Defining Success in Ministry Part 2
Misguided Definitions of Success
No one sets out to fail. When we began our ministry, we had visions of leading growing and dynamic churches that impacted our communities for the cause of Christ. We understand the immense importance of our work. We were not just building a corporation to pad the wallets of shareholders. We have the task of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ so that people's lives are transformed, and their eternal destiny is changed. There is no more tremendous privilege or responsibility than this. Convinced we were called to this task, trained in the theological truth and the latest methodologies, and assured that the Holy Spirit was empowering us, we felt confident we would succeed where others had failed. However, we soon begin to flounder in our calling as the churches we served continually struggled with an increasingly older congregation, and attendance stagnated. We became forgotten in the outback of the pastoral landscape.
If there is no grander task than pastoring a church, why are so many pastors leaving the ministry discouraged and defeated? Eighty percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or dealing with depressing. Furthermore, research reveals that 40 percent of pastors leave the ministry within the first ten years of service, and 60 percent leave within 20 years. Thus, what starts as a dream of accomplishing great things for the Kingdom becomes a nightmare of discouragement where we cry Ichabod (1 Samuel 4:21).
Part of the problem lies in our understanding of what a successful ministry is. The industrial revolution did more than just change our country from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrial society; it changed how we define effectiveness. When the industrial revolution swept the cultural landscape, it changed our view of success from sustaining the family farm to growth, impact, vision, and corporations. Before the industrial revolution, the mantra was "sustain or die." It now became "grow or die." The leadership methodologies that enabled people to run their family farms and small businesses were entirely inadequate for operating an industrial enterprise. Terminology unheard of in the agricultural community began to appear in the culture of big business. Goals, vision, management, efficiency, effectiveness, and methodologies became the new catchwords and concepts.
The impact of the industrial revelation was not only felt in our approach to business; it also impacted the church. The church no longer was a community but now an organization. The pastor's role, which was seen as a vocation—a calling to shepherd the flock and proclaim the truth—now became a profession responsible for keeping the church's organizational structure moving forward efficiently and proactively. In the past, a thriving church was relationally defined, where the church's health was measured by how the people related to one another and the community. But now success was changed. Leaders regarded a vibrant church to be one growing (both numerically and organizationally), with more programs and clear visions. To question this new approach was to be regarded as old-fashioned, out of touch, and unevangelistic. But we built the church on a shaky foundation, both biblically and organizationally. It is not that these things are necessarily bad or wrong. Many of the lessons learned were and are valuable. The problem is not the use of business strategies; the problem is it has become a theological mandate. We started to reinterpret scripture to validate what the church was never meant to be: a business where marketing and numerical growth were prioritized.
Consequently, we pursue that which we cannot attain. When we have a misguided understanding of success, we have set ourselves up for failure. Furthermore, set the rural church up for failure as well.
Faulty Definition #1: Successful churches will be large churches. In the church today, we have developed strata of importance and significance. In our ecclesiastical pecking order, what determines our standing is the size of our congregation, the number of our services, or satellite campuses. Go to any ministerial conference, and the speakers have large churches and multiple satellite congregations. Sit around the table during a break, and the conversation will inevitably lead to "how big is your church." While unstated, our place in the pecking order is determined by the size of our congregation in comparison to others around the table.
Now, don't get me wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong with a large church, just as there is nothing inherently shameful in a small church. The problem is not in the size of the congregation; the problem is in our perception of what churches are genuinely effective and successful.
When the people of Israel first set the foundations of the new temple, it was a cause for a grand celebration. In Ezra 3:11, we find the people shouting with a great shout of joy over the event. But amid the praises, there was also another sound. There was a sound of weeping, but the weeping was not for joy, but sorrow. In Hag 2:3, we find the reason for the weeping: The new temple was small and insignificant compared to the Old, and it seemed "like nothing in comparison for the older generation?"
