Failing To Understand Success

“Yeah, my friends sounded enthusiastic at first, but then they just kind of blew me off when I tried to get together.  Some of them don’t even talk to me anymore.”

“We’ve met a bunch of neighbors and see them out all the time, but it seems like they put up a barrier when we try to invite them over.  They don’t want to come into our house.”

“My colleagues who said they’d help only came once or twice.  They all think what I’m doing is great, but none of them seem to have time to help.  I’m still doing the work all by myself and it’s really discouraging.”

“I was starting to make some inroads at work and even got to pray with some people.  But when my coworker resigned, she accused me of all kinds of crazy things.  It came completely out of left field.  She’s gone now, but since then it seems like people are holding back.”

We’ve been at this for six years now, and the quotes above are compilations of lines from conversations from those years.  I think it is safe to say that everyone who has tried to do something missionally encountered difficulty.  They experienced failure on the mission.  

Just to be clear, we understand missional living to be about joining God in his work.  We believe God has a mission and invites us into it.  Mission, then, is saying yes to God’s invitation.  But what does it mean to succeed in mission?

If you saw the 1995 movie, “Apollo 13”, you may remember the story.  Things went wrong with the spacecraft from early on.  The crew was trying to come back to Earth and many things had somehow gone wrong.  Without some major adjustments, the mission would absolutely fail.  If they failed, the space program would be discredited, science would suffer a setback, American pride would be wounded, and most tragically, three astronauts would lose their lives in space.  At one point, the engineers at mission control are gathered and (dramatically) brainstorming to find a solution, spurred on by Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris).  As the meeting wraps up, he spells out a plan, gives everyone their marching orders, and makes the terms clear: “We’ve never lost a American in space, and we’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch.  Failure is not an option!”

Sometimes, we operate that way.  Some of us live in a failure-is-not-an-option culture.  God’s given us a mission, and we give it our all.  We’ve got to raise the money, build the house, get the food, gather the people, and advance the kingdom.  But why is it success in mission so important to us? Is our involvement in the mission the make-or-break piece?  Whose mission is it anyway?  If we fail, have we failed God?  Has God failed?

If we must to succeed, if failure is not an option, then stepping into mission is to pretty risky.

My friend Scott likes to say, “God loves risk takers.”  I think he’s right.  Jesus celebrated risk takers – there are stories in the Bible about Jesus.  He celebrates shepherds who leave flocks to find the one lost sheep.  He praised gentiles and women who risked crossing racial, religious, and ethnic lines asked for miracles and got them.  He welcomed a pharisee who risked peer rejection came to talk with him in the night.

But while he praised the risk takers, he also pointed out that the risks were real.  Success in mission was not a guarantee.  He told stories about fools who failed to count the cost before taking on a project.  He told his disciples, “you’ll be rejected by family, run out of the church (synagogue), and persecuted for his name’s sake.”  When he sent the disciples and the 72 out on mission (i.e. Matthew 10) his instruction included what to do when people rejected them.  And he knew what that was like, because there are stories of people rejecting him.  The risk was, and still is, quite real.

“Failure is not an option” is essential attitude for space flight.  But when trying to join God in mission, failure is a real possibility.  There’s risk involved.  Let’s say the mission is starting a Bible study with neighbors.  Success means they come and you study the Bible.  What if they don’t come?  Maybe the mission is finding a mentor to support ten families of refugees.  But what if the mentors refuse to sign up.  What if the mission is caring for a group of widows in your community, but then you, the care-giver gets sick, or distracted, or so discouraged you just can’t do it.  Is that failure?

The book of Acts gives us a clear picture of what happens to the risk takers who live life on mission.  Right at the start, the Apostles are told to be quiet.  They take a risk and keep speaking and are beaten and told to be quiet.  They have a division issue in the church.  It’s taking the Apostles off their preaching mission so they appoint deacons and things get better.  But then one of the new deacons, Stephen, gets arrested for speaking about Jesus and is killed by rock throwers. More arrests are made. People are prosecuted and jailed.  The church scatters.  Any failure in that Jerusalem church mission?  The apostles stay behind.  James gets executed.  Peter gets arrested.  Yes, there was success.  They drew big crowds, performed wonders, and had a great church.  They succeeded.  But in terms of establishing a church, they lost much of their initial success.  The church they worked so hard to build in Jerusalem struggles. 

