May 11, 2007

Success Found In Failure

The last church I planted did not fail. It didn’t fall apart when I left. I am glad for that. But there was a time when I thought it might all fall apart. During the first two years of planting, I was sure it was going to be a church plant failure.

I started with high expectations, and not a single expectation was met. In the beginning I was excited about planting. I attended conferences, classes, and read books. We did large scale marketing campaigns and outreach events. I saw a niche our church could fill. But on our Grand Opening day, only 75 people showed up (half were from supporting churches and returned to their churches the next week). Over the next few years, the church stagnated and saw only a few people come and stay. In fact, we had more people leave the church than new people start attending.

By the third year, even though the church did not grow, I stopped believing it was a failure, and started seeing something much deeper happening. I noticed a similar idea in Wesley’s journey to Georgia.

Wesley, much to his relief, arrived in America on February 6, 1736 on a little island near Savannah, Georgia. His trip had taken nearly four months, and was more trouble than he wanted. Several large storms ravaged the ship, and Wesley feared he might die. On Saturday, November 17, Wesley wrote, “About eleven I lay down in the great cabin and in a short time fell asleep, though very uncertain whether I should wake alive and much ashamed of my unwillingness to die.” Again on Friday, November 23, he wrote again, “In the morning it increased so that they were forced to let the ship drive. I could not but say to myself, ‘How is it that thou hast no faith?’ being still unwilling to die.”

At the start of the journey, Wesley had undertaken the task of learning German. There were 26 Moravian Christians on board the ship. Wesley would often participate in their worship services. He marveled at the inner peace and humility exhibited by the group.

“I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behavior. Of their humility they had given a continual proof by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired and would receive no pay, saying, ‘it was good for their proud hearts,’ and ‘their loving Saviour (sic) had done more for them.’ And every day had given them an occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger and revenge.

“In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterward, ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’”

There was something different about the Moravian Christians that Wesley wanted. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it was different than anything he had ever experienced. On February 7, 1736, Wesley met Bishop Augustus Spangenburg. Wesley wrote, “I soon found what spirit he was of and asked his advice with regard to my own conduct. He said, ‘My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?’ I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it and asked, ‘Do you know Jesus Christ?’ I paused and said, ‘I know He is the Saviour of the world.’ ‘True,’ replied he, ‘but do you know He has saved you?’ I answered, ‘I hope He has died to save me.’ He only added, ‘Do you know yourself?’ I said, ‘I do.’ But I fear they were vain words.”

I don’t know if Wesley realized it or not, but this encounter would change his life and ministry forever. He observed the Moravian Christians serving without anger toward those who treated them harshly. He saw their lack of fear in the face of death because they were not afraid to meet God. He discovered that God’s Spirit bears “witness with your spirit that you are a child of God.”

Wesley and his companions went to America to witness to the “poor heathens,” but it was Wesley who would be most affected by the trip. His absolute failure would send him to the edge, but his encounters with the Moravians initiated a deep change that revolutionized his approach to ministry.

I believe our greatest failures are the fertile soil for God to change us. We realize we cannot accomplish His great tasks on our own. We are incapable of mustering enough strength or vision or commitment to do it on our own. We are not smart enough to find the latest technology or technique to reach people. Only God can.

What made the church plant seem like a failure to me was that I was more concerned with how people viewed me than I was about actually loving people. I just knew that the other pastors were looking at me and thinking, “He has no clue! What a failure.” I felt the pressure of living up to some invisible standard that I had set up and perceived from my church leaders.

God’s greatest work is within us; to change us. If we are willing to listen, he will make us people who actually love Him and love others. But, first, He has to get us to stop loving ourselves so much first.

Wesley traveled to America to “to save our souls; to live wholly to the glory of God.” Little did Wesley know that God would do exactly that through his failure at ministering to the “poor heathens” of Georgia. His greatest failure was the seed for something far greater.

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