What’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!