But that church’s setback and failure resulted in church planting movement.  I’ve heard it said that failure is just a step toward even greater success.  Maybe so.  After all, that scattering led to a mega-church being established in Antioch and the launching of the first church planting mission.  (How’s that for success!)  Any church planting expert will tell you that the book of Acts can teach us a lot about church planting.  What if the mission is church planting.  What does success look like?  Establishing new churches, obviously. 

And the Spirit speaks.  “Set aside for me Saul (Paul) and Barnabas for the work I have for them.”  Out of that success, missionaries Paul and Barnabas go out on mission to plant churches.  And… they succeed with a miracle and a convert in Cyprus, but there’s no mention of a church being planted.  They get deserted by a friend in Perga and report nothing else there.  They had initial success in Pisidian Antioch, only to see it evaporate and turn into persecution.   They traveled to  Iconium where they preached and performed miracles and won some over – only to be run out of town.   They went to Lystra, preached, and performed a huge miracle.  Finally success, right?  A lame man was healed and walked.  But the religious folk in the city misunderstand the message.  And just then a group of agitators show up and turn the crowd against Paul and Barnabas.  It gets ugly.  Rock throwers attempt to kill Paul and leave him for dead.  But the almost-dead apostle gets up and keeps going.  A small church got started in that town, but I wonder how that felt after the initial success of the big crowd, powerful message, and miraculous sign.  Finally, they go to Derbe.  They preach and a large number believe.  A church is planted.  Success at last!  

Now, if my counting is right, this church planting mission plants one solid church in five tries.  Four attempts that involve pain, rejection, and suffering result in one absolute failure, three small struggling groups, and one success.  On the way back to Antioch, they visit the little churches they started in order to encourage them, saying: “Keep the faith – we must go through many hardships to enter God’s kingdom.”  

How’s that for an encouraging promise to claim.   ‘Cheer up.  The Bible says, “We must go through many hardships…”‘

I’ll just say it.  If God sent those guys on a mission to plant churches, it wasn’t a great success.  To make it that much worse, Paul and Barnabas have a fight and part ways. They weren’t even able to sustain their church-planting missional community.  Not much success to see here.  A lot of failure.

But what if the “work set aside for them”  that the Spirit was talking about was not as straight forward as church planting.

If we read the Bible carefully, the expectation of great success of mission should not be our motivator.  It stands to reason: the culture around us can be very much opposed to the mission, or just apathetic toward it.  The forces of hell want to discourage us.  Moreover, some of the people we expect to be helpers, supporters or allies will let us down, tear us down,  or oppose what we are doing outright.  The sin of the world works against us and we fall into traps.  And worst yet, our own sinfulness shows up.  

I know.  “If God is for us, who can stand against us…”  But even that verse is not about succeeding in some venture.  If we look it up in Romans 8, the next line is “he who did not spare his own son, but graciously gave him up for us all…”  God is for us.  God was certainly for his son.  And God “gave him up for us…”  Put the whole thing in context. “We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered…”  God is for us.  He is so “for us” that nothing can snatch us from his hand.  But God is for us must mean something other than success in achieving missional goals.

What then?  Since failure is a real possibility, should we even try?  (Don’t stop reading.  Encouragement is coming, I promise.)

I think our culture kind of preaches against failure.  Culture, and a lot of Sunday sermons, suggest keys to success.  Nobody talks about finding the keys to failure.  But there are definitely good things to hunt for in failure.  Since we can expect some failure, maybe we can learn to be grateful for it because of what it brings.  Because good things, the best things, are the gifts God gives us in our experiences of failure, things that lead to a better success than achieving mission goals.  What is the connection between failure and better success?

Some might suggest that failure helps us find clues for success in the next venture.  That’s obvious.  Mistakes can lead to failure and we can learn from our mistakes.  But there’s something better if we mine a little deeper.

We can find grace in failure, because success blinds us to our character flaws and weaknesses, but failure reveals them.  We come to know ourselves better and to understand better our need for the help of God and his people.  But there’s still more.

We can see our sin in failure.  Often, others see our sin when succeed.  They’ll see our pride, how we take credit for what God did, and maybe how we used people.  But achieving success allows us to excuse ourselves.  It’s the price we all paid for success.  But when we fail, we get humbled.  We can see for ourselves how our character flaws worked against us, how our sin proved costly to the people around us.   Confession, repentance, and the healing of our souls unfolds.  We find still more grace.

Failures lead us to know know more of God.    Some people, for example, think God’s love is somehow conditional, that it’s based on succeeding.  But it’s when we fail that we discover it’s a lie.  We discover that “God’s arm is not to short to save.”  We come to know what Paul prayed that his churches would come to know – that God’s love for us is deeper, broader, wider, and higher than we ever realized.  We discover we were not made, as a friend of mine once prayed, “to do God’s work for him.”  Rather, before anything else, we were made to know God and his great love for us.

As a result of our failures, we can know more of God’s love and that will lead us toward discovering an increased capacity to love others.  This happens far more naturally through failure than success.   John says, “we love because he first loved us…”  The more we know of his love, the more we can love others.

We also gain insight for encouraging others in mission.  I have found that church leaders who have failed in mission are great to have around when I’m struggling.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like “successful” church leaders.  They offer formulas for things like making a program work, raising money, empowering staff, or attracting people.  “Try my formula.  It will work for you, too.”   I have found that sort of thing genuinely helpful, but also discouraging.  This is because every time I try to apply their formulas, I have some success but it appears to be less success than I hoped for.  But maybe you’ve heard – one in four pastors have been forced out of their churches.  Church leaders who have failed are pretty easy to find these days.  Now, some leave the church, burned, bitter, and resentful.  But I know many who have done the hard personal work of looking at their failure, enduring hardship, and walking with God through the disappointment and losses associated with “failure in ministry”.  The rejected church leaders who’ve “failed in ministry” are precious to have around.  When I talk with them, they seem more interested in me than in giving me a formula, more patient with my stories, and a great deal wiser.  They seem to know Jesus personally, and they want me to know him better, too.  I’ve also noticed they pray for my needs with greater humility, greater precision, and greater love.  

They can say with both authority and hope, “Jesse, keep the faith.  Expect hardship on this journey.”

Back to the gospels.  Have you ever read what happened when the disciples return from their mission.  (See Luke 10.)  They had enjoyed great success on their mission.  They tell Jesus, “Even the demons submit to us in your names.”  And Jesus is happy for them.  Great spiritual victories were won. “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven…”   But Jesus points them to something better.  Hd tells the disciples to rejoice – not because they have succeeded in casting out demons, but because their names are written in the heaven. 

And that, my brothers and sisters is the success worth pursuing.  Funny thing about engaging in mission.  Jesus certainly wants us to go.  He commands and commissions and sends us on mission.  But the thing Jesus wants his disciples, what he wants us, to celebrate, is our citizenship in his kingdom.   He doesn’t love us, claim us, or choose us because we are supposed to succeed in our mission – because the mission isn’t ours anyway.  He has a mission.  His work in us is his mission!  But his mission is bigger than us, too.  And we know more of him as we step into it.  Somehow, just taking part in it, walking with Jesus on mission, helps us discover more depth to the truth that we belong to Jesus.

Let me share a few other quotes, again compilations from our years together:

“I really feel like I’ve grown more over the last five years than at any other time in my walk.”

“At the service club, they were suspicious of me for so long and they even told me I wasn’t allowed to pray.  But now they completely trust me and I can talk to anyone at any time.”

“I used to think that church was the place you had to go to be close to God, but now I know he’s with me no matter where I go.  Trying to live my faith used to be so boring.  Now it’s an adventure.”

“My prayer ministry at work has finally opened up.  Many people have signed up for emails and regularly share prayer requests.  I’m so grateful for how God opened things up.”

“This group has given me courage to keep trying.  And I know God so much better. I am so grateful.”

May you come to know the Lord more fully, and may Christ be more fully revealed in you and through you as you walk with him in his mission!


About Pastor Jesse

I am someone loved by Jesus - a disciple, husband, father, pastor, and engineer. God has a mission and invites us into it. I want to do my part to encourage and equip people for life on that mission!
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