Why We Must Redefine Success in the Church

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Remember, we live in a larger culture that believes bigger is always better—bigger profits, bigger influence, bigger impact. And the church more or less believes the same thing.

We measure success by the numbers, and bigger is always the goal. We measure increases in attendance, giving, and small groups. We count the number of conversions, baptisms, new programs, and church plants.

If our numbers are increasing with more people participating in our ministry, we feel great and deem our efforts a success. If the numbers are decreasing, we feel despondent and consider our efforts a failure. I’m not saying that it’s inherently wrong that we measure our progress by the numbers. The problem comes when numbers are the only thing we measure, and so become our ultimate marker of success.

According to Jesus, success is becoming the person God calls you to become, and doing what God calls you to do—in his way, and according to his timetable.This is so important that I ask that you read that sentence one more time. Slowly. Success is becoming the person God calls you to become, and doing what God calls you to do—in his way, and according to his timetable.

What this means is that it is possible for a ministry or organization to be growing numerically and yet actually failing. And that your ministry and numbers may be declining and yet actually be succeeding!

All numerical markers—increased attendance, bigger and better programs, a larger budget—must take a backseat to listening to Jesus. Jesus calls us to abide and abound in him (John 15:1–8). What this abiding and abounding looks like will differ depending on our unique leadership callings. A vocational pastor, a non-profit leader, and a businessperson in the marketplace will each bear a different kind and quality of fruit.

Peter, like most leaders, wanted to change the world through Jesus. But the culture of success-ism was so deeply embedded in him that he resisted Jesus on this at every turn.

Peter simply could not reconcile his understanding of success with the crucifixion—with failures, rejections, and defeats; with mustard seeds and a few loaves and fishes. Despite three years of being with Jesus, he remained so infected with success-ism that, at Jesus’s arrest, he could justify resorting to violence to protect it. With success as a supreme value, he didn’t think twice about drawing a sword and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant (Matthew 26:51).

We are not unlike the apostle Peter. Our success-ism drives us to make misguided decisions and to treat people in ways antithetical to the heart of Jesus.

At least 90 percent of pastors and leaders I speak with, young and old alike, experience an ironic consequence of success-ism. They feel like failures. Underperformers. Subpar representatives of Jesus.

“It’s never enough,” an associate pastor named Fran lamented to me. “I’m working six days a week and I still can’t keep up. My husband complains and my two middle-school boys know I’m constantly distracted when I’m home. But what can I do? There just isn’t enough time.”

I know this ever-gnawing ache of the soul only too well, along with its crushing weight. In my early years of pastoring, it wasn’t until I began the journey of emotionally healthy discipleship that the ache dissipated and the heavy weight began to lift.

What makes this so challenging when we begin serving and leading is that our relationship with God gets so wed to our work for God that the two become almost indistinguishable. When who we are—our identity as a loved daughter or son of God—becomes inseparable from our leadership role, we are especially vulnerable to one of the most subtle and treacherous temptations from the Evil One: to equate our worth with our success in ministry and leadership.

Few of us appreciate that the final temptation Satan posed to Jesus in the desert revolved around success (Matthew 4:8–9). Satan offers him immediate success in saving the world. Every person in the world would bow to him as Savior. And this could be accomplished without the agony of the crucifixion. Jesus could eliminate everything he knows is coming—a downward journey into failure and defeat. All he had to do is violate the Father’s gift of limits.

Had Jesus succumbed to the temptation, he might have “succeeded” in getting the ministry work done, but he would have utterly failed by God’s definition of success. He would not have done God’s work, in God’s way, according to God’s timetable.

Theologian Frederick Dale Bruner aptly summarizes the real threat behind the success-ism temptation: “We will sometimes do absolutely anything to keep our work from failing. But the moment we do absolutely anything to keep our work for God from failing, we have made our work God, and perhaps without realizing it, we have worshipped Satan.”

For this reason, we must expose and reject the success-ism that so permeates our churches today and leads so often to a compromise in our integrity. Remember, not every opportunity to expand the work of God is actually an invitation from God.

     Consider a few of God’s most successful leaders:

  • John the Baptist experienced a steady and then steep numerical decline in that same ministry. Yet he affirmed to his followers, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven” (John 3:27). That, for John, was success.
  • Jeremiah and Isaiah both served God with passion and obedience, but they were mostly written off by an unresponsive remnant—definitely not what anyone likely considered success.
  • Jesus didn’t wring his hands and question his preaching strategy when “many of his disciples turned away and deserted him” (Jn. 6:66). He remained content, knowing he was in the Father’s will.

When we define success wrongly, it means our best energies will be invested in things such as cutting-edge weekend services, cultivating our brand, and preparing captivating messages. Little is left over for serious discipleship—our own or that of others—especially when it produces what appears to be such a small and slow return.

With the little time left to invest in the messy work of discipleship, we do the next best thing. We standardize discipleship and make it scalable. Our approach resembles more of a conveyor belt in a manufacturing plant than the kind of messy relational investment in a few that Jesus modeled for us.

These two approaches to discipleship are contrasted in the illustration below:

While Jesus did teach large groups, he knew that one size did not fit all when it came to discipleship. He chose just twelve individuals from the multitudes and customized their training and discipleship to meet their unique needs. And he did so over a period of time. Three years, to be exact. He knew that discipleship cannot be rushed.

Pause and reflect for a moment. What might change if you were to define success not by the numbers but as radically doing God’s will? What external markers might become less important? What internal markers might become more important? What fears or anxieties are you aware of as you even consider such questions?

Believe me, I understand how disorienting these questions might be. But I also know how rewarding and freeing it is to live and lead from the center of God’s will. 

This article is adapted from Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Moving from Shallow Christianity to Deep Transformation (Zondervan, 2021). www.emotionallyhealthy.org

If you want to dive deeper into emotionally healthy discipleship, join Pete Scazzero and Drew Hyun in a FREE webinar on Thursday, April 1 at 11:00 a.m. ET.

About the Author

Peter Scazzero, along with his wife, Geri, are the founders of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, a groundbreaking ministry that moves the church forward by slowing the church down in order to multiply deeply changed leaders and disciples. This journey began when Pete founded New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, a large, multiracial church with more than seventy-three countries represented –where he served as the Senior Pastor for twenty-six years.

Pete hosts the top ranked Emotionally Healthy Leader podcast and is the author of a number of bestselling books, including The Emotionally Healthy Leader and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He is also the author of The Emotionally Healthy Discipleship Course (Part 1 and 2) that has transformed tens of thousands of lives around the world.  For more information, visit emotionallyhealthy.org or connect with Pete on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram @petescazzero.

We are better together!

“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
John 17:22-23

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