What Makes a Church Successful?

Justin Puckett

As we live out our Christian lives, there are some lessons we learn through the wisdom of others. A brother or sister will speak godly wisdom to us, and we gladly accept it and obey it as a word from Heaven itself. Other lessons are learned the hard way, through embarrassing failure and humble repentance. Then there is a category of lessons that we have to be taught over and over. Those lessons which challenge our very way of thinking, and penetrate into the depths our cultural ethos. One of those lessons is measuring success, not by worldly standards, but by biblical ones.

I took a cultural class in college a few years back, and it was interesting to see the different aspects that define various cultures. Many of these characteristics we don’t even realize are unique to our culture. For example, I live in the southeastern United States and if you don’t know, we tend to do and say things a little differently than other parts of the country. We don’t call ground beef “ground beef,” it’s “hamburger meat.” We describe distances in minutes, not miles, and have strange, unwarranted names for stores such as, “Wally World.” If you have never experienced life outside of your culture, you will assume everyone else is the same, and be shocked when you find out they aren’t.

Success in Cultural Context

Outside of western society, the world knows we are obsessively task-oriented. We have business meetings and we want to talk about nothing but business. When we go to lunch after the business meeting we want to talk business while we eat, and we want a decision to be made before we walk away. Success is measured by linear figures. We know things are going well when the numbers for the current quarter are better than the previous, and any loss is considered failure on some level. This mindset has built the largest economy in the world, but it is utterly foreign to the Bible.

The context of scripture is Eastern. Eastern cultures, in general, have a completely different view of life, family, and business. It is built upon the honor of the collective, rather than the individual. People want to know what kind of family you come from, not your personal achievements. Business is viewed in the long term, not a short-term quarter-to-quarter basis. If someone acts disgracefully, it disgraces the whole family, and if a leader is disgraceful, the whole nation is disgraced. Likewise, as Christians, when we act in a disobedient, unbiblical way, we disgrace Christ and His Church.

This is foreign to our culture’s obsession with independence and individualism. As Christians, we must measure our success based upon what glorifies and honors God and His word the most, and not what glorifies and honors ourselves. That is not to say increasing numbers are not important, since we want to see all people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. However, increasing numbers are not the measure of our success, but the Lord’s.

Success in the Early Church

Acts 2:41 mentions that 3,000 souls were added to the church in a single day, but verse 47 says “…the Lord was adding to their number daily.” 3,000 people were not added to the Church on the Day of Pentecost because Peter had the perfect sermon illustration, dramatic opening video, and a clever 3-point alliteration; it was the Lord. Yet, we can say with confidence that Peter was successful that day. How? First, let’s take a look at the Apostle Paul.

By all Western and worldly standards, Paul would be considered a failure. He was poor, persecuted, and imprisoned (2 Timothy 3:11). When he went into town to preach, he was thrown out (Acts 16, 17), and most of his “friends” abandoned him (2 Timothy 1:15, 4:10, 16). Indeed, he drew numbers wherever he went, but rarely was that a good thing. Yet biblically, there is hardly a better example of what it means to be a successful Christian apart from Christ Jesus Himself because Paul had a different view of success.

He sought for quality, not quantity. Paul knew that having a full church with empty hearts and empty heads was a failure. Love without knowledge is foolish, and knowledge without love is an abomination (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). He sought that all would grow in the full knowledge of Jesus (Colossians 1:9, Philippians 1:9, Ephesians 4:