Summary: Success in ministry is not necessarily found in fancy programming and big budgets, but in moving out from worship into service.
How Do You Spell “Success?
September 4, 2005
I remember having coffee some years ago, with a friend who had recently retired from active ministry. He told me that he had worked hard and had been appointed to successively larger and larger churches. “But,” he said, “the one thing I regret is that in the course of my ministry and my drive to get bigger pulpits, I neglected my children.”
Sometimes, when we get what we want, we discover that we don’t want what we’ve got. Success isn’t always all that it is cracked up to be. Unfortunately the drive for success in worldly accomplishments bleeds over into the world of the church. I find that I get caught up in some of those unhelpful attitudes from time to time.
I don’t like to admit this, but there are times when I get jealous of some of my other colleagues who serve larger churches; colleagues who preach to a thousand people or more each Sunday; colleagues who have a large full-time program staff; colleagues whose names are known across the denomination and the country. I want to grow up someday and achieve that kind of success. Then I will feel like I really have arrived.
That is arguably a skewed understanding of ministry and success. It is an understanding of which I have been very critical for much of my ministry. Still, that is the yardstick that many of us use. It’s tempting and alluring. It has the power to reach out and grab you and suck you in.
That’s what successful ministry means, we think: to have a large and expanding budget; to have a huge worship attendance; to have a broadcast ministry; to write books, to be known far and wide. The problem is that, if these are truly marks of Christian success, then we have to count Jesus as a giant failure.
Had he wanted to do so, Jesus could have built a great center of learning in his capital city. He could have established “The Jerusalem Center for the Study of the New Covenant.” That would have drawn people and scholars from all over the world to study in the shadow of the temple. It could have been a great think tank like the Brookings Institute, or the Hudson Institute, or the Institute on Religion and Democracy, or the American Enterprise Institute, or the Heritage Foundation, or any number of those organizations.
But he didn’t do that. He chose instead to wander around the countryside, teaching wherever he found someone to talk to. He never spent much time in one place; never really had a place to lay his head. He didn’t try to organize a large group of like-minded scholars. He instead found 12 ordinary guys…guys who worked for a living and who were somewhat short on formal education. He chose 12 ordinary guys and taught them what they needed to know as they walked along the highways and byways. He didn’t choose to wear his credentials on his sleeve, but wandered around as a simple carpenter and rabbi…not exactly what 21st century standards would define as successful.
The Apostle Paul was the same way. If ever there was a guy on the fast track to success, it was Paul. He describes himself in his letter to the Philippians.
“If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Philippians 3:4-6).
What he was saying was that his bloodlines were pristine, his Jewishness unblemished, his loyalty to his faith unchallenged, his abilities second-to-none. When you looked up the word “success” in the dictionary, you found Paul’s picture. But he learned to define success in a different way.
“But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ…” (Philipians 3:7-9).
Success is found in following Christ, not in accumulating worldly achievements or honors or riches or fame.
One day, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and climbed a mountain, probably Mount Hermon, north of the Sea of Galilee where he was transfigured before their eyes.
Down in the wilderness around Jericho, there is a restaurant at the base of a flat mountain. The restaurant is called “The Transfiguration Restaurant” because the owners say that this was the mountain on which the Transfiguration took place. They are really marketing to the tourists.