How do we judge ministry success?

Yesterday, I wrote about why numbers & responses are not the measure of ministry success. If we are primarily judging ministry success by numbers, many of the OT prophets, and even Jesus himself, would have to be judged as ministry failures. We would also have to affirm large churches that are teaching a false gospel and leading people away from true faith in Jesus Christ. Most Christians agree that numbers, of themselves, are not an accurate measure of success in ministry.

It bears asking, then, what does ministry success look like? If we can’t judge success by conversion or addition to our membership rolls, how can we know if we are being successful in ministry? There are a few principles to remember.

First, God is sovereign in the works of salvation and sanctification. Every person that turns to Jesus in repentance and faith has been drawn to him by the Father. Every person that grows in faith and holiness has seen such growth as a result of the Holy Spirit working in them. This means that visible fruit is a not a result of our work but of the Lord’s; any lack of fruit is a result of the Lord’s determination not to so work. Ministry is not our work and thus fruit does not depend upon our successes.

Second, we need to be clear on the specific work God has called us to do. If God is sovereign in salvation and sanctification, it is not our job to save or grow his people. It is our job to make disciples by teaching and preaching God’s word. We are called to proclaim the word; it is the Lord’s work to ready listeners to receive it and to effect the work of salvation and sanctification in their hearts.

Third, the Lord uses different ministries to a variety of ends. Some ministries exist to preach the word and see vast numbers of people drawn into God’s kingdom. Other ministries exist that see fewer conversions but lead God’s people to greater Christlikeness and holiness. Others exist to prophetically warn those who believe themselves to be saved that they are, in fact, no such thing. Others still exist to separate those who are genuinely faithful to Christ from those who aren’t. There are many different kinds of ministry that the Lord uses for a variety of purposes. Some may see mass conversions, others none. Some may see memberships grow, other may see them fall. Some may see good favour advanced in the community, other may see increased hostility. We cannot necessarily judge every ministry the same way because God uses varieties of ministry to serve many different ends.

Fourth, not all ‘fruit’ is visible or obvious. If the Lord is using a ministry to grow his people in Christlikeness, it may not always be clear how this has advanced. We can’t see the heart such that judging growth in grace is not always immediately apparent. A church may experience real growth in the hearts of its members whilst not seeing much fruit in the way of conversions. Such a church clearly has a fruitful ministry, but the fruit is simply not visible or apparent. Likewise, if the Lord is using a ministry to separate those who are faithful from those who are not, the outcome (at least for a time) may be a loss of people as the gospel is proclaimed and those who shun it leave. The fruit may be a more gospel-centred, faithful and united church but it may be attended by a loss of number in the congregation.

Given that ministries may be attended by loss or gain, and given the above principles, the one common feature of successful ministry is faithfulness to Christ and his gospel. If Jeremiah was not a failure despite being told to preach for 40 years without anybody listening, it can only be judged as such because he remained faithful to the call of God. Likewise, our ministry can be considered successful if it is faithful to Christ and his call to preach the gospel and make disciples. It is the Lord who will do the saving, it is the Lord who gives the increase, it is our work to remain faithful to his call.

This is how Martin Luther saw successful ministry:

‘Let a minister be faithful in his office,’ is the apostolic injunction. ‘Let him not seek his own glory or look for praise. Let him desire to do good work and to preach the gospel in all its purity. Whether an ungrateful world appreciate his efforts is to give him no concern because, after all, he is in the ministry not for his own glory but for the glory of Christ.’

A faithful minister cares little what people think of him, as long as his conscience approves of him. The approval of his own good conscience is the best praise a minister can have. (Martin Luther, Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians)