Why succeeding sometimes means we need to fail

success or failureEvery sphere of life, it seems, has its unchallengeable assumptions. You know, those things that are just so embedded in the psyche that all discussion starts from the premise that everyone shares these assumptions. It’s what practical theologians call the ‘spirituality’ of an organisation.

What on earth are you talking about?

For instance, over here in the UK, there is an on-going national debate about the economy. I’m sure you’re familiar with the territory: every country at the moment, it seems, is having a debate about the economy.

In the UK, the debate is, like many other nations, split along moderate Left and moderate Right lines: is the right way to restore growth to cut public spending drastically and instead rely on the might of big business to grow the country out of economy, as the Right argue? Or is it, as the Left would suggest, to increase public spending, to make sure that benefits remain high?

Much ink has been spilled over these points of view on radio shows, in newspaper columns and journals written by one side or another. However, the shibboleth, that one assumption that is never questioned, can never be questioned, is that growth is good and what the economy should be aiming for. This despite the wealth of recent scholarship in international economics that suggests that the constant drive for growth is part of the problem.

OK, and the point of this is . . . ?

All of which leads me to question, what are our unchallengeable assumptions here when it comes to marketing on the internet in a Christian sphere.

After many months of reading post after post, occasionally commenting in the rare instances I had anything useful to say (and these are definitely rare, because I hardly ever have anything useful to say), I would suggest they run something like this: churches have a duty to share the gospel and communicate well. The aim of this project is to spread the message of a local church so that attendance increases. Church growth is (on whatever level) the way in which we measure our success as communicators. The more successful the church, the bigger it is.

Now, as with any statement defining the spirituality of an organisation, it can only ever be an approximation which reflects more or less clearly how we see ourselves. However, I would contend it is not entirely inaccurate.

On the face of it, such values are not a problem. Indeed, for me to criticise them to heavily may lead the reader to begin to think of words such as “stones” and “glasshouses”, as I rely largely on church website design to fund my way through University.

However, I would suggest we always need to balance these values with other streams of the Christian story. Sometimes, frustrating as it is for those of us who like to communicate and see measurable results, to succeed in a church is to fail.

Success sometimes means failure.

Sometimes, for a church to be faithful to the gospel, it needs to die.

Let’s take an example: imagine a church in a small, rural UK village. This church is attended by 20 folk, all of whom are over 65. They meet faithfully, week in week out, to worship. The gather weekly around the communion cup and are dismissed in peace to be salt and light to their community. It’s not that they haven’t tried to increase numbers.

It’s not that they haven’t tried to tell other people their story. They have: in many different ways and with lots of enthusiasm. It’s just that none of these methods of worked. Yet this church is still richly successful in the eyes of God: they still vibrantly live out their faith, still draw near each week to faithfully worship him – and probably won’t exist in 10 years’ time.

Let’s take another example: a church that aims to serve those in its community who suffer from mental illness and learning disabilities. They have a website and they have a good name. Yet the very fact that they seek to include people with learning disabilities keeps a lot of other people away.

Don’t misunderstand me – it’s not out of hatred or prejudice that people don’t come. The church of Jesus Christ, thank goodness, is not generally like that. It’s just that, because encounters with people with learning disabilities reminds us all of our own nature as broken, incomplete human beings, some people just get too uncomfortable and go to the church down the road where they can worship God in a way that is less threatening. Wrong? Perhaps. Human? Definitely. What is certain, however, is that the church, again, isn’t growing as the models say it should do.

Yet these churches, and a hundred thousand like them across the world, are trying to faithfully live out Christ’s calling on their lives. Even when it is unglamorous – and even when in the eyes of the world (and, I dare say, in the eyes of many church growth fanatics) they are fighting a losing battle against failure.

Seeing through God’s eyes

And I think that’s fine. I think it’s fine, because my God runs the world in such a way whereby what seems wise and successful to the world may, in the final count, prove to be hollow and blunt. My God also runs the world in such a way whereby failure may, in the final count, be revealed as a glowing testimony of love, honoured and precious in his sight.

This, surely, is the heart of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25:

“Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

Does this mean we should all seek failure in some sort of holy “more rubbish than thou” competition? No, of course not. We should do what we do well: speak God’s words in a way that is fresh and meaningful to our contexts and enjoy great design. We still have a calling to reflect a God who is both missionary and creative.

But it does mean we should be reflective as to our measuring of success, understanding that in God’s economy, things such as success and failure remain forever a mystery to us in this life.

By night, David Bunce is a church web designer and blogger in the United Kingdom, specialising in church websites. By day, he is a Theology and German student at a Scottish University. The night time activity helps to fund the day time life! He tweets @davidbunce

3 Responses to “Why succeeding sometimes means we need to fail”

  1. PaulSteinbrueck Jul 20, 2011 at 10:49 am

    David, thanks for writing today's post. I agree with your point that we have to be careful about using attendance numbers alone to gauge whether a church is "successful." The bible does tell us, though, that all believers are to "Go and make disciples" and "every good tree bears fruit." That may not show up in attendance numbers, but it will be visible in some noticeable ways.

  2. Sure, but I don't think I argued against that – is not the faithfulness of the small church gathering around the communion table an equally visible sign of the Kingdom to a church that is growing by 200% in a quarter?

    • PaulSteinbrueck Jul 21, 2011 at 7:07 am

      Both could be signs of the Kingdom, but in my opinion, neither is particularly reliable. There are lots of churches increasing attendance numbers through slick marketing and by putting on a good show every Sunday. There are also lots of small churches that care much more about their traditions than the people in the communities around them.