The Difficulty of Weighing Success
Dr. James Emery White
- 2011 Jan 31
How do you judge the success of a ministry? It's clear we want to know. We seem in a rush to anoint the next Christian celebrity, platform them at our conferences, buy their book and follow their lead. We rush to read the latest lists of the fastest growing churches and the most innovative ministries, eager to embrace their principles and ideas.
So how do you know when you have a true spiritual success, one that deserves accolades and emulation?
Many would say "by its fruit." And by "fruit" we often mean numbers. This is not misguided; the number of people reached for Christ is terribly important. The mark of a New Testament church is seeing people added to its number daily who are being saved (Acts 2:47). A healthy church is meant to grow.
But scratch beneath the surface of many growth numbers and this sign of success can weaken tremendously. Many churches are growing through "transfer" growth, meaning from individuals who were previously attending another church. This is not finding the one lost sheep; it is seeing the 99 wander into a new pasture. Dig into why those people transferred their attendance, and it may say more about the churches they came from than the church they moved to. And then there is the qualitative question: are those "numbers" being formed in Christ in ways that result in a deepened faith, generous life, servant-hearted ministry and emboldened witness?
So our primary means for awarding "success" can often mean very little.
And the success of a ministry leader?
Most would say, again, by his or her fruit. And by "fruit" we again mean numbers, as in numbers of people listening to them speak, participating in the ministry they lead and books that are sold. We also value charisma, speaking ability and physical appearance. From this, we award them spirituality, maturity and character.
But scratch beneath the surface on this and you also find concerns. I was reminded of this through an email from my friend Tim Laniak, dean of the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Finishing his reading of Judges, Tim noted that it was "filled with leaders who betray any equation between integrity and success…The most profound example is Samson who continually makes decisions based on lust, pride, and revenge. Yet repeatedly the Holy Spirit ‘rushes' on him to empower destruction of the Philistines. The Hebrew word for ‘rush' is elsewhere translated ‘advance' or ‘prosper.'"
Tim concludes that "what matters most is not the reliability of the human vessel but the choice of God to advance his purposes and prosper his work by his own power."
This does not mean that we can live however we want and expect God to work through us. It simply means that God's activity, wherever it may be found, does not necessarily indicate the spiritual maturity or character of the person. For example, there is little doubt that many people were spiritually served by the Christian telethon in Clearwater, Florida led by Jim Bakker on the day of his sexual tryst with a secretary. There is also little doubt about the state of his spiritual life on that day.
Neither does the seeming absence of God's activity merit a quick dismissal. Need we recall the lessons of Job or the ministry of Jeremiah?
But doesn't the Bible say to judge people by their fruit? Yes, but not as defined by the world, such as money, success, numbers, buildings, publications, position, title, speaking engagements, notoriety, rankings, sales or press coverage.
That is the world's standard of success, not the Bible's.
The fruit the Bible has in mind is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Is that person loving, joyful and a peacemaker? How do they handle adversity - with faith or despair? Would they be considered kind, good and faithful? Is there a gentleness that surrounds them; are they self-controlled?
And interestingly, the qualifications of leadership as outlined by the apostle Paul say nothing of the ability to speak, market yourself, write or inspire. But it says much about a spirit of humility and a godly character.
So be careful who and what you judge to be "successful."
It may be true only in the world's eyes. And if you get drawn into affirming such things as the mark of success, you will not be successful yourself.
You will simply be worldly.
James Emery White
Tim Laniak, "Equations and Formulas," at www.shepherdleader.com.
For more on personal spiritual development, see the author's The Prayer God Longs For and Wrestling with God.