Broken Calvinists

I was speaking to a friend this morning who made the observation that when it comes to taking a chance on church planting we are Calvinists when we start out.  We are risk takers, committed to God’s sovereignty, all punching each other on the arm and saying “Ok, I don’t know how this thing is going to go, but let’s give it a go because God is sovereign, he knows who are his in this city, Jesus is the king of the church and blah, blah, blah!”

So far so good…

But if it all goes pear-shaped – when it breaks – my friend reckons we magically – and tragically – morph into Arminians.  If a church plant or some other ministry project fails, we are gutted and we angst about what we did wrong, why no one was converted, why discipleship making was so hard, why we are so bad at ……. (fill in blank – Ed)

Of course the unspoken words are this: “God, you didn’t know what you were doing when you asked me to do this”, or “Ok God, why did you allow this thing fail?” or, finally and fatally, “Why am I such a failure?”

Anyone? Anyone?

Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one.  The level of depression (internalised anger) that occurs among those in ministry when something breaks and is seemingly unfixable, betrays the fact that our theology has not penetrated us as deeply as we say.  Or as a psychiatrist friend put it to me “Evangelical ministers preach grace and practice works.” Generalisation? Not if the level of burn out and angst is anything to go by.

It struck me recently that the way to ensure that ministry does not break you, is to ensure that you are broken before going into it.  To be broken before means that you are are in some senses “unbreakable” in it.  Not that failure cannot still disappoint you, but it cannot destroy you, it cannot leech into your soul like sulphuric acid.

What does that look like?

Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones put it like this: “How do you know you have been broken? You walk with a limp.” The Doctor was referring to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, and his striving with God that left him hobbled and dependent, rather than fleet of foot and self-confident.

The problem in our culture, that has bled into our church culture (and which can  be even more frequent in the gung-ho church planting culture) is that people who walk with a limp, who are hobbled and dependent – in other words, people who are broken – are deeply suspect when it comes to whether they can achieving anything or not.  By all means let them take part in the Church Paralympics, but keep them away from the real McCoy, keep them away from tough stuff like church planting. That’s the domain of the fleet-footed and self-confident; the ministry record holders.

Well, that was the case until recently anyway. I have noticed over the past ten years in church planting that those who kicked off the movement are starting to put up their hands and say “Yeah, I’ve been depressed”, “I’ve got a marriage I need to sort out” (maybe they may even have written a book about it – slightly cynical Ed), “I’ve had to deal with anger and fear of failure”.  That’s part of the inevitable maturing process that comes with the age of both the person and the movement, but sometimes it comes too late for those who tried to hide their brokenness in a vain attempt to emulate the Teflon heroes.

Perhaps in the next ten years we will be able to more openly celebrate our brokenness because it gives Jesus a chance to shine all the more brightly in our lives and ministries. And because it demonstrates that the sovereign God deigns to use broken people to achieve his eternal purposes, and if we are truly Calvinists (let the reader understand – Ed), then we will rejoice that our brokenness makes his sovereignty all the more alluring.


  1. Much ambivalence reading your post – agreeing whole-heartedly with the need for brokenness; bristling that you seem to paint Arminianism as a lack of faith, perhaps a failed Calvinism? I have this suspicion that in Reformed circles ‘Arminianism’ is used in this way, shorthand for ‘human-centred works-based theology’. So obviously wrong it would be tragic to fall into it. (Oh well, shorthand is inevitable, on every side.)

    Putting that aside, surely you’re not advocating a determinism which avoids self-critique after failure? Which asks whether we could have done better? (Point taken we shouldn’t wallow in what went wrong, nor forget that we worship a living God.)

    I pick up what was really a side-issue, or an assumption, but as an assumption it stands out because I don’t speak the same language. 🙂

    Anyway, thank you for a stimulating post. May your call for Calvinists to be broken make all of us less Mark Driscoll and more… I don’t know, Marilynne Robinson?

    1. Hi Nathan
      Yeah – I recognise my language is going to sound a little antithetical to those of a different persuasion. Probably using the term in its shorthand form! No definitely not advocating determinism (Calvinists aren’t!), and definitely think we should ask how we could do better. But behind that there appears to be a terrible crushing that comes when things fail, a crushing that is quite revealing about where our real security lies. Perhaps it is more about our idolatries being exposed – and church planting can expose them pretty quickly if it all goes belly up. And yes, Gilead is my idea of what Calvinism looks like in all its richness – I love her work.
      Good to chat!

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