Here’s a parable based on a true story:
Twelve men got in a boat and went out to sea. Another man walked up to them. They were afraid. One of the twelve figured the Water-Walker was trustworthy, so he asked to join him. It worked for a few steps, but then he almost drowned. Thankfully, the Water-Walker saved him and they all made it safely to shore.
When they got out of the boat, the Church on the Shore made the eleven dry guys leaders because of their prudence. “Faith is important,” they acknowledged, “but our church shouldn’t do things that might not work.”
It made sense—walking on water was an innovation that only one person had ever done. The one who had done it, however, made the wet guy the leader and changed his name to Rock, for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.
Taking Risks and Closing Works
There are 36 churches in my network’s region of Northwest America. Eighteen of them have been planted in the last 15 years. That’s a lot of risk and, by grace, reward. There have also been failures. Our network has closed three church plants during that time. Statistically, that’s pretty good, but that’s a small consolation. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on churches that didn’t work. And that’s not even the heaviest cost. Money and success rates are important but secondary when a broken, discouraged leader and his once-emerging congregation close the doors.
So we spend a lot of time praying, planning, vetting, assessing, and overseeing our planters and our projects. We read books, go to seminars, and research best practices. We even do postmortems to find out what went wrong. Love for people and stewardship require all that, and it’s fruitful.
Still, I wonder how much of our diligence is chasing the fantasy of being fail-safe. The Book of Acts is filled with risky adventures and the epistles catalog the messes they created. To suggest that the church today may be more risk-averse than the early church is not to say the Apostles were careless. Jesus himself told us to be sure we can finish our towers (Luke 14.28–30). His honor is at stake and should not be casually jeopardized. The church planter’s family is precious and should not be carelessly commissioned. Financial resources are limited, and the soil of a community can be spoiled for a long season by closing a church. There are a lot of very good reasons to be careful. Still, good reasons also make good hiding places.
The Fantasy of Fail-safe
The gates of hell will not prevail against the global Church, but what about your church? That’s a different matter. So leaders plan and pray. That’s good, but no myth is more alluring than the myth of a good plan—especially one bolstered by proof texts and prayer meetings.
The problem with planning, however, is that the whiteboard is a liar. It’s the analog version of Instagram. Our photoshopped ideas look awesome until we see them in person. And once reality sets in, it can be very difficult to get a team to risk again. Failure disrupts our narrative, makes recruiting and fundraising more difficult, zaps momentum, and (right or wrong) calls the leader’s competence into question.
So leaders who once threw caution to the wind end up chasing the wind to get it back. We stockpile money that should be invested in our mission. We become coy about the gospel in coffee shops and sermons claiming we’re culturally savvy. We get a tattoo or wear a robe; both, if we’re desperate. We channel the newest successful missional leader, of which there seems to be no shortage (insert more discouragement). The list of missional security blankets is virtually endless.
After stutters and set-backs, the leader who moved across the country to start a church calls timidity stewardship and convinces himself that his lifeless discouragement is humility. The cost of failing is stark and painful. It may be true that we once said “yes” naively, but pain can make us say “no” too quickly. And how do we count the cost of saying “no”? What price is paid when saying “yes” could have done good for souls and the city? Those ledgers are written in invisible ink, but the opportunities we’ve passed up are very costly, even if they aren’t embarrassing.
The Fear of Failure
All of this hesitation makes sense. Sinking in failure after a few steps on the water with Jesus is the worst way to die. Failure of any kind is a brutal mocker, but ministry failure is deeply personal and radically public all at once. Our soul, our family’s social world, and our livelihood frantically grab one another like sinking shipmates who can’t swim.
Obviously, ministry leaders aren’t the only people who suffer when their vocation tanks. Seattle’s churches are full of entrepreneurs living on the brink. Still, when congregants lose a job, their church is still there and their family’s social network is intact. They might even be able to stay in their house if an in-town gig comes soon. Close your church, however, and you lose your job and your church community—and your family will probably need to move. While all that happens, you get to wonder why Jesus didn’t think the mission you started for him and poured your life into was worth it.
The Faith to Fail
Those are dark thoughts, but they can get much darker. So dark, in fact, that many of us stay in the boat. The eleven watched Peter go for it. They knew how deep and dark the abyss beneath him was and probably felt pretty good about their choice. Peter, on the other hand, saw the waves and started having second thoughts. Imagine his horror when he lost sight of the Savior in the tempest and began to sink, gasping for air and tasting the water.
I bet he felt foolish once he was back in the boat. There’s no use spiritualizing the moment: Peter was probably panting, soaking, and coughing up water while his friends face-palmed. It’d be natural to feel foolish, but Peter was no fool. Sure, he almost died, but before that, he walked on water like Jesus.
While he couldn’t have known it when he took those few thrilling, world-defying steps on water, the faith to live through his imminent failure was hidden in the faith it took to step out of the boat. The mission ended poorly, but the true Water-Walker didn’t let him die. Peter lived through failure and learned the first lesson of success: unless your vision is just to stay dry, no one succeeds by staying in the boat.
About the Author
Mike Kelly and his wife, Sandy, lead the Northwest Church Planting Network in Seattle.
He also serves as the Northwest Catalyst for City to City North America.