This is a lengthy rambling on the concept of failure in the context of church. I hope you have the patience to get into the conversation, and deal with my thoughts.
All of us involved in church projects, have already felt that we failed. We started something, we were full of perfect plans, did our best effort, and then the number of people we were expecting didn't come up, or people were not enough motivated, or people got selfish ans self centered, and then started to quit. Or we had all this perfect vision, and then it turned out to be completely different than we thought. And after 1-2 years of work (maybe more), we feel that we have failed, fall on our back, and cry: "God, why!?"
Well, I consider myself an expert on that subject. Concerning failure, I rule. I failed in everything and every way possible and imaginable. I have been involved in almost every church role and department you can imagine (except that I have never been higher than associate pastor, and I have never done anything in the worship/music department). I have been involved in institutional churches, institutional churches with home groups, cell-churches, home churches, and churches that don't know whether they are home or institutional churches. And in all them I have managed to fail. And it's not like I'm really old, I'm still 32. Nearly every project I have started have finished or become numb. Every single one.
What is success?
OK, I failed. But, honestly, what is failure? In fact, part of the problem is exactly that. How do we define success? What is a successful mission (to use a better term than project)? What are we doing in this world anyway? How can you avoid failure in your mission?
Well, success can be, doing what God tells you to do the best way you possibly can, while remaining humble and depending absolutely on God and not on your own understanding, so that in the end, all glory may be given to God alone. Simple, right? Well... kind of. Looking back at those experiences, with this definition, I didn't fail that much. Many times I did, but most of the times I got it nearly right. I'm trying to be completely honest here.
But then, there is no way I can be completely humble and dependent on God. Each project I learn to be a little bit humbler, and I learn a couple of things I was in fact depending on my own understanding and not on God. I mean, this definition of success is a moving target, you can always get humbler and more dependent on God.
Christianity is a way
So, there is no fixed target. The target is always a moving one. So, if we measure success by the ability to get to the target, we will fail every single time. But, if we measure success by seeing if we are following the target or not, then that's a different story.
But, does that mean that all projects will fail and die? Is there no hope of starting a community that works?
It's all about people. And love
Our real job is to help people, love them, invest in them. That's our calling: Make disciples. Our job is not to create a church of 10, 20, 50, 100, 1000 people. Our role is to invest in people so they become disciples of Jesus. And if we do that role correctly, those disciples will form clusters in various forms. If we are investing in lives, and they are blooming, being disciples of Christ, and giving birth to other disciples, then we are not failing, we are succeeding.
I believe now that our failure is seeing targets in a wrong way, and depending on out own strengths. We focus on creating a dynamic ministry, or a great group, or an active church. And that is not wrong in itself. But we are able to contribute to that by investing in people, creating relationships with them, teaching and learning, sharing. And by recognizing that we cannot do anything by our own strength, that we need God to make the difference.
And that is a process. It takes time. But it's not only the goal that is worth it, it's also the way! All of it is worth it!
Another way of putting the question is: What criteria do you use to evaluate your community?
If you look at how most churches evaluate, you'll tend to think that it's all about numbers. The more, the merrier. How many "got saved" this year? What was the mean attendance at Sunday? And at Sunday School? How many are involved in the ministry?
I don't believe in numbers to evaluate the success of a community. There are better ways of evaluating the success of a community. A good christian community is a community where relationships are strong, no mater what may go wrong. Where there is an equilibrium of gifting, and a sense of respect and humility for each other gifting. That makes a difference wherever it is. That has connections with the outside world. It is also a community that is generating (or in he process of generating) other similar (not equal) communities (this last thing being the signal of complete maturity in a community).
What we have to question ourselves is: Is our community doing that? If not, is it taking measures to do it? Those are very important questions.