Size doesn't matter...
Success is a seductive mistress. Her beauty, and the fact that she's the object of everyone's desire can lull you into thinking that, once you've captured her, your integrity, faithfulness, wisdom, and worth are impeccable, above questioning. After all, it's the successful people who get on airplanes and go places in order to tell other people how to do their jobs.
This might be well and good in some matters, but I'm suspicious that it might not be a good way of finding the best people to address 'church life'. I say this because success, especially a 'snapshot' of success (such as attendance statistics for Sunday morning worship, or the number of baptisms in the past year), isn't granted to leaders or communities solely on the basis of their faithfulness. A great example of this is Ahab the King of Israel.
You can find his story in I Kings 16-22. Outwardly, I could produce some snapshots that would indicate that this guy must be faithful and righteous. After all, he was at the forefront of two wars with the Arameans, a fierce and violent tribal people who sought to steal Israel's land, wives, children, and gold. But in both wars, Ahab's trips were overwhelmingly victorious.
In American culture, Ahab would be hailed as a bold, innovative leader, and he'd get a few book contracts and start the seminar circuit: "How to get rid of the evil when the odds are against you." It's the kind of seminar pastors seek out, because they want to be successful too, just like Ahab.
Here's the problem though. At the very beginning of Ahab's story, we read this: "Ahab...did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him." (I Kings 16:20). The Bible gives us a peek into Ahab's private places, and it's there we see his unhealthy marriage to a wicked woman, his faultering and fearing, his double-mindedness and idolatry, his lust and greed. Victorious though he was in battle, his unwillingness to obey God and do the hard things eventuated in Israel's defeat, and his ignoble death. And all this after his book tour and becoming a big time player on the seminar circuit!! He would probably have made appearances with Oprah and Larry King.
So why does God allow an evil king to win a victory or two, significant victories in fact? The key, I believe, is found in a phrase in I Kings 21:6. It's a phrase that occurs many times throughout the prophets: "...and you shall know that I am the Lord" God says that he'll provide victory as a teachable moment for Ahab, so that this weak and indecisive king might learn, once and for all, that the God on whose behalf he is ruling is worthy of trust, worship, and obedience. In other words, God uses people, even in their disobedience, in order that we might learn to trust in His faithfulness and depend on His mercy. The Bible is filled with examples of God using this strategy: "but we have this treasure in earthen vessels..." "consider your calling..." "kindness leads to repentance..." You get the picture.
Unfortunately, we don't really get the picture. We think that the guy who wins the war is wearing a white hat, and so we follow his example. But if God used the guy 'in spite' of his character, not because of it, we can end up following the methods and strategies of someone who will lead us off a cliff.
That's why, in matters of ministry, the very first thing one must consider is the state of the heart - those intangibles like prayer, humility, service, love, and a commitment to the word, are far more important than the size of one's congregation. It's a conundrum, that humble and faithful servants often serve in struggling places in obscurity, while ambitious folk chase the spotlight. One must be equally careful to avoid the conclusion that outward success is evil, because this too would be a foolish paradigm.
Instead, I'd suggest simply shifting the focus of the conversation away from outward expressions, because gives successful outward expressions to the very least of us. Instead, let's expand our horizons by seeking out people who can teach us to pray, digest the word, and serve the broken in this world, for these are the kinds of successes we most desperately need.
Labels: church life