In this post, Ken Davis, Pastor of Thistletown Baptist Church, Etobicoke, ON addresses the issues of success and failure in the ministry.
I am not happy about the number of conversions in my church. I want to be baptizing genuine believers on a weekly basis. I want the community where my church does its work to know that we are here and know they are welcome and that we care for them. I want a budget that enables us to get more pastors on staff, maintains more ministries to the needy, and has evangelism programmes that makes the Gospel known in the marketplace. I want the walls of our church building to bulge on Sundays because of the people pushing to get in. I want my life and my church to be the vehicles used by God to bring large, significant, life altering change to the community. In short, I want to be successful.
Success in the ministry. Who doesn’t want that? No one, not pastors or anyone else, plans to be a failure. And this is not wrong. Paul told the Thessalonian church that his work among them was not a failure (I Thessalonians 2:1). The issue is hardly one of success versus failure.
No one wants, or should want, to fail. God does not call people to fail.
In fact, a large part of the Gospel message is that God never loses. He loses none of all that He gives the Son (John 6:39). He is going to totally vanquish all His enemies and all who belong to Him shall be victorious with Him. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world (I John 4:5). The reward of eternal life is for those who conquer (Revelation 2-3). Jesus promises great reward for those who triumph over their opponents and temptations. God is the ultimate winner and He never fails to achieve what He sets out to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11). To be on the side of the triune God is to be gloriously successful. It cannot be otherwise. No, the issue is never “Does God want success?” the issue is always “Is this the success that God wants?”
The trouble with so much of the contemporary North American church in this matter, is that success and failure are defined somewhat differently than God defines them in the Scriptures. Various arms of Christ’s church will speak of success in their ministries, churches and denominations in different ways. Meeting the financial goals is a common one and in churches that practise believers’ baptism the number of baptisms performed can be set as a standard for success. Many evangelical churches will measure success in the number of converts, or worse, in the “decisions” made.
Those of us in pastoral ministry face incredible pressure to produce results in our work. Pastors can be blamed for everything from a lack of conversions to the faulty plumbing. Too few converts, too few baptisms, too little money in the plate, lack of attendance Sunday night, Wednesday night and a general lack of interest in spiritual things can all be traced back to the pastor and therefore make him to be the failure. Like the sports team that fires it coach for its lackluster performance, churches are most likely to blame its pastors for its lack of success. This is not to be unexpected and it is not always wrong.
People expect much from their leaders and quite often we who lead are far too willing to give them the impression that we can perform a respectable evangelical not-contrary-to-nature miracle in the form of increased attendance, increased baptisms, increased conversions, increased giving, increased influence in the broader community. Just as the sheep are prone to blame the leadership for the lack of results in the desired area, so too the leaders are prone to blame the lack of commitment, the lack of vision, the refusal to buy into our flawless vision, as the real reason for the lack of success. This is human nature and, sad to state, it is thriving in the church. Failure is always someone else’s fault. We are the perfect children of our first parents:
“the woman you gave me…”, “the serpent deceived me” (Genesis 3).
Pastors should be at least willing to consider that there might be some justification for the church’s expectations of its spiritual leadership.
Paul’s comment to Timothy that if Timothy watches his life and doctrine closely then he will save both himself and those who hear him is a text that we who are pastors need to treat very seriously and adjust ourselves accordingly if the fruit that Paul guarantees is not present.
In defence of the pastor in light of that text, Paul does not say how many converts there will be and we know that he does not mean everyone who hears the preacher will be saved. Nor does Paul say when these converts will be realized. We all know that William Carey laboured for many years before he saw anyone come to a saving knowledge of Christ.
And if that one convert after Carey’s eight years in India was the only one that he got the whole time he was there then the promise of Paul to Timothy would have been proven accurate.
This, of course, is where much of the contemporary North American church in many circles is simply patently unbiblical. It often crosses the line from wanting success in terms of converts, doctrinal soundness and holiness of life to wanting to be what other churches, pastors, denominations and ministries that have a successful track record are.
The next step after that, is to conclude that we can be like them if we do what they did. If it worked for them, it is reasoned, then it will work for us and we will have the same results as they did. The Scriptures then cease to be the standard of behaviour or success. The successful church/ministry/denomination is. This is idolatry. It is faith in a plan, a programme, an idea or someone’s philosophy of ministry. It necessarily credits the skills and gifts and genius of those who developed the plan. It is the plan that is to be credited and so the plan is canned and sold to frustrated, discouraged and maligned churches and leaders as the answer to their fruitlessness. It is the non-prosperity Gospel version of the prosperity Gospel that evangelicals enjoy slamming so much. We would never say that God’s will for everybody is health and wealth and we will preach the opposite, but we don’t mind preaching that the necessary evidence of being in the will of God for a church is conversions, big budgets, multi-pastor staffs, building programmes and exponential growth. “And you can too, if you adopt our plan”.
This is a horrible thing to do to a pastor whose heart aches for converts and longs to know that what he is doing matters for eternity.
It is like putting a dish of food just beyond the reach of the hungry, chained dog. The poor creature will do almost anything to get at that food. And the poor despairing pastor will just about do anything to become something that matters, because it has simply been far too long since he tasted the succulence of real success. And far too many denominational leaders, magazine articles, books and church boards believe that dangling that meat is the right thing to do.
Again, all this is not to say that the absence of conversions, growth, money and multi-pastor churches are the sign of God’s blessing either.
That is the point being made here. Let’s define success differently.
How then, should we define success?
The answer lies in the Scriptures. “You know”, Paul said to the Thessalonians, “that our coming to you was not in vain”. How did he know that? Let’s look at the text.
1 Thess. 2:1-10 (ESV)
For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.  But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.  For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive,  but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.  For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed— God is witness.  Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.  But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.  So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.  For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.  You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.
How could Paul say that his work was not in vain?
1) Verse 2 – He was bold to preach the Gospel in the midst of much conflict, and with a record of suffering everywhere he had preached, before he got to Thessalonica. In fact when we look at the record of Paul’s travels through Asia and Macedonia in Acts 14-17 we are taken, not so much with the fact that Paul suffered whenever he preached, but that he dusted himself off every time and went to another city to do the same thing all over again. If you leave a situation because of the trouble you got into and then go to another place and do the very thing that got us into trouble before, knowing that it is going to do the same thing again, you may be called a lot of things, but successful will not one of them. But that is what God calls it. We need to reacquaint ourselves with a solid biblical doctrine of suffering for the Gospel.
Most of the Christians in most of the world have to deal with horrific costs to their belief in Jesus. The West has, at least up until now, been spared much of that. With the clear teaching of Scripture that we are only heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ if we suffer with Him (Romans 8:16-17), and the fact that all who live godly will suffer persecution (II Timothy 3:12), we ought to be wondering about the validity of our faith, more than how we can become more successful. We are failures if we do not suffer for Jesus Christ. We are successful if we continue to give the Gospel knowing that it is going to cause others to oppose us, hurt us, ignore us, ridicule us and relegate us to the fringes of society.
2) Verse 3-5 – Paul’s goal was to please God. He spoke the truth, his life was pure and he was absent of deception. Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians of this by stating everything in the negative.
He was not impure. He did not speak error and he did not deceive. The reason he was not those things is because he was far too busy trying to do and be something else – one who pleases God. The absence of those unacceptable traits was because of his God centeredness. He went into Thessalonica with the goal of pleasing God. The question he asked himself as he made his plans for Gospel penetration of Thessalonica was “What does God want?” Failure is when the horizontal takes precedence over the vertical. Success is keeping the vertical in the first place.
The primary reason for declaring the Gospel is the glory of God. God is glorified in the salvation of sinners. We should of course be motivated by compassion for the lost, for the social improvements that true conversion brings and the love that results. But ahead of them all is the glory of God. Our goal is specifically not to please people. We seek to please God with the knowledge that we will have to give account for not only our work, but our motives as well. We have failed if we cannot look inside ourselves and claim to be pleasing to God because we know our motives are pure and have led to work that is right. We are a great success when we can go to bed at night and know that God has said, “well done”, no matter what the results are.
3) Verse 5-6 – Paul was not duplicitous. He was not trying to be one thing with people for the sake of impressing them or getting something out of them. Paul could look back on his time with the Thessalonians and find great encouragement from the fact that no one could justifiably say that he had bilked them of money or things. He was free of hypocrisy. He didn’t offer free gifts to people for the sake of getting money from them. In fact he refused to take money from them and worked at his trade in order to keep body and soul together rather than lay himself open to the charge of being into the Thessalonians for their money. No insisting on his rights being respected, his income being adequate to his education and experience, his need for four weeks a year holidays and two weeks of conferences. He avoided such things so that the Gospel would be what people remembered and fled to. Here is success; a clear conscience with God and men. To live and work in the work of the Gospel in such a way today that one knows he can recite II Timothy 4:7-8 when he is about to leave this life.
4) Verse 7-8 – The opposite of being duplicitous for the sake of getting things out of people is to give yourself to them at your expense. Paul knew his work was a success because his heart was burdened for the Thessalonians and he showed it with practical, on hands loving service for them. He loved them. We can identify with Linus, from Peanuts, who exclaimed “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand”. People can be very trying. They can be demanding, hard headed, hard hearted, dull, stupid, stubborn and unteachable. I can’t imagine anyone who has pastored who hasn’t encountered the depraved human nature in some form that demonstrated itself in opposition or unfaithfulness. It can be tempting to see simply surviving in some situations as the mark of success. We are not told if Paul encountered the kind of problems with the Thessalonians as he did with the Corinthians, but I doubt whether it would have mattered. Paul did not love the Thessalonians because of their wonderful personalities. He loved them because it was his calling.
Because of who called Him. You want success? Love your people; especially the hard headed, hard hearted, dull, stubborn, and unteachable.
5) There is one final mark of success hat needs to be brought out from this text. In the first verse of this chapter Paul calls the Thessalonians “brothers”. The Lord calls a man into the pastoral ministry because He is going to save one or more people through his ministry. The Thessalonians knew that Paul’s ministry with them was not a failure because they were saved. If he had not visited them, they would not have heard the Gospel. This does not mean that every pastor is going to have a mega-church with hundreds of converts being added to the church every year. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that the pastor will be aware of all the people he has influenced with the Gospel. But it does mean that someone whom God has called into the pastoral ministry will be used by God to lead or influence someone into the Kingdom of God. I Timothy 4:16 leads us to this conclusion as well 1 Tim. 4:16
(ESV) Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. So here is real success. Someone is going to live for God’s glory and get to eternal glory because God chose to use you to win Him.
The striking thing about all these marks of real success in the ministry is that they all are a result of the grace of God at work in the heart of the pastor. And since they are all the result of God’s grace they serve the purpose of drawing attention, not to the pastor who has exhibited them, but to the God of grace who has enabled him to exhibit them. This is truly the mark of success. When the people you preach to and visit and pray for; when they meet you and after hearing you preach, teach and pray; when they have been visited by you and been led through a meeting by you; their conclusion should not be what a great pastor they have. The conclusion should be what a great God they have.
I want to be baptizing genuine believers on a weekly basis. I want the community where my church does its work to know that we are here and that they know they are welcome and that we care for them. I want a budget that enables us to get more pastors on staff, maintains more ministries to the needy, and has evangelism programmes that makes the Gospel known in the marketplace. I want the walls of our church building to bulge on Sundays because of the people pushing to get in. I want my life and my church to be the vehicles used by God to bring large, significant, life altering change to the community. And I want my people, when such things happen, not to say, “Aren’t we blessed to have such a pastor who brings us such great success”. I want them to say, “How utterly amazing it is that God should allow us to know Him and be used by Him. He has done great things for us and we are glad.” And, like Paul, I will know that my work among them was not a failure.
Ken Davis has been Pastor of Thistletown Baptist Church, Etobicoke, ON since 1993.