Brooklyn: Failure Redefined

By Robert Elkin

Over a period of 12 years, I planted two churches in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One church closed after seven long, hard years. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. The other church grew rapidly and lives on, but leaving it has been confusing and lonelier than I could have imagined. Was one church a failure and the other a success?

I’ve been a part of countless conversations with ministry leaders trying to redefine success. Many believe faithfulness is key, while others lean on ideas about fruitfulness. For some, it’s survival and sustainability. This metric makes sense at first glance. But what if my wife is miserable and making plans to leave me? What if my kids hate the church (and God) because it gets all my attention? What if the successful church I planted doesn’t actually portray the kingdom of God or the vision God gave me? What if I’m an emotional wreck or physically unhealthy or angry or bitter or spiritually dead?

The secular entrepreneurial world celebrates failure because failure implies creativity, risk and adventure. Church planters are creative entrepreneurs to the highest degree. Yet we start churches that are so safe, so alike, because we are so afraid of failure and so consumed by ideas of success.

Jesus was a failure in the eyes of his society. As he hung on the cross, no one thought he was a success. Even after he was resurrected, the cross was still considered foolishness whether measured by religion (Jews) or philosophy (Greeks). Yet the cross is salvation and the singular picture of divine love.

Honestly, failure has been the best thing that ever happened to me. It uprooted my identity as a church planter for God and reoriented my identity as a child of God. It taught me about the true upside-down nature of the kingdom of God. It created a deep longing for heaven, where all sadness, loss and injustice will come untrue. It opened my eyes to the forgotten, the poor, the helpless and the failures among us by bringing us low to look each other in the eyes, to be human together, and to long for a Savior together.

What if we’re all wrong about success and failure? What if we stopped worrying so much about planting a successful church and rather set our sights in pursuit of the kingdom of God, using wisdom to start communities that look for breakthroughs of salvation, discipleship, healing, justice and reconciliation in our neighborhoods and cities? I believe this would lead to more perceived failure. And more resurrection stories.

I am now blessed with the incredible opportunity to train and coach church planters in NYC and shape training and coaching ecosystems globally. My hope is that I can steward my story to help planters reject unhealthy and un-Christlike narratives of success that seem to rule much of the church world, lead healthy families rooted in gospel identity and rhythms, and prayerfully pursue creative and contextual expressions of the kingdom of God.

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Robert Elkin led two church plants in Brooklyn over the course of 12 years and now works for City to City, training and coaching church planters throughout NYC. He’s a husband, father of two, Enneagram 7 and hopeful dreamer.