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What is Success?

The crowd cheered as water gushed from the rock Moses had just struck. Up until this moment, they had been complaining and were even regretting their decision to leave Egypt. From an earthly point of view, as soon as the water began to flow, all was well. By all apparent metrics, this event was a huge success. Moses was able to provide what the people desperately needed-water. What looked like success from the earth, however, looked much different from heaven. While Moses had delivered a result, he had not been faithful in obeying what God had told him to do. Instead of speaking to the rock, as he had been told, he struck it twice with his staff. Apparently, in this case, the ends did not justify the means, and Moses was prohibited from entering the promised land.

How easy it is to focus on the metrics that people use and neglect the metrics of God! People want results; people want tangibles; people want deliverables. Throughout history, we seem to be enamored with "counting the fighting men," attendances, baptisms, budgets and buildings. As one writer crudely put it, why are we so consumed with "butts and bucks"? Charles Colson said, "It is a dangerous and misguided policy to measure God's blessing by standards of visible, tangible, and material 'success'."

On a personal note, I have realized how prone I am to these same tendencies. Transitioning careers at 55 can be quite revealing. As a young minister, I led dynamic campus ministries, was a missionary in Latin America and helped plant churches. Later I had the privilege of leading rather large churches for many years. I was not aware how much of my self-worth and security came from my job. Two and a half years ago, God called Barbara and me to begin a house church. We now meet with a small group at our house on a typical Sunday. To make matters more challenging for my warped values, the most common question I get is, "How is it going?" I believe underlying this question is the real question of, "How much is it growing?" or "Have you multiplied?" Is the house church model getting "traction"? Never mind that, ironically, these questions usually come from people who are part of larger churches, some of which have grown very little for many years. I empathize with their rationale, as this is the same way I am prone to think.

Certainly God wants His kingdom to spread. It seems to me, however, that He is often much less concerned with spreading it in such a way that the results are visible, tangible and material. While we are consumed with measuring in this fashion, God seems much more concerned with the faithfulness of individuals. We are called to be faithful to God (1 Corinthians 4:2), not to be successful at building our institutions and denominations. The "metrics" that God is concerned about are very difficult to measure. How do you measure love, holiness, prayer, faithfulness, service, or belief? Should we hire spies to follow our members around through the week to see if they are growing in these areas? While these qualities can be experienced, they are difficult to measure in tangible ways.

We focus on the growth of our congregations, denominations, movements and institutions, but God is concerned with the growth of His kingdom. Kingdom growth is not necessarily the same thing as the growth of our organizations. Author Randy Harris says in his book "Life Work" that if churches are to be cross-focused, they should be willing to die for the good of the kingdom. He his talking about the kind of dying where a church says "we" are not the end we serve. The mission of God and the kingdom of God are the end we serve. The problem occurs when the institution becomes more important than the kingdom and preserving what we have built becomes more important than God's purposes. We must remember that Jesus did not build a denomination or a physical church. He "built" men - individuals who would be faithful to God. Could it be that many of us are more concerned about preserving our "brand" of Christianity than furthering the kingdom of God? While we tend to be concerned with the success and preservation of our institutions, we fail to realize that the kingdom of God is never in danger.

I am learning the hard way that a successful life is a life that is faithful to God. This may or may not be a life that is impressive or noteworthy to the majority. A successful church is a church that is faithful to God. This type of church may not be successful in gathering people and gathering money to one location. In fact, some of the most successful churches may indeed be churches that scatter people and scatter money. Would Jesus be considered a success if He were among us today at the end of his life? He had no organization, no building, no house, no wife, and no children. He had relatively few followers and His closest followers deserted Him. He did, however, have the voice of His father saying,"Well done my son, with you I am well pleased." This is success! Is this enough for us?


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