Luk 4:18-19 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
What is ministry success? Simple question, isn’t it? And no doubt the answers would roll off of our tongues readily and without much thinking involved.
But I have really had to put some thought into this lately and I am not sure where it is taking me. See, here’s the deal; we have the “Churchian Correct” answers, then there are the real answers that you may think but wouldn’t actually say out loud and then somewhere out there is the truth. I am after number three on that list; what is the truth?
For most Pastors and Itinerants (Evangelists, teachers, etc.) the Churchian Correct answer would be “To glorify God”,“To see people saved”, “To impact the world for the Kingdom”. All of those are nice answers and admirable “CC” answers as well. No one can give you the Pharisee stare over those answers, for sure. And yet, how do we really quantify success?
This is important, not only so that we can begin to view everything that we do through God’s viewpoint but also for our own sanity as the Churchians, the flesh and the enemy all jockey for position in order to be the one who takes us out of the game.
The questions that everyone has (and few ask out loud) in regards to a church or ministry are like these:
“How many people do you have coming?”
“How much money is coming in?”
“How well are you known?”
“Who do you know and who knows you?”
“What projects do you have underway?”
Here is the very bottom line for much of the American church. To glorify God, see people saved and be able to impact the world are wonderful ideals but all of those must fall at the feet of what we truly worship: American success and American exceptionalism. Numbers and money are the failsafe way of telling whether or not God is with you. The other things are nice, even noble, but what is really important are numbers and money.
Imagine if they ran Missionary Societies that way. The Society sends a couple to the Bukuvu, deep in the jungle. After awhile they start to get concerned about a lack of “fruit” and so they place a call from Headquarters:
“Hi Brother Todd, we were just calling down there to check up on you and the work, how are things going among the cannibals of the Buvuku? All of the people here are praying for you, you know.”
“Well, it’s the Bukuvu, sir, and things are going really well spiritually, we added a few headhunters and have been adapting our methods in order to really impact this region”.
“Great! How are your numbers?”
“Well, numbers aren’t high. We get some in and then don’t see them again. Then we had quite a few that came in and were involved but then they tried to eat my face off. You know, they are cannibals and biting and devouring each other is how they are used to living. That’s why we are adapting our methods. But we have some here that are wonderful stories of how God has impacted their lives…”
“Numbers aren’t high, huh? Well, how are the offerings? I mean, you haven’t been able to send much back to the home office here. We are getting a little tired of sending money down there and not seeing a real return.”
“Well, like I said, we have some that have been really impacted and we have quite a bit of hope for what God is starting to do around here. Plus there is this enemy tribe that attacks almost constantly, especially me and the family. Then we put the call out for the church to come and defend us and most of them fall asleep. So, it has been tough, you are fighting the “Eat your face off” culture on one hand and the enemies on the other.”
“Well, you need to get the cannibal attendance up and speak to them about the importance of giving as well. Remember, sheep are only good for two things: for meat and to be sheared.”
“Uhhhh…yeah… Well, something about that just doesn’t sound right to me. I was under the impression that ministry is its own reward and that we are doing this to ‘seek and save those that are lost’. And as far as the sheep go, they are coming along but I will certainly not use them just to shear or for… meat.”
“Well, that is idealism. In public we will say that these things are what are important but in reality we all know that a ministry must produce. See, it’s like a cow, if the milk production runs low, you need to kill it. Or else it’s just a waste of resources. So, we need you to produce real results or we will have to conclude that you are bad and that God doesn’t want you here.”
“Because I don’t have high numbers and we aren’t producing money?”
“Yes, those are the very best ways of determining if God is with you- numbers and money.”
Now, that seems farcical but it’s not. Why are so many church plants done in suburbs? Of course, the suburbs need saved too, we would all agree on that. What’s amazing to me is how many of us get “called” there when there are so many places that desperately need us and are ignored. What about Evangelists that you know who focus only on jails? When I have done prison ministry, there is almost a 100% rate of success. But the offerings aren’t all that high, unless you count cigarettes.
Can success be reckoned by numbers? As David Platt said in his recent book, “Radical”, Jesus was the world’s youngest Mini-Church Pastor. In fact, He seemed to go out of His way to discourage people from following Him. By John Chapter 7, he was left with a handful of people after He preached what Platt referred to as His infamous “Eat Me” sermon.
So, Jesus wasn’t exactly into numbers as a gauge of His success. For that matter, neither was Jeremiah, Paul, Ezekiel or Daniel.
All Church planters sow in tears that they may reap in joy. And most of the time, that season of reaping can seem so terribly far off that they no longer live with it before their face. When the markers for success are money and numbers, is it any wonder all of our kids want to be in Christian rock bands and not missionaries, either to the world or right here in the U.S.?
Adoniram Judson was the first missionary to India. I am including His story here to begin to give you a peek into what God deems as success:
His conversion not only saved his soul, it smashed his dreams of fame and honor for himself. His one pressing purpose became to “plan his life to please his Lord.” In 1809, the same year he joined the Congregational church, he became burdened to become a missionary. He found some friends from Williams College with the same burden and often met with them at a haystack on the college grounds to earnestly pray for the salvation of the heathen and petition God to open doors of ministry as missionaries to them. That spot has been marked as the birthplace of missions in America.
