Failing for Jesus
I was keynoting in a tent on a gorgeous afternoon. 1,450 people were gathered together after a full morning including talks, Adoration, confession, and lunch. An Hispanic hip hop group had just finished a 35 minute set all in Spanish, complete with beach balls flying, crowd-surfing teens, rapping priests, and sick beats.
I took the stage, fired up and ready to go, the white girl from Louisiana with a message on how to witness to mercy. I opened my mouth, got the teens standing on their feet for an opening activity, and instantly realized there was no monitor on stage and I couldn’t hear myself. I instinctively over-projected my voice, and the cracking began. The clicker to run the slides (which we had tested that morning) was no longer reaching the computer at the sound booth, and my first two jokes were instantly thrown off. I knew it right away: I was doomed before I even started.
For the next 48 minutes, I did my thing. I told my stories, I unpacked the theme on witnessing to mercy, and I left it all out there. I knew my theology was solid, my stories were good, my points were deep and meaningful, and the message was exactly what I’d been hired to deliver. And 3/4’s of the audience was engaged, checked in, and listening. I could see it. I could feel it. They were nodding their heads. They were awwwwing and laughing at all the right moments. That 3/4’s of the audience were sitting still and paying attention.
But my voice was raspy. I was sweating through my shirt and my shoe was untied. I had to repeatedly say “next slide” to show them the visuals I’d so meticulously created, which I slowly convinced myself the audience didn’t even come close to caring about. And I knew that the last 1/4 in the very back of the audience was fidgety, talking at full volume, and playing on their phones.
I left the stage after leaving it all up there convinced of one fact: I was the worst thing those kids had seen or heard all day. I’d been given a stage in a tent full of teens with the job of teaching them about the remarkable power of God’s mercy and how to share that with the world, but I had no business ever touching a microphone on any stage ever again.
About a 45 minutes after the talk ended, I snuck off to the bathroom. I walked in, locked the door, sat down on the floor, and lost it. Hot tears flooded down my face. I had bombed. I had just proven the fact that fidgety kids fresh from a half hour outdoor rap concert and lunch on a gorgeous spring afternoon aren’t going to listen to a red-headed freshman theology teacher saying “y’all” talk about anything, much less Jesus, in a tent.
I was convinced I had failed, even though I knew my content was solid. I was convinced I had been the most ineffective person up there all day, even though I could see the faces of checked in teens. And even though the person in charge said I gave them exactly what they wanted, I was convinced I had just bombed my keynote and destroyed my reputation as an itinerant minister, ruining my chances of ever doing ministry, in any capacity anywhere, ever again.
And it is exactly what the devil wanted to happen. Why wouldn’t the father of lies want to convince me of my worthlessness? Why wouldn’t the great deceiver want to whisper into my ear that what I just laid out on the stage was complete and utter crap? Why wouldn’t the devil himself want to weasel his way into my mind and heart, convincing me that I was a failure that had just ruined an otherwise stellar event?
In his tricky, cruel, demeaning way, the devil was able to convince me that a few fidgety kids and a strained voice was enough to destroy an otherwise Spirit filled, life-changing, Christ-driven day. In a way only he can, the devil was able to trick me into believing that everything I said was irrelevant, unnecessary, boring, and off the mark. And I believed him. In a matter of minutes, seconds even, I was convinced that nothing I did was effective. I really believed that nothing I said was meaningful, relevant, or valuable, and as such, believed that I myself was a meaningless, irrelevant, worthless person who thought I was good enough to somehow hold a microphone and stand on stage, and that I should never be allowed to do that again.
And therein was the devil’s (temporary) victory: in that moment, he was able to convince me that I, a teacher from Louisiana who loves to talk about Jesus, was responsible, on my own, for somehow winning hearts, minds, and souls to the Lord. He was able to trick me into somehow believing that what I said in that talk and what I did on that stage was entirely and completely dependent upon external factors such as sound systems, pictures on a slideshow, and laughs from a crowd. Somehow, the devil was able to convince me that the Lord Himself, the very person I was preaching on and begging the young people in the crowd to strive to encounter, was not present because of something I did, or did not, do.
If ever in ministry we allow ourselves to listen to the criticisms and insults of the devil after we have given our all to glorify the Lord, then we will end up sitting in bathrooms crying because we think that what we did is not nearly enough. We think that we are not good enough to inspire, not talented enough to teach, not strong enough to win people for the Lord.
We in ministry do not make the Lord present to His people. We (the very human, often struggling, usually prideful person) in ministry do not cause conversion. Jesus Christ is so much bigger than anything we do on our own. We are not responsible for somehow summoning His presence into a room (or tent). We do not control His grace when we deliver a message of mercy and love. We alone do not write the Truth upon the hearts of our audience as we share our stories and unpack the Scriptures. We are the pencil in the hand of the great Author, and He uses us in whatever way He can in whatever we do. Through His generosity and love for us, He lets us play a role in building up His Kingdom.
And the devil hates every second of it.
The devil wants us to believe we are dull pencils. Worse yet, the devil wants us to think we are the stubby golf pencil at the bottom of the purse that no one would dare use, especially not the Savior of the World who obviously wants only the best to win hearts and souls to Himself.
So often in ministry, whether on a large scale in a tent or in a tiny gathering space filled with teens, we are tempted to think that the external factors around us are what cause the encounter with the Lord. We believe that the ministry we are honored and blessed to do is only “successful” if certain conditions are met. If the talk is funny, if the audience is silent, if the sound system is perfect, and if the technology is flawless – well THEN the Lord can work. We fall into the trap of thinking that we alone must be on, forgetting that Christ is always present and capable of touching the hearts, minds, and souls of the people we are blessed to encounter.
The day after that “failed” keynote, while sitting on the runway waiting to head home, a message appeared in my Instagram inbox. A young girl who had been at the conference, sitting in that fidgety crowd, had been touched by the stories I’d shared. She was moved by the challenge to read Scripture and go to confession. She was inspired to go home and share with her family everything she’d heard and experienced that day, and she just wanted to say thank you for letting the Lord speak through me.
It doesn’t matter if I thought I bombed the keynote. It doesn’t matter if I wasn’t happy with the external qualities or outward environment of the talk. What mattered was the fact that the Lord, all-powerful, all-present, all-knowing, and all-Good, was able to use the very weak, very distracted, very confused, and very sinful Katie to deliver His message of Truth, Beauty, Love, and Mercy. And in the end, when we think we fail, we must remember that He, without a doubt, always succeeds.