Defining Success

Recently we had a visitor to our body, a brother who is a Pastor in Eastern Europe. It was fascinating and enjoyable to hear him speak about his experiences in Sunday School and our men’s fellowship group. It’s a different world over there in some senses: their political and cultural history is hard to believe at times. I’m sure he has experienced things that the typical American evangelical would never have survived. But, in another sense – a more important sense – his experiences are just like everyone else’s. He deals with his own sin and sin within his congregation, works to bring his sheep to maturity in Christ and struggles with the false church and false teaching that has so deeply infiltrated the church at large. The words may be different at times, but the tune is exactly the same.

Nevertheless, we were curious about his perspective on the church. At one point in our discussion, we asked him what he thought about the American church as he saw it. The first thing that came to mind was this: we don’t know how to measure success in the church. In his experience visiting churches and especially in his experiences with western missionaries back home, he noticed that all we seem to care about is numbers. In fact, he had witnessed men manipulating this system for their own personal gain. He had seen men work to fill their pews on days when missionaries or church representatives were to visit – not with faithful members, but with people who had been bribed to show up just so the dollars would keep flowing. Amazingly, these westerners didn’t even care enough to talk to the people sitting in the pews to find out how effective their leaders were in ministry and whether they ought to continue their financial support. All they cared was that the church looked full and that was enough to keep the checks coming.

There’s a huge problem with basing success on the number of “prayers” prayed or butts in the pews: it creates huge negative incentives. Whether it’s wicked men outright deceiving (as our friend had witnessed) or changing the gospel to make it more palatable, people will do whatever they can to be or seem successful. I’ve seen the same types of things with my own eyes. I wrote last week about the “4 spiritual laws” – they are not the gospel that was preached by Christ or His apostles. And yet, they sound really nice and really caring and I’m sure lots of people have “success” getting people to pray the prayer on the back of the pamphlet. It doesn’t matter if they never see that person again, it’s another tic on the chalk board to send back to corporate. To them, it doesn’t matter that it isn’t the gospel of the apostles and they don’t care that such actions will only lead to their own destruction. Unlike them, I have no interest in Paul’s words from Galatians 1. Paul, dealing with those who we’re persecuting and infiltrating the Galatian church with a false gospel says in verses 6-10:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond- servant of Christ.

Paul says there are two types of “christian” leaders: those who serve men and those who serve Christ. If you are engaging in theatrics and deception to fill your pews to get the cash that comes with it, you are serving man (likely yourself). If you are preaching a false gospel to build a megachurch and garner acclaim, you are serving man. Whatever ways wicked leaders use to get those numbers, the result is always the same: truth is exchanged for a lie and God is dishonored. And if you are the one doing this evil you have an undesirable fate in store for you: you are accursed.

God’s Word does not create perverse incentives. Remember, this is the God who does not tempt us (James 1:13), it would be foolish to believe that his Word itself would tempt us. Just the opposite: when we are tempted we can look to God’s Word to see the way out that He has provided for us (1 Corinthians 10:13). Therefore, on these grounds alone, we must reject the idea that we succeed or fail based on the number of people we get to respond. So, I must agree with my brother from Eastern Europe – numbers aren’t the way to determine success. And I must agree with his solution: success is defined by faithfulness and obedience.

This question mirrors a question that came up to the nation of Israel: “what exactly does God want from us?” The Pharisees and their predecessors always assumed that the answer was ceremony and sacrifice. They are like the modern day leaders who assume that God wants lots and lots of people who say his name. But God doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want meaningless sacrifices and he doesn’t want empty praise. He says the same thing to Saul in one if my favorite passages from the entire Bible in 1 Samuel 15. Saul had been commanded by God to destroy the Amalekites and absolutely everything they possessed. Their men, women, children and livestock – everything. But Saul gets the bright idea to spare all the livestock for a time so they may be brought back and used as sacrifices to God. Samuel goes to confront Saul and in verses 13-23, with some of my favorite Biblical sarcasm, we see their interaction:

Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “ Blessed are you of the Lord! I have carried out the command of the Lord.” But Samuel said, “ What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed.” Then Samuel said to Saul, “Wait, and let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” And he said to him, “Speak!”
Samuel said, “Is it not true, though you were little in your own eyes, you were made the head of the tribes of Israel? And the Lord anointed you king over Israel, and the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘ Go and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are exterminated. ’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord, but rushed upon the spoil and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”
Then Saul said to Samuel, “ I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took some of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the choicest of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.” Samuel said,
“ Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
“For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
He has also rejected you from being king.”

It couldn’t be any clearer: God didn’t want sacrifices and offerings of the choicest of all the Amalekites had to offer – he wanted obedience. It doesn’t matter that a right sacrifice to God is a pleasing aroma. What matters is what he has commanded. And if you must disobey his command to achieve even a good end, all is lost. The ends do not justify the means. In the same way, it doesn’t matter that God demands that all mankind bow their knee to God. If we lie and cheat or change the gospel to get men to bend their knees and not their hearts to God, he will not be pleased with us. I am so bold as to say that God will be far more pleased with a minister of God who serves 1 sheep faithfully than all of the megachurch leaders and their millions of duped goats combined. Like Saul and the livestock of the Amalekites, no matter how good the intentions, they will be rejected.

It is not as if this sentiment is left out of the New Testament writings as well. Specifically, I want to look at some of Paul’s parting words from his last letter. I quoted extensively from 2 Timothy last week and I want to pick up near where I left off and look at chapter 4 verses 5-8 and 16-18:

But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was rescued out of the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul, as you’ll recall, is writing from prison and near his death. He has been facing trial in the roman courts and unable to preach and serve as he had done years earlier. He is looking at his life and recounting to Timothy – in the first quoted passage – how he measures his own success. Strange, isn’t it, how he doesn’t list or number all the churches he has planted? Or all the elders he has ordained? Or all the believers he has baptized? Or all the missionaries he has trained? It’s because that’s not the stuff that matters! What’s matters is that he has kept the faith. What matters is that he has persevered. And it gets even worse! Here at the end of his life almost everyone he knows has abandoned him. Every friend and brother has left him. He has no groupies following him around picketing his trial or serving him in prison. He is alone. And yet, he still declares success and knows that The Lord remains faithful to him. If Paul, the single greatest missionary and church planter in history doesn’t care about numbers, how stupid can we be to care about them.

We have less than 25 members at TRBC. I don’t say that to brag – boasting over small numbers is just as immoral as boasting over big numbers. We are about the same size as our brother’s church back in Eastern Europe. But, like him, we measure success based on our faithfulness to do what is demanded of us. We have rejoiced in the past couple of years as two new families have joined our body. And we will continue to preach the Word of God in the hopes that we might find more of God’s stray sheep and can bring them into the fold. But even if that doesn’t happen for another decade, we will continue to preach the truth and let God handle the consequences. Let Him bring whom He desires.

2 thoughts on “Defining Success

  1. MW

    It seems as if numerical church growth is almost always a sign of heresy, apostasy and the judgment of God. I wonder why so many people covet it?


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