Christian hope turns failure into a profound mystery waiting for revelation.
With the “eyes of hope” I see the problem with failure lies in my fallen plans which were doomed from the outset, so brain-dead they were. Yet despite my fallen folly, hope says, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). When I see with the hope of Christ, it produces spiritual maturity:
But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. Romans 8:25
This happened to me once…
In 1994 I plunged into a black, sticky tar-pit and dragged my family and the poor Yoergers along. Greg and his buddies had the brilliant idea that somehow we might stop the bleeding while his little Cleveland Bible study (about 30 shell-shocked bodies) remained alive.
It was a mess, I knew that, but I didn’t notice the tar-pit or the bleached bones scattered everywhere. I plunged ahead.
The meeting was held in an old, run-down, dumpy house which was soon condemned (as pictured below).
This was ministry in Cleveland: growth that doesn’t grow.
It was mysterious. The work was fruitful and we doubled in size, but suddenly everything got stuck. We were excited by high conversion-growth, but the group stopped growing. We fluctuated around 50 to 60, stuck in a tar-pit, and we continued to see salvations. Why is this?
Fearful or Faithful?
Jim Leffel described two reactions to failure at the STR. The “fearful” reaction gropes desperately for “the silver bullet of church growth methods,” and thrashes until burnout leads to dropout. Then the blame-game begins, which always degrades into self-condemnation (Rom. 2:3).
But “faithful failure” weathers the storm:
“This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil” (Hebrews 6:19).
With eyes of hope, failure becomes more mystical and even marvelous in its paradoxical nature. Christ says, “I will build my church!” (Matt.16). Instead, I saw “growth without growth”.
Failure means paradox, which is not unusual in the spiritual realm, as Paul said:
“By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness!”
1 Timothy 3:16
The Liability of ‘Conversion-Growth’
Which leads me back to the Cleveland tar-pit. We saw “growth without growth” because a spiritual phenomenon was at work. “Conversion-growth” is a huge liability for Christian fellowship. It fills a fellowship with baby Christians from non-Christian backgrounds who haven’t a clue what “sanctification” or love means.
Church growth observers say conversion-growth shouldn’t get too high, else sanctification dies. This is why churches with 1 in 10 or less converts don’t consider it a problem.
In time I understood the growth-without-growth mystery: without discipleship, converts don’t grow.
We were missing a consensus about how to grow a church. Some felt it was this way, others felt it was that way, but we must grow the Great Commission way: “Go make disciples!”
Without discipleship, baby Christians are likely to degrade into the “thorns and thistles” syndrome of Hebrews 6:8. Their lives don’t produce “vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is tilled” (Heb. 6:7). It’s also called a “revolving door syndrome”, but I called it “The Cleveland Tar Pit Syndrome”.
Only through long-term failure could we build a consensus of Great Commission church growth. Through failure, the direction “that way” or “this way” gave way to “the Great Commission way”.
The Big Q: Why would it take failure to understand hope?
- Hope in Hebrews
- The Wrong Schlong