Consequently, the people became discouraged and quit building. In response, God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to remind the people that it is not the size of the building but the presence of God that determines the greatness of the temple (Haggai 2:6-9). They are not to "despise the day of small things" (Zechariah 4:10), for God is active even within the small. Its size never determines the church's success. Instead, it is determined by its heart. It is not determined by the number of people present in the building; it is determined by the presence of God in the congregation. A small congregation of 30 may be far more successful than a church of 30,000 because God is present, working in the hearts of people. It is a faulty assumption that size indicates spiritual health. Rather than focus upon the size, we need to focus on health.
Faulty assumption #2: Successful churches are growing churches. In the latter part of the 20thcentury, the church growth movement dominated the church landscape. Positively, it brought the importance of evangelism and outreach back to the forefront of the church's focus. However, the movement also had a negative impact. It not only reminded the church of the importance of evangelism, but it also changed the definition of success in the church. The early church's rapid growth in Acts 2 was dissected, scrutinized, and upheld as the model of what a church should be. The "seeker-sensitive church" became the focus, and churches clamored for the latest techniques and marketing strategies to increase attendance. It reduced evangelism and outreach to a series of formulas and elevated the "star preachers" to celebrity status. It was perceived that if you had the right strategy, the right vision, the right marketing tools, and if you prayed hard enough, preach dynamic enough, and worked diligently enough; then your church was guaranteed to grow. If your church floundered and your rolls were stagnant, then it was because you lacked vision, were not skilled enough, and (worst of all) not spiritual enough. In the church growth movement, the small and/or rural church was left behind. It was viewed as archaic, old-fashioned, bound by traditions, and pastored by preachers who could not preach effectively and manage the church with a vision and thus could not succeed. The rural church became a place where the has-beens and have-nots (or so many thought) were sent to minister. While the church growth movement rightly reemphasizes the importance of evangelism as a central part of the church, it wrongly assumed that all evangelistic churches would manifest significant growth. If the church was not growing, it was spiritually stagnant. The undercurrent was that a genuinely missional church would be a growing church.
However, this places responsibility and weight upon the shoulders of pastors that they were never meant to bear. Nowhere in scripture are we called upon to "grow" the church. The numerical (and even spiritual) growth of the church is simply not our responsibility. Christ did not say, "Upon this rock, you will build my church." Instead, he affirmed, "upon this rock, I will build my church." Paul understood this when he wrote, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth, so then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). We cannot grow the church, for that is a responsibility that belongs only to God. The danger when we adopt growth as a model of success is that we will compromise our message to attain it, for there are times when we are not called to "grow" the church but to confront the sinner. When God called Ezekiel, he gave him the task of proclaiming his message even when it did not result in "growth" (Ezekiel 2:4-5). Being an evangelistic church does not always translate into numerical growth. Our calling is to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness. The results of the Gospel are the responsibility of God.
False assumption #3: Successful churches are urban-focused. While it would never be expressed, the reality is there is an underlying assumption that if you genuinely want to be successful—go to the cities. Those who are the most gifted in seminary and those who show the most promise are advised to seek a sizeable urban church to have the most significant impact. This assumes that since there are more people in urban centers, then that is the place we should send the best pastors and preachers. Students of ecclesiology often point to the book of Acts as the model missionary strategy for the church. They point out that Paul went to urban centers to establish churches that would then impact the region.
However, when we look closely at both the ministry of Christ and the missionary efforts of Paul, we discover that they not only spent time in the cities, they spent time in the rural areas as well. It was never either/or. It was never the priority of one over the other. Instead, it was both/and, with both urban and rural receive intentional ministry. In Matthew 9:35, we find Christ spending a significant part of his ministry traveling in the small town and rural communities in Galilee. We also see in Acts 14:6-7 Paul spending time in the surrounding country, places that were small and insignificant.
Furthermore, the parable of the lost sheep reveals Christ's heart for all individuals. It is not the nameless masses but the individual person that Christ came to save. Therefore, every person in every location--urban, suburban, exurban, and rural-- is equally important to God.
However, the focus on the urban church is upon the church's location and the model for the church. Influential churches adopt an urban model of multiple programs, multiple staff, and multiple locations. The church becomes a regional church where people drive from other communities to attend. This is not to say the regional or multi-site church is not beneficial; it is. But the error comes when it became THE model of success. In many rural communities, especially in isolated locations, regional churches are inaccessible. God did not say, "the world is to come." Christ commanded the church to go—to be in the community and be a part of the community. The most significant impact of the church is not realized in the model we adopt; it is discovered in the presence of the believers in the community.
False Assumption #4: Successful churches have the right programs. In our quest for success, we become addicted to methodologies and programs. Like a junkie searching for the latest fix, we continually pursue the latest ecclesiastical fad and program, thinking that it will hold the key for our church to thrive. Consequently, we traverse from the seeker-sensitive church to the Emerging Church, the multi-site church, etc. We are always looking for a program that will fill the pews and bring a sense of vitality to our ministry. However, we have forgotten that ultimate effectiveness is not found in programs, skilled orators, or the latest fads. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, the key to genuine vitality is determined by the proclamation of the Gospel. What changes lives and communities are not the programs we invent (as helpful as they are) but the message we proclaim.
Nevertheless, in our search for the latest fads also comes an obsession with "being cutting-edge." In our age of the latest, newest, and hippest, we fear being "old-fashioned" more than anything else. Imagine a seminary or Bible College advertising, "Come to our seminary, and we will teach you the old ways." The school would disband after a year for lack of students. We want to be taught to be cutting edge with the latest programs, methods, and techniques. Traditional is out, and innovating is in. However, while striving to be culturally relevant, we can quickly lose sight of the fact that the same message, purpose, and vision in the first-century church is still our message, purpose, and vision today. Our message is the Gospel, our purpose is to make disciples, and our vision is to proclaim Christ to a dying world. In our quest to become relevant, we can become irrelevant. While seeing to attract crowds, we can fail to make disciples.
False Assumption #5: Successful churches have the right worship style. In our pursuit of success, we are constantly told that the worship of the church is critical. But how can a small church of 40 have dynamic worship when the musical talent is marginal at best?
We equate biblical worship (which involves the praise of God) with a musical performance. While music is part of worship, it is not the center of worship. Yet we often make music the main ingredient. The problem is that much of the worship today is centered, not upon what God experiences, but what we experience. The focus is upon a dynamic worship team playing upbeat and encouraging music to move the audience for an emotional experience. Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that there is something wrong with this style of music (or any type of music). Music is an expression of culture, so music is always to be adapted to the people we serve. However, the problem comes when we make worship all about music and especially about a specific type of music. When that happens, then the focus shifts away from worship to the musical performance. Whether the church has a dynamic worship band, a single piano player with a semi-off key song leader, or music played through an MP3 player, it can still be effective in worship when it keeps the wonder of God as its focus. Worship can be effective "where two or more are gathered in my name" when the excellency of God is the focus, for then he is present.
Too often, because we have a wrong definition of success, we have set ourselves up for discouragement and the church up for failure. Instead of becoming a community of believers who encourage one another in our walk with Christ, the rural church and rural pastor become discouraged and disheartened because we are not only the forgotten church, but we have also become the left-behind church. It is not the size of the church, the numerical growth of the congregation, the location of the building, the programs within the church, or even the worship style in the service that determines success. It is not about doing and programs but being and presence. This leads us to the question we will examine in the following article of this three-part series, "What constitutes an effective church?"
 For more on the issue of pastors struggle in ministry see Glenn Daman, When Shepherds Weep, Lexham Press, 2015.  For more on the impact of the industrial revolution on the view of the church see, Glenn Daman, Leading the Small Church, Kregel, 2006.