Failure to launch
God is at work even in church startups that fall apart
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They had a dream: a God-ordained dream. After years of service in a foreign land, where they met and married and learned to speak the language fluently, they were ready to establish themselves in one area that would become their home, perhaps for the rest of their lives. They would raise their kids, start a business, establish a church, and win souls to Christ. Their goals were admirable and honest, and all the early obstacles were overcome. Surely the Lord’s hand was on this enterprise—until it failed.
I can’t divulge any more details, but this is not a made-up scenario. Here’s another, closer to home: I live in an area with no denominational Reformed tradition, except the liberal mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). For 25 years I’ve been involved with three Reformed startups, two of which fell apart and one is struggling. Though we’re seeing hopeful signs now, I’ll admit to feeling deeply discouraged at times. My children live far away, and regular family interaction is not part of my life. The local church is, in a very practical sense, my family. Isn’t it supposed to be? Don’t I want what God wants? Why has it been such a struggle for all these years?
Don’t I want what God wants? Why has it been such a struggle for all these years?
I do plenty of preaching to myself: Haven’t we all heard of missionaries who labor in the field for a lifetime with little discernible fruit? Were we ever promised a rose garden? Jesus’ own ministry looked like a miserable failure when they laid Him in that tomb. But still—when we’re following God’s Word and seeking His will, why are we so often defeated?
My Bible reading schedule takes me to Judges this month: aside from Ecclesiastes, the most depressing book in the canon. Or maybe it even edges out Ecclesiastes, because at least the Preacher saw clearly what his problems were. Only 40 years removed from the “Greatest Generation” of Joshua’s time, the Israelites settling down in their Promised Land seem mind-blowingly clueless. You know the drill: They merge worship of the Lord with sacrifices to Baal and other local big boys; the Lord takes His hand away; the people fall prey to neighboring tyrants; they cry out to God; He sends a deliverer. For the next 40 years or so life is good, then the miserable cycle starts all over again. Vanity of vanities.
At least Judges has some interesting stories and characters, which is why I often skip over the first two chapters. This time I took a closer look. Judges begins with failure: a list of the devil-worshipping pagans Israel did not drive out, followed by three reasons why. Those reasons are, first, their own sin: “You have not obeyed my voice,” and so the enemy “shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judges 2:2-3). Second, discipline: “to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the Lord … or not” (2:22). Third, battle training, “in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before” (3:2).
This may seem contradictory. God is punishing His people, but He’s also testing them, but then He says, Oh by the way, you boys need to stay battle-ready, so I’m leaving some pagans behind for practice. Which is it? Given His flair for economy, all three.
Think how this applies today: The collapse of a ministry often involves some personal sin. Someone wasn’t careful, or watchful, and sin was allowed to fester. Failure should then lead us to examine ourselves and question whether we relied too much on our own resources. “Without me,” Jesus says, “you can do nothing”—remember that next time. Because spiritual warfare is real; we’re engaged, whether we like it or not, and unless we are trained in adversity, we’ll be defeated every time.
That doesn’t make failure any less discouraging or painful. But it’s not pointless. God also has a flair for creativity and will bring glory out of shame.
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