What does success look like? How can we tell who’s got it? Is there a standard? Who is and who isn’t successful?
Those kind of questions are regularly bandied about. When it comes to measuring success in the local church, the questions get even harder.
Is a successful church the one that baptizes hundreds? What if the church is in a community where most are already professing believers and attend church elsewhere? Is that church not successful because it doesn’t baptize large numbers of people? What about the pastor who preaches expositional, Gospel messages week in and week out and yet sees few converts? If the Holy Spirit isn’t at work, is the pastor to blame? Are only medium to large churches to be considered successful? Does the small church have any hope of ever being successful?
Measuring success in the local church is never easy. Unfortunately we sometimes act as though it is. We create a set of standards and compare churches to that standard as though it is universal. Not only does that have to the potential to undermine the hopes and faith of those who don’t measure up to our expectations, we run the risk of anointing someone as successful who may not be in other important areas of ministry.
Consider baptism rates. The number of baptisms performed in the local church can be a useful measure of success … insofar as it goes. An evangelistic church will likely witness more baptisms than the church that isn’t. However, some evangelistic churches may see few baptisms due to demographics or the lack of the crucial work of the Spirit. Can we fairly dub someone “successful” just because they get a lot of people wet? Can we fairly label someone as “unsuccessful” or “unevangelistic” just because they don’t baptize a lot of folks? The number of baptisms by itself is a helpful but incomplete measure of success.
Some label a church successful by the number of members it boasts. But, all members are not created equal. We all know people who claim to be members of the church but rarely darken its doors and never support its efforts. Should we count people like that? The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, boasts nearly twice as many people as the number who actually show up regularly. None of us would say that’s good. But, we regularly flaunt our numbers as though they matter. So, membership numbers are, again, helpful, but not definitive in determining success.
Others see success in the number of ministers on staff or in the number of initials at the end of someone’s name. We automatically assume that a big chuch with a big staff and a big budget must be successful. How else did they grow so large? But, in some things big isn’t always better. Just ask your doctor. Some assume that a wall full of diplomas proves the wisdom and ability of the owner of them. Remember, though, going to college doesn’t guarantee intelligence, just longsuffering (and in some cases not even that). These numbers don’t automatically equal success either.
Thus, as a cautionary measure, we need to quit comparing numbers as though they are all that matters. Hundreds of baptisms prove nothing if most of those people prove not to be Christians in the long run. Thousands of members count for nothing, if they aren’t growing in grace. These tools are helpful but imperfect. It’s time we measure success the way God does in the Bible.
God measures success according to our faithfulness. Remember that verse about “well done, my good and faithful servant”? Do we do what He has given us to do, regardless of the outcome? Are we obedient to all that He commands? Do we pray without ceasing? Do we show our faith with our works? In a word: Are we faithful? If so, that’s success.
Isaiah saw few converts, if any, but he was faithful to God’s commission. Was he a successf or a failure? What about Jeremiah? Ezekiel? All three men were faithful in all that they had been given to do, in the face of insurmountable opposition, opposition that God promised would be there. No one in his right mind would call them unsuccessful prophets. Yet, I’m afraid, not one of them would be invited to our conferences to speak on church growth or to preach in our chapels. Thus, by implication, we tell others that these men, and thousands like them, weren’t truly successful. That’s to our shame.
A church’s success ought to also be measured by its ability to make disciples. Making disciples is about more than getting them into the baptistry. Discipleship doesn’t end there; discipleship begins in the baptistry and ends at the grave. According to the Great Commission, discipleship includes teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded — in other words, teaching them to be faithful.
The successful church is faithfully teaching her people. If your numbers are low but the depth of your people’s knowledge and the expression of their faith is growing, isn’t that a success? Isn’t there something to be admired in the pastor who dedicates his life to the discipleship of the little flock that God has given him? Doesn’t he who teaches others have something that he can teach all of us? If so, why don’t we let him? Again, we let numbers tell us that success is in the numbers and those that don’t have them have little success.
I am not arguing here that the numbers of baptisms in a local church aren’t important. In fact, if your church hasn’t had a baptism in a decade, you’ve probably got a problem. I am saying, however, that the fact that you’ve baptized thousands in that same decade doesn’t guarantee success. Are those new believers growing in their faith? Are they becoming self-replicating disciples? If not, they’re not successful and maybe your church isn’t either. Likewise, I’d rather have a church of 50 faithful members who pray, who give, and who sacrifice for the church than a church of a thousand who only take and never give. Numbers may prove something but they don’t always prove success.
We need to acknowledge the faithfulness of untold pastors, Sunday School teachers, and deacaon, who have been successful in the little things that God has given them. For he who has been faithful with what little he has been given will be given much. Oh that we would humble ourselves and learn from those who toil in anonymity. They’ve got so much to teach us about faithfulness, about perseverance. And, oh that God would forgive us for putting the wrong things first.
In the end, it is God who will ultimately decide who’s successful and whose not, not the fan clubs, not the blogosphere, not the speaking engagements. May we set our hearts on pleasing Him and not each other. Then, and only then, will we truly measure up.
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About Peter Beck
Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
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