Awhile back, Scot McKnight referenced an article on his “Jesus Creed” blog that raised the issue of ministry faithfulness versus ministry success. I passed the article around to a few friends to get their perspective and wanted to share a few thoughts here.
There is no doubt that we need to be careful with our definitions of ‘success’ in the church. Success can be defined by the metrics often joked about as the “Three B’s” of church: building, budgets, and butts in seats. At other times, success can be defined as seeing converts, measuring spiritual growth or involvement, or more. We should think through the challenges we face in simply using the word ‘success’ about anything we do. That being said, I thought the author’s take in this article was simplistic.
If being ‘pragmatic’ automatically defines ‘success’ as ‘bigger numbers’ then I most likely agree with the author. The problem is that he seems to define ‘success’ as a type of ‘faithfulness’ that results in shrinking numbers and eventual disappearance of the church. I suppose if the gospels ended with Jesus ascending to the Father with no further witness, I could agree, but that’s not how the story ends.
Instead, the story of Acts continues with a church that develops in numerous ways while also struggling with faithfulness. That development leads alternately to numerical growth and settled apathy, spiritual depth and spiritual deceit. There is an expanding movement of church planting that is dynamic while perpetuating some of the greatest strengths and problems of the early churches. We only need to read through the letters of Paul and John to see this with stark clarity.
Being simplistic about success doesn’t help us. Instead, being simplistic hinders us from being faithful because it establishes false categories for our life with God and life as His community that cannot be lived out.
The human body is able to stand up and move through a tension of paradoxical muscle movements and adjustments. Without literally living in tension, the human body really cannot stand. The same could be said of the body of Christ. We can only stand if we live in the tension. We must live in the tension between spiritual development and numerical development in the church. We must hold to the tension between the narrow way and the open door. We must thrive in the tension between human plans and dependence upon God. We must live in the tension between our wisdom and the Holy Spirit’s enabling. It is a tension between faithfulness and fumbling.
If we can live in the tension as the body of Christ then we just might be able stand up and be the kingdom people who Jesus intended for us to be.