Successful Failure: How God changed my ministry perspective.

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October 29, 2015 by cbbeard

Sometimes God gives us what we want to show us that the focus of our desire is misguided.  Sometimes God grants success to show that our goals are off-kilter.  Sometimes you learn the most from successful failures.

There is a feature from Facebook that shows you your posts and activity from the past, sort of a “on this day” reminder of your Facebook history.  Almost two weeks ago, Facebook reminded me of this post I made on October 15, 2010:


When I read this, my mind was flooded with memories.  Five years ago, for a few weeks in October, I had one of the most remarkable experiences of my life and one of the biggest successful failures of my ministry, and God used it to teach me that…

Using attractional efforts as a primary way to reach people for Jesus is not a wise use of our time, energy, or resources.

By “attractional” I mean any event, program, or effort meant to lure people to an official church function as a means to spread the Gospel.  Five years ago God used such an event in our congregation to show the nature of attractional futility.

It started as an “outreach campaign” at our church that included all the usual church outreach methods: a mass mailing, postcards and business cards for our people to hand out, a revamped website, and a catchy billboard all centering  around a sermon series ScreenShot127called “What a Bunch of Jerks!  -Teachings of Jesus to often ignored by the church.”  The series would address the reality that among people who do not yet follow Jesus, the reputation of the church and of Christians has been tarnished, and the truth that Jesus is better than our reputation might indicate.  The premise of the campaign was based on conventional church leadership wisdom and was simple…if we just get the attention of people who don’t yet follow Jesus, they will come check us out and hear our message.

The entire congregation was engaged, and we prayed for God to bless our efforts; and bless them he did!  Our hope was that our campaign and our billboard would just cause a little stir locally so that our people could bring it up in conversation with their friends, and invite them to come hear more.  If we only knew what was to come…

It was fairly early in the morning, and an elder called to tell me to check out the local paper online because their blog had mentioned our billboard. Shortly after, I got a call from the Houston Chronicle.  Their religion blog wanted to feature our billboard, and wanted my comments.  I happily explained what it was all about and celebrated that our tool was working.  After the Chronicle ran their article, the news of our billboard and our efforts spread like wildfire.

The next day I received a phone call at the office from a lady saying she loved our billboard. I asked her how she found out about it, and she said, “well, they are currently talking about it on CNN Headline News!”  As soon as that call ends, a local news station calls asking to interview someone about the billboard, followed by a producer from CNN Headline News requesting  to interview me on the air. In the meantime, literally hundreds of online news outlets and blogs had picked up the story, some simply reporting, some applauding us, and some offering less-than-applause.  (Go Google “What a bunch of Jerks”  Beaumont, and see what I mean.) The week ended with national Christian radio network Air 1 sharing about the billboard and our efforts on the air.

This effort to get people’s attention for the sake of Christ and the gospel was doing exactly what we hoped, and it was accomplishing it in ways that we never could have imagined. People in our community were talking and many were emailing and/or calling the church. Our website traffic went from an average of 40 hits a day to over 4000 hits by noon on one day. And as I wrote in THIS article later that month:

What was surprising, however, is that the strongest, most supportive calls and e-mails came from non-Christians. These folks went out of their way to tell us how much they appreciated our message.

We did it, we got their attention!  Then comes Sunday morning, just a couple of days after this media explosion. I parked on the grass when I got to the building, wanting to leave extra parking room for visitors.  Walking through the building to make sure everything was ready to go, I mentally identified a couple of people who could go outside and assist if the traffic flow got out of control.  Thirty minutes before time to start, I walked over to the hallway that led to the parking lot and looked out the window; the traffic flow was pretty normal, with all of the cars belonging to our normal “early arrivers.”  Fifteen minutes before time to start, I walked over again, and the traffic was still normal…I wasn’t worried;  of course a visitor isn’t going to show up EARLY.  Five minutes before time to start, I expected the throngs of people to start making their way into the parking lot. So I walked over to the hallway and looked out the window once again…but nothing.

When I got up to preach that day, there weren’t throngs of people.  In fact there wasn’t a single throng or a single person that didn’t know Jesus that came to our church for the first time that day.  I was devastated.

It was the most successful failure I’ve even experienced.   It was successful beyond our wildest dreams in getting people’s attention, but it failed to bring one person who needed Jesus through the doors of our church.  It was successful in that it caused a conversation about Jesus, but it didn’t help us make disciples.

I didn’t know it at the time, but God would use that successful failure as a catalyst to help me and other church leaders in our congregation understand that using attractional efforts to reach people for Jesus is not a wise use of our time, energy, and resources.  It’s almost as if God said “Oh, so you think all it takes is getting people’s attention and they will come to you?  Well alright then, here is more attention than you ever imagined. Let’s see how that works out for you!”  And it didn’t work out so well.

Since then, I’ve come to realize a couple of reasons why using attractional efforts as a primary way to reach people for Jesus is not a wise use of our time, energy, or resources:

Attractional methods don’t work in our culture.

This is a different world than the one I grew up in.  The emergence of a postmodern cultural milieu, the decline of Christendom, and various struggles and P.R. issues for the established church in America have created a perfect storm in which the place of church in society has been diminished.  Alan Hirsch suggests that 60% of our culture will never respond positively to mass advertisement methods inviting them to a church event[1]…the very type of thing we attempted with the “Jerks” series.  These people aren’t likely to be attracted to church because church isn’t even on their radar.  As Reggie McNeal stated [2]:

People are not looking for a great church. They do not wake up every day wondering what church they can make successful. The age in which institutional religion holds appeal is passing away—and in a hurry. (McNeal, 2003, p.10)

The reality churches must face is that people have been there, and done that, and they are tired of it when it comes to attractional church efforts.  Catchy billboards, “relevant” sermon series, big events, and entertaining worship doesn’t interest people who don’t know Jesus, and they may even be damaging to people’s faith (as I wrote about here.)

Attractional methods just don’t work in our culture.  Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and praise God for saving us, regardless of how we come to know Jesus!  But using attractional methods in today’s world is like insisting on using the telegraph in the age of email.

Attractional methods aren’t biblical.

Do you remember how Jesus engaged this world?  John 1:14 says – The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  I like how the Message paraphrases it – The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.  Jesus didn’t set up some building out in the countryside of Galilee, put up a billboard and say “Here I am!  Come hear the truth about God’s Kingdom!”  No, he was sent to be with the people, and he went to them.

Or how about the first century church?  Do you remember how they multiplied?  After the Day of Pentecost, we read that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, NIV) But if you read the verses prior to that declaration, we don’t see that once the Holy Spirit fell on the believers that they went out and found a building to establish the First Christian Church of Jerusalem.  Nor do we read that they put up a big billboard by the Temple and do some big event to invite all their friends to.  Instead we read this:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, NIV)

The church grew and people were being saved daily because disciples of Jesus were constantly around people who weren’t.  The church grew and people were being saved because people who didn’t know Jesus saw the love and power of Jesus through his people in their neighborhoods and places where they already were.  The church grew and people were being saved because disciples of Jesus were following Christ’s example and engaging a world that desperately needed a Lord and Savior.

I look back on our successful failure with great fondness.  Not because it was exciting, not because I got to be on TV (but that was cool too!), and not because we got a lot of attention.  I look back on our successful failure with fondness because it led me back to the ways of Christ.

[2] McNeal, R. (2003). The present future: Six tough questions for the church. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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