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A neon sign saying "Work Harder," the message that drives our views of success.

Freedom from the Tyranny of “Success”

Some time ago, a friend shared an announcement that he was writing a book for a well-respected publisher. I was, of course, excited—but I was also a little jealous. It was foolish and unnecessary, of course, but it was there. When I should have been fully celebrating my friend’s good fortune, I was wondering why I wasn’t experiencing the same.1

I know I’m not alone in this. All of us have moments where we don’t respond to God’s blessings to others in the way we would want or expect, whether His blessings to an individual, to an organization, or a church. We start to play comparison games, even if only in our heads. We start to wonder why this person or that church is more successful than us.

And there’s the problem: Success.

What does that even mean? What does success look like, especially in the context of ministry?

False measures of success

There are two primary ways we define success as Christians, especially when it comes to ministry:

  • “Orthodoxy.” Success in this sense is defined by our right beliefs. That if we’re consistently proclaiming and teaching truth, then we’re being successful.
  • Fruitfulness. Perhaps it’s because of how 1980s business culture affected overall leadership culture, but the most common way we measure success is by the numbers: attendance, giving, baptisms, professions of faith, and so forth.

But here’s the problem: it’s possible to be orthodox in word, but convey that truth in a way that undermines it. To be arrogant and belligerent, and mistake people being repulsed by your behavior as their rejection of the Lord. And I know, because I’ve been that guy on occasion, a “jerk for Jesus” wielding my Mighty Theological Hammer of Justice™, ready to smash any and all apparent heresies that might lure away an unsuspecting believer. (It’s not a good look.)

Unfortunately, fruitfulness also falls short as well, at least in the way that we define it. We assume growth means heath (because healthy things grow), we have to remember that unhealthy things grow too. Cancerous cells spread to overcome their host. Weeds spread beyond our ability to keep up with them. And it’s easy to see the destruction that lies in the wake of a toxic culture—whether a church, non-profit, or secular business—that something cancerous can easily lie beneath the surface of an apparently fruitful organization and culture.

Our commitment to truth (orthodoxy) and our apparent fruitfulness might be indicators that God is doing something in our midst, but they can be falsified or inflated. And when they do, they often lead to what kills our ministries faster than anything: pride.

The danger of pride

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has a passing familiarity with the Proverbs. There is nothing that kills effective ministry faster than pride (even if that ministry seems to be thriving on the outside). Proverbs warns over and over again that:

We dare not pass over these words quickly. If God truly hates pride this much, then we must consider our actions in the face of criticism and in light of success. If we follow the wisdom of Scripture we see that seeking celebrity will kill our ministries. Bad company will kill our ministries. And failing to listening to wise counsel will kill our ministries.

The true measure of success

While all of this may seem jaded and cynical, I’m not saying that a commitment to truth is a bad thing, nor am I suggesting that apparent fruitfulness doesn’t mean God isn’t doing something in your midst. Instead, my encouragement is to hold them loosely in favor of what success truly is: faithfulness.

Faithfulness, simply, is embracing and obediently using what you’ve been given according to God’s wisdom and grace. To say it even more simply, faithfulness is obedience—obedience to God’s commands, calling, and gifting—and obedience is success. That means that you may not be the most gifted teacher, you’re the right teacher for your church at this moment. Even though you may not be the greatest evangelist in the world, but you’re the person to share the gospel with your neighbor. And although you may not have much to offer by the world’s standards, but what you do have, you give joyfully.

That, truly, is the perspective we need, regardless of our role in ministry or the size of the ministry God has called us to. Through the gospel, Jesus frees us from the tyranny of “fruitfulness” as we define it. Of growing attendance and giving, of gaining and maintaining “influence.” He frees us from being the rightest person in the room. God gives you as much as you ought to have according to His wisdom—and that ought to be enough for us.

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

  1. This article was originally published on gospelproject.com in June 2021. ↩︎
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