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What is Success in God’s Kingdom?

In the past few days questions of ministry success have repeatedly confronted me. Yesterday it was the subject of conversation with a pastor and colleague. A few days before that it surfaced in conversation with another pastor who is working hard but progressing slowly in the ways success is often measured. Yesterday evening I read an article by a pastor friend who, with great transparency, spoke of depression and admitted he was struggling with questions of success and wondering if he was coming up short on the answer.

I am also reading Nik Ripken’s book, The Insanity of Obedience, in which he struggles with the same topic. A missionary with the International Mission Board, Ripken has spent his life working in extremely difficult places, and he has been challenged by others as to whether work among Islamic people in dangerous places should even be attempted. The account below concerns Ripken’s work in Somalia (remember “black hawk down” and the violence and anarchy of the early 1990s):

“A leader of a sponsoring mission board called me on the phone from the midst of an evangelistic crusade in East Africa. After making some small talk, he reached the point of his call…. ‘How many people have you baptized, how much money have you spent, and is it cost effective for you to be in there?’ I knew at this point that this was not just a polite phone conversation!

“After I gave him my answer, he told me, ‘I will leave my hotel in five minutes. When I return this evening after our evangelistic crusade … there will be more than one hundred and fifty new people in the kingdom of God. What you are telling me is that you have had only one convert in one and a half years, you have spent one million dollars, and you have seen three people martyred? How can you justify staying in that place?’

“I replied, ‘Sir, I do not have to justify our being in the unreached, hard places. We simply have to be obedient to go where God has told us to go’” (Ripken 94).

Ripken could have replied by simply repeating the historic names of Livingstone, Judson and Carey, but that might have sounded presumptuous and a bit snarky.

After 31 years in ministry, I’m confident most pastors and ministry leaders do not consider themselves “successful.” A major reason for this is that the definition of success nearly always requires large numbers – baptisms, bodies and budgets – and in the American church those with the biggest numbers are considered the most successful. Even at that, few have “big numbers” by their own definition.

I understand why we measure numbers. They are important to me and they are biblical … when understood in context. I was a pastor for 19 years before spending more than eight years leading the missions and evangelism work for Oklahoma Baptists. When I began to study the “numbers” in Oklahoma, I was interested to learn that half of our 1,800 churches averaged 50 and below in Sunday morning small groups, and the great majority of churches never averaged 100. I also learned that the only churches that were growing in baptisms, collectively, were churches averaging less than 100, and that the churches averaging over 1,000 were declining the most as a group. If it weren’t for our small churches, which were the great majority, Baptist work in Oklahoma would have fallen off the proverbial cliff! And yet, I wonder how many of those “small church pastors” felt successful?

Now I live in the Northwest United States. We have about 450 churches in the Northwest Baptist Convention (Oregon, Washington, northern Idaho), eight of which average more than 500 in worship (only two average over 500 in small groups). The median church in worship is in the 40s or low 50s, with about 70 churches averaging 100 or above in worship. How are we to understand success in this context?

There is not space to get into this very deeply, but I would suggest, when discussing numbers and success, that we keep four contexts in mind: Scripture, demographics, evangelistic strategy, and “seasons of harvest.”

Regarding Scripture, not every godly leader developed a large following of obedient God-followers. Think Jeremiah, or Noah, or Elijah. Little is known about the size of churches in the first century, but few if any were large by today’s measurements and certainly none were “mega.” Just as there are few mega-churches in China where the numbers of new believers is growing by more than ten percent annually, far outpacing the population growth, worshiping mostly in house churches of 30 or 40 people (the numbers of house churches are multiplying rapidly).

Regarding demographics, keep in mind the size of the community, or the language group you are targeting. Every people group deserves to hear the gospel and have a church, even if they are few in number. That said, a small rural church with limited growth potential can grow God’s kingdom by helping start new churches in areas with greater need for more churches. Regarding evangelistic strategy, some strategies are focused on growing individual congregations with no limit concerning numbers of people, while other strategies center on starting new congregations and sending out people from the “mother church” as she grows. This strategy may be driven, in part, by location and available space. Or it might simply be a matter of ministry philosophy.

Regarding “seasons of harvest,” this becomes most obvious when thinking about new missions fields where there is no church (David Livingstone in 19th Century Africa), or among peoples where violence against believers and new converts is fierce, but it has application in America as well. David Livingstone believed he only had one convert during his three decades of missionary work and he came to believe that even that man was not a true convert because he returned to his second wife. But the incredible harvest in Sub-Sahara Africa today is due in large part to the heroic spade-work of Livingstone. For Judson and Carey it took years before they baptized their first convert, but two hundred years later thousands of Baptist churches in India and Myanmar (Burma) trace their beginnings back to their gospel work. In Somalia and Afghanistan and a few dozen other countries, converting to Christianity and going public about your faith will likely get you killed. But in 50 or 100 years, what gospel story will be told in those lands? Consider these words from David Livingstone’s journal:

“It seems very unfair to judge the success of these by the number of conversions which have followed…. Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet” (Mackenzie, The Truth Behind the Legend, 150f).

Now, wipe the teas from your eyes, and consider this: there are communities in America in which 40 percent are in church on Sunday. There are others in which two percent are in church. There are language groups for which a church is within walking distance for most. There are others (like the deaf) for whom there are few churches and few laborers.

Are there glitzy gospel superstars, the “ten talented ones” who are the ministerial equivalent of a George Clooney and who will attract a crowd anywhere they go? Yes. But the size of that gathering will still be determined, in part, by the context.

Let me conclude by echoing the words of a brother pastor spoken to me this very day. He is in a large church by Northwest standards. But he too has struggled with the concept of “success.” He does so less today because he now understands that success, in large measure, is gained by experiencing joy in Christ and joy through the ministry that Jesus has given to him.

Joy found in sharing Christ with one person – loving one person – encouraging one person – every day. Staying faithful and obedient, every day. Working hard, and finding joy in my work, every day. These, too, are qualities to consider when defining success. I applaud pastors and ministry leaders who are doing their best, where they are, loving God and loving their neighbors, and representing Jesus with joy in a sad and sin-sick world. So, how do you define success in ministry?

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