There’s No Such Thing as a “FAILED” Church Plant


Not My Jeans

I was shopping with my wife a few months ago and as I passed through the men’s section I noticed my choice of jean style was “skinny” or “super skinny”. Now, I’m not sure I want to find out the difference because I would not describe myself as either. I thought about asking an employee to point me towards the plump and chubby section and anxiously await the Gap’s first dad-bod clothing line. But, calling a pair of jeans “skinny” affects the wearer’s perception of the jeans and possibly himself. How we speak about something affects our perception of it.

It bothers me when church plants are referred to as “failures” or “successes”. We’ll say a church plant “failed”, while the plant down the street “succeeded.” The use of these terms in both scenarios are harmful.

The Problem

God knows how long each of us will live on this earth. The Bible says, “A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed” (Job 14:5). No life would ever be deemed a “failure”, regardless of how many years, days, or even minutes they live. Every heart beat impacts and significantly influences the lives of those touched by it.

The church is like a living organism. It’s why we use terms like birth, life, and death to describe it. But, by calling any plant a failure, we minimize the work of God in and through that plant, regardless of how long it survived. If a church plant “failed”, then what does that say about the church planter? What does that say about the individuals and families who sacrificed so much for the plant? Are they now failures? What about the investing churches? Did they invest in a failure?

Yes, when a church plant closes its doors, it’s always disappointing. Individuals and organizations have big dreams for a new start up, the same way we hope our children will become brilliant scientists and president. But, it’s not fair to call them a failure.

 And on the other side of the coin, when a church plant has survived 5 years or becomes self-sufficient, it might be called a success. But, is that always accurate? In marriage, a couple could be married for fifteen years, but consistently spew hatred towards one another that entire time. Do they have a successful marriage? Or imagine I buy an empty building, call it Thorne Inc., come back in 5 years and call it a success because it’s still in existence. Or how many churches do we know who’ve been around for hundreds of years? They may now only have 25 people in attendance each week, but they still exist. Are they the most successful churches we have in existence today? But, this is the bar we set for church plants. If you’re sill breathing after 5 years, then you’re a success. Calling any church plant a success based solely on their time in existence is inaccurate and inappropriate.

The Solution

I’ve thought a lot about a better way to reference church plants that end, along with those who’ve lasted longer than 5 years. But, any word I could conceive, carries with it a value that can be misconstrued. For example, a church that ends could be called “finished”. This respects the planter and his team, subtly giving them props for faithfully completing the task the Lord set before them. But, someone else could think of flooring descriptors, or “threats made by mobsters”, or even the baritone voice in Mortal Kombat saying, “Finish him!” Clearly it can hit people in a few different, and maybe somewhat weird ways.

I love how Stadia differentiates church plants in an objective, value-free way. They reference plants as either “open” or “closed.” If a church is “open”, it’s a fact. It’s neither good or bad, it just is. It’s the same with “closed.” It’s very objective and factual. I think this is the best possible solution.

Better Metrics

Besides what we call these plants, we should have better metrics to determine their success, than existence. A church’s success should have nothing to do with comparing it to any another church. It should have everything to do with that church’s ability to accomplish its strategy to fulfill its mission. Various metrics can work. I know many churches talk about butts, baptisms, and budgets- which are fine metrics to use. But, I love some of the newer metrics churches are using, like number of people served in the city, number of discipling relationships, number of leaders developing, and churches planted. These metrics are more church-specific and powerful because they’re be tied directly to that church’s vision and strategy. But, any of these are much better metrics to determine if a church is “successful” or not.

More than Words

When we hear about a church plant “closing”, let’s consider the words we use in talking about that plant. Let’s try to not be so quick to consider it a failure in anyway. I love how Oswald Chambers said, “If our Lord measured His success by its actual results, He would have been full of misery” (1938, p. 64) Our job is always to be faithful to wherever the Lord has planted us and whatever task He lays before us, and leave the results up to Him. If a church planter could say they were obedient and faithful to give their all to the Lord’s work, then they’re heroes in my book. Regardless of the result of their efforts, anyone who feels a prompting from the Lord to leave their family, friends, and comfort, to share the good news of Jesus in an unfamiliar place- is awesome! We should all be thankful for their brave work, and honor these present-day heroes of the church.

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Chambers, O. (1938) The love of God. Christian Literature Crusade. Fort Washington.