In the past year I’ve had two friends fail in ministry. I’m grieving and praying for them. I’m also learning some lessons. A church collapse also fits our focus.
Let’s begin by noticing an obvious challenge: failures bring shame. Yet we are wise to carry on despite shame. Some souls have even dismissed their shame to embrace the benefits of failure.
A tangible instance of learning from mishaps is the recent crash of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. The co-pilot died and the pilot suffered serious injuries. The loss of life was tragic yet lessons are sure to be gained that will lead to greater safety in years ahead.
A crash is also a metaphor for what it feels like when failure impacts close relationships or a person’s identity and ministry. The church collapse I mentioned feels like an airplane crash to many of us in my region. The finale was announced yesterday as a front-page headline in Seattle area newspapers: leaders of the Mars Hill Church are dissolving that ministry.
Mars Hill—a mega-church with many outlying campuses—featured an energetic, articulate, and self-assured pastor, Mark, whose sermons at the headquarters church were distributed by video feed to the other settings. A few weeks ago he resigned under pressure. According to newspapers others on the church staff had confronted him for his overbearing and demeaning leadership. The news and television coverage noted other issues but Mark’s perceived arrogance was central.
Who knows what actually happened at Mars Hill but the outcome is clear: a church where the Bible was once well taught is now in tatters. Something went badly wrong and the ministry failed.
My two friends had very different failures. Each story was unique yet both grew out of long-term and complex underlying issues. To all outward appearances the men were morally sound when they crashed; and doors are still open for restoration. But they seemed to share a crippling fixation on life circumstances.
But that’s enough of the problems. Now let’s consider success. What, for instance, do we have in mind when we think of success in ministry? Was Jesus a success or a failure when he alienated the ruling religious and political elites of his day? Was his crucifixion a sign of success or did it signal a failed ministry strategy? And how did his followers measure ministry success in the decades after he departed?
Was the early church crushed when James was martyred? Did Stephen’s death lead to despair? Did restrictions on the early church growth in Jerusalem—as the church became less visible and started to move outward after Stephen’s death—cause a sense of failure? Wasn’t it true, instead, that the church was energized by these challenges?
Here, then, is a New Testament era measure for success. It always begins with our gaze at the cross as the place where Jesus swallowed death. It wasn’t a defeat but a victory. Paul said as much to King Agrippa and Festus, “[the Scriptures tell us that] the Christ must suffer . . . and rise from the dead” (Acts 26:22-23).
So our success as believers grows as we embrace the cross. And in a coming day God will measure us by our devotion to the crucified Jesus rather than by today’s measures of success: numbers, buildings, and finances.
What, then, does a ministry failure offer us in light of the cross? It might be God’s effort to draw us back to a proper focus. It might be a way for Mars Hill survivors to rebuild churches with the cross more clearly in view than ever before—and where love is so lively that local newspapers marvel at the humility of both pastors and members.
And what is the potential of the cross for my two friends? Can it redirect their heart-gaze?
We think, for instance, of the immoral woman who was “forgiven much” and who then “loved much.” Or of Peter whose failures on Friday paved the way for his bold assertions of Christ’s mercies in Jerusalem after Christ ascended. Paul also viewed all his early ministry efforts as “dung” after he came to see Christ as crucified for his sake.
The biggest lesson is that it’s only when we realize that failure by the standards of this world are part of coming to Christ on the cross: we die to the world and begin to live in light of eternity. And with that vision everything else grows strangely dim.
So let’s thank God for any failures that lead us to real success!