great things He has done!

9 thoughts on “Failed Or Fruitful?

  1. thanks for the honesty of this post! My wife and I are in the beginning process of “planting” a church in our city (ironically named Riverside) and we are struggling with the same things you did. We don’t particularly want to “launch” a church. We want to follow the Holy Spirit as He gathers a community of people that becomes a family. But, we’ve discovered that is alot harder than the current church planting models. Anyway, thanks for the post…it was encouraging to me right now.

  2. The following is a letter that I wrote in the fall of 2008 about Riverside Church.

    When we moved to Knoxville, in the summer of 2007, I unsuccessfully tried to find a “House Church.” My desire to be apart of a house church had been growing for a long time. When we lived in Nashville we were a part of a wonderful group of believers but it was a large group of 3,000 people. I longed for a smaller group that had close fellowship. I also longed for a simpler worship style. In May of 2008, after a lot of prayer and a lot of visits to churches (where no one recognized that we were visitors)I decided to try again to find a house church. I googled “house church and Knoxville, TN” and I found Riverside Church. I sent an e-mail asking for someone to call me and Jimmy Davis quickly returned my call. One of my concerns was if children were welcome. The answer was a resounding yes! He told me that the children at Riverside Church were an important part of the body of Christ and contributed to the worship service. He also told me that they were committed to the next generation of Christians and helping them to grow.

    I have found everything he told me about the children at Riverside Church to be true and even better than he described! My children want to go to church early and stay after church for fellowship. My seven year old daughter Aubrey Anne exclaimed, “We have to go to Riverside. They are the only ones who include the children in the worship.” It is very special to see the adults and children interact and to see everyone worshiping together.

    The children sit on a quilt in the middle of a circle of adults. (Sometimes one of my boys will sneak over to sit beside Mr. Brad.) The children contribute by sharing prayer requests, selecting some of the songs we sing, sharing insights. Like little Anna Davis who shared “God is our water” after the children looked at Psalm 42 to see characteristics of God. Profound and precious to be reminded of this truth from a little child. My children love going to Riverside and it is so encouraging to watch them be a part of a community of believers.

    Personally, it is refreshing to have a simple worship style where the focus is solely on worshiping the Lord and not entertainment. At Riverside the worship is Pure and Real. Also, knowing the people I am worshiping with has been very special. Countless times in the past, I have not known the person to my right or my left. Another great thing about Riverside is the preaching/teaching which is rotated between several men. I always leave with a new insight and a new challenge for the week. I feel like I have found a rare jewel and I know that God led my family to find Riverside Church.


    I believe the seeds that were planted at Riverside will continue to grow and that Riverside is definitely a Kingdom success story!

    I will close with a quote from my friend Renni:

    “The things of the Spirit are not measurable. You can’t approach the Kingdom with a market mindset.”

    • Sara, you are an encouragement to us. I know that each one in the Riverside community would say that you have given us as much as we have given you. Now, that’s gospel community, isn’t it? Thanks be to God!

  3. “If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing poor.” (sic)

    Steve Ahern, c. 1975
    The Cathedral of St. Jude
    St. Petersburg, Florida

  4. I find myself in a similar situation. We launched a traditional church plant. End of year 1 – 45 members. End of year 2 – 30 members. Next month is year 3 – 19 members.

    I struggle a lot with the feeling of failure. Nothing we have tried has worked. Public events. Service projects. And none of these were done with a motive to grow. They were honestly done from a spirit of loving our community. Yet, we continue to shrink.

    I look at the positive, though, and I see that we just ordained 3 men, one of which became a Christian at our church. Another man who was converted here is studying and train to be an elder. People here have also been transformed from one degree of glory to another.

    My struggle is this… how do I know when it’s time to walk away? If the trend continues, in a month or two, our church will just be elders and wives (+kids).

    I realize that this church was not a failure, as far as the kingdom is concerned. But it’s very difficult to face the reality of the hopes and dreams you had for the church you gave so much to disappearing into thin air.

    • Joel: Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sure there are hundreds more like it, but we tend to hear only about the “successes.” I trust that our Father has drawn you and your family and your elders deeper into fellowship with the community of the Trinity through this experience. I am reminded of Habbakuk 3:17-18:

      Though the fig tree should not blossom,
      nor fruit be on the vines,
      the produce of the olive fail
      and the fields yield no food,
      the flock be cut off from the fold
      and there be no herd in the stalls,
      yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
      I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

  5. Thanls for this article. I too am a church planter. We launched in Feb 2010. We average about 50 members and I feel at times like we are failing but I know that roots are developing and someday we will see the fruit of our labors. It is encouraging to see and hear such honest. Thank you for the article and those that did respond. By the way what happened to Riverside?

    • Thanks, Jimmy, for stopping by to read and for your comment. Our project did end up running out of funds and I have taken an Associate Pastor’s position in a church in Texas. Another member of our team had hoped to revive the project as a bi-vocational pastor, but due to health concerns and other issues that were beyond his control he was unable to keep the group going. Most of the folks have gone back to their home churches and are involved in ministry there in one way or another. Our family was back in Knoxville over the Christmas break and we had a fantastic Riverside reunion dinner, shared memories about our two years together, told stories about what God had been doing since then in each of our families, sang Christmas carols together, and prayed for one another. Every one was there for the occasion. It was a sweet time of seeing and savoring the fruit of what God had planted in each of us through Riverside. Blessings on you and your plant!

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