Three years later, February 19, 1812, young Adoniram Judson, and his bride of seven days, Ann Haseltine Judson, set sail for India, supported by the first American Board for Foreign Missions. But on that voyage, Judson, while doing translation work, saw the teaching of immersion as the mode of baptism in the Bible. Conscientiously and courageously, he cut off his support under the Congregational board until a Baptist board could be founded to support him!
The Judsons were rejected entrance into India to preach the Gospel to the Hindus by the East India Company and after many trying times, frustrations, fears, and failures, they finally found an open door in Rangoon, Burma.
There was not one known Christian in that land of millions. And there were no friends in that robber-infested, idolatry-infected, iniquity-filled land. A baby was born to alleviate the loneliness of the young couple, but it was to be only for a temporary time. Eight months later, Roger William Judson was buried under a great mango tree. The melancholy “tum-tum” of the death drum for the thousands claimed by cholera, and the firing cannons and beating on houses with clubs to ward off demons, tormented the sensitive, spiritual souls of that missionary couple, too.
And there were no converts. It was to be six, long, soul-crushing, heart-breaking years before the date of the first decision for Christ. Then, on June 27, 1819, Judson baptized the first Burman believer, Moung Nau. Judson jotted in his journal: “Oh, may it prove to be the beginning of a series of baptisms in the Burman empire which shall continue in uninterrupted success to the end of the age.” Converts were added slowly — a second, then three, then six, and on to eighteen.
But opposition came, also. Finally Judson was imprisoned as a British spy — an imprisonment of twenty-one months. Judson was condemned to die, but in answer to prayers to God and the incessant pleadings of his wife to officials (one of the most emotional-packed, soul-stirring stories in evangelism), Judson’s life was spared and finally British intervention freed him from imprisonment.
So, follow me here. Judson goes to India as a loose cannon. Then, amidst horrible poverty, they have a baby who dies. Six years into the work, there is not a single convert. When his church grows to 18, he is thrown in prison. This is not sounding like he was called at all. No doubt He was told to quit- unless he was having awesome offerings there in India. God was obviously not with Him, if He was, the baby wouldn’t have died, He would have seen numbers go up and the offerings would be there.
The end of the story is telling:
The work progressed and gospel power began to open blind eyes, break idolatry-shackled hearts and transform the newly-begotten converts into triumphant Christians. On April 12, 1850, at the age of 62, Judson died. Except for a few months (when he returned to America after thirty-four years from his first sailing), Judson had spent thirty-eight years in Burma. Although he had waited six years for his first convert, sometime after his death a government survey recorded 210,000 Christians, one out of every fifty-eight Burmans.
Now, one of you out there just thought to yourself, “Yeah, but that was in Heathen India, this is the U.S. of A and so it’s not the same”. So, there is an American Hell then for the lost sinner? Those in India who don’t know Jesus are more lost than an American who doesn’t?
So, what is the measure of ministry success? I have come to the conclusion that it simply cannot be either numbers or money. That fits the American mindset but not the Biblical one nor historical precedence.
I have often seen ministry as if God has this huge map up in the throne room spread out before Him. And in every place where there is a dedicated servant, He can put a push-pin there. It is covered; He has someone there to work with and to carry on Kingdom business. And what is that business? I think that Jesus’ opening salvo at Nazareth is a pretty good indicator:
Are you preaching the Gospel to the poor, helping those who cannot repay you?
Are you healing the brokenhearted? Is your ministry personal, hands-on and compassionate?
Are you preaching deliverance to the captives? Are people getting free of the world, the flesh and devil under your ministry?
Are those who cannot see, seeing for the first time?
Are those who are bruised being set free? Are the oppressed, those who are held in bondage and tyranny, coming into a new Kingdom?
Are you proclaiming Jubilee? Are debts forgiven, slaves being set free and are people coming out of the world and into God’s way of Sabbath Economics and freedom from Babylon?
All of these things are worth putting money into. We as ministers have an intangible product. We don’t produce cars or accounting papers or stocks or bonds. We are in a spiritual business and so you can’t determine the value of what we do by using physical things, like money or big numbers.
But even using those standards, we still have to embrace what I call “Endgame thinking” in our ministry efforts. At the end of your life, after all of the die have been cast and all of the changes have been made in you that God wanted to make, what are you left with?
I think that if at the end of my days, there are more Christians in our churches who have been saved, trained and sent out than there was when I began, then I am a success in the Kingdom, because I would have multiplied my talents. Those who would have known the terror of an eternal Hell are now walking along the Highway of Salvation to the Celestial City.
And what price can you place on one soul?
If there is a church there where truth is being preached, we are a success. This is true in world missions: to get a church in place and place someone there who loves Jesus. That there is any fruit at all is a vast improvement over what would have been there if there was no church at all.
And we simply must begin to adapt these same standards to what we do here in the States.
Let those churches with an excess of money redistribute that to places where money is tight. This was what they did in the book of Acts and I see no reason to change it today. We should begin to applaud church planters and support them just as we do foreign missionaries. We need to start to have a big picture approach to what we do.
The moment you being to judge Gospel effectiveness by the flesh, you will never succeed because you will forget God and compromise everything to accommodate the world system and its way of thinking.