Ask the question, ‘who wants to fail?’ and you have a fairly sure thing that no hands will be going up in the room. Nobody aims for failure. This is just as true in the church. Nobody goes into pastoral ministry, church planting or missionary endeavours planning to fail. Everybody, at the end of the day, wants to be successful.
In truth, there is nothing wrong with that. Only an idiot or a scammer would purposefully go into something to fail on purpose. So, let me say this clearly: it is right to want to succeed in ministry.
Where we tend to go wrong is in our measure of what success ought to look like. Despite the fact that almost every minister recognises this is a terrible measure, we so quickly fall back onto numbers. We ask others ‘how big is your church?’ as if that is some measure of anything. Some try to be a bit more spiritual and ask, ‘how many baptisms have you seen lately?’ or ‘how many folks are coming into membership?’ but these are really all ways or saying much the same thing.
If we’re not measuring our success by bums on seats, we may turn to other measures. Some consider self-sufficiency the bar of success. If you have planted a church with no income, or you have taken on a church with large deficits, if you can turn that around and make the church financially self-sufficient and have enough people to function without needing outside help, that amounts to successful church leadership.
Others prefer to judge it by ministry output. If you can increase the ministry opportunities and the range of ministries taking place in the church, you have made a success of your ministry. Some consider punishing schedules that they take largely upon themselves as a sign of success. If you work and work, preparing to burn yourself out for Jesus, then your ministry has been successful.
The problem with all these measures is that they are all unbiblical. In fact, by all of these measures, the ministries of Jesus and the apostles after him were unsuccessful. They also unhelpfully labour under the presumption that these things are somehow within our hands. But the people who are saved, those who join in membership, the money that comes in and the potential ministries you are able to do all rest in the Lord’s hands. None of these are really measures of your success and more things that the Lord was pleased to do with you.
The measure of our success is nothing less than faithfulness. Whether your church grows in number or not, whether your finances go up or down, whether you increase of decrease the number of programmes, the only question that matters is this: were you faithful? Did you faithfully obey the Lord in the ministry he has given to you?
Jeremiah’s 40 years of no response must be judged a success on this measure. Isaiah’s ministry of nobody listening is a similar success. They faithfully did what they were called to do. Our call is, likewise, one of faithfulness to Christ. Our ministry will be a great success if we do the things that Christ has called us to do.
And what has he called ministers of the church to do? Preach the Word, care for the flock, do the work of an evangelist and act as godly examples to those under their care. The number of people who respond, the growth in godliness among our people, the finances in the church accounts and the ministry opportunities that present themselves are above our pay grade. You cannot save a single soul, you cannot grow a single person, you cannot create and single ministry opportunity. These things are all the within the hands of the Lord. Your task is to remain faithful to that which he has called you to do.
You should definitely want to be a ministry success. But ministry failure is not falling numbers or financial deficit. In fact, even closing your church altogether may not really amount to ministry failure. The only failure unfaithfulness to Christ. The success for which we are aiming is faithfulness.
The big concern with that is as we look at scripture and see the unfaithfulness riddled through the history of God’s people. But knowing that we have the Holy Spirit who equips us for works of ministry and, all the more, remembering that we have a sovereign God who will ensure that what he wants to achieve will be achieved, including your faithfulness, such that even our one task of remaining faithful rests on the Lord who works all things according to the counsel of his will.