A few years back, I was asked to lead a seminar for the Midlands Ministry Training Course on “failure.” I wasn’t sure how to take the invitation! It was there at the end of the year and I suspect not many people would be thrilled at getting that particular gig and I am not sure that the students were thrilled to be listening to me on that subject either. In fact if they did not have an end of term service with Paul Mallard speaking I bet a few would have been tempted to sneak home early.
We don’t like to talk about failure do we? And yet failure happens. I’m not talking about moral failure here but rather when we seem to be completely unfruitful in ministry. It’s there in the Bible. Paul tries and tries to get across into the province of Asia to preach the Gospel. Luke recognises that it is the Holy Spirit preventing them but at the time it must have looked like a failure. Even Jesus is recorded as being prevented from doing many miracles in one place because of unbelief. That must have looked like failure to onlookers. The parable of the seed and the soils suggests that the sowing of the word will meet failure instead of fruit in ¾ context. Yet we run with the assumption that we must see success in ministry.
I am glad that God has been gracious to me and given me the opportunity to see fruit at times from Gospel work. However along the way, there have been plenty of failures too. Let me give you a few examples:
First of all I’ve mentioned before a friend of mine who seemed to be a gifted Christian but gradually slipped into a deep apostacy. I met with him frequently. I tried to reason with him. I prayed for him. Yet at the end, he still walked out on the church, the Gospel and later on sadly his family too.
Secondly, I have spent many hours counselling people where there have been tears, sometimes there has been anger and sometimes we don’t seem to get anywhere near the outcome that we would hope for from the conversation. Now, there are plenty of occasions where the tears and the outbursts are part of someone processing a hard word to bear. Eventually they come around and we see God’s mercy and grace at work in their lives. Yet it isn’t always like that. There are times when we do not see a marriage reconciled or a person step back from sin. It’s heart-breaking. It feels like failure and in those situations this includes the sense that I have failed the other person.
Thirdly, we have tried various forms of outreach over the years. At one point, our Sunday Night Church gathering was full to overflowing. We decided that we should try adding an early evening service in the same way that we had split Sunday mornings into two congregations. We hoped that some of the evening crowd would move to the new slot and others would also join in. It was a flop. Apart from one family we did not see any movers in the church. Now, it was probably a helpful time for that family and they enjoyed our times together but that was not the purpose of what we had set out to do. Eventually, we brought that meeting to an end. Incidentally, the result was that we then started doing the monthly Messy Church which resulted in greater engagement with people in our community including those from other religious backgrounds.
Fourthly, when we set out to multiply congregations, I expressed the desire to see a congregation planted on our local estate. I said that I would like to see that happen within 5 years. Here we are 8 years later and such a congregation looks no more likely today than it did then. Failure.
Now, looking back, there are some situations in which I can see now how God had different plans and purposes, just as the Holy Spirit had to curtail Paul’s Asian project because he was needed in Macedonia. As I said, we would not have had Messy Church if Engage had been seen to work. We did not end up with a church on the Bristnall estate but God had plans for a multi-cultural church using Spanish as its first language. Furthermore, I can in some cases look back and see that there was still fruit there. We saw a family blessed, encouraged and equipped to eventually move to Italy and to be useful for the Gospel in a cross cultural context even if we did not see a growing congregation. We have delivered Gospels and newsletters on the estate and held two carol services. This means Gospel seed has been sown and we do not know yet if some of it has taken root in hearts. Maybe someone else will get to harvest where we have sown.
Yet, a lot of times I look back at the failures and I still cannot see why. I don’t think it is helpful either for others to leap in and tell me that in fact there was fruit and that they can see exactly what God was doing. Sometimes it is best just to sit together and say “Yeah it sucks.”
However, I do believe that God has been at work in the failures as well as in the successes. If I do not believe this then I perhaps haven’t quite got as much of a grasp on God’s grace and God’s sovereignty as I thought.
Tomorrow I am going to write about why we need to embrace failure as well as success. What are the areas where you have seen failure? Are you able to see God’s purpose in those failures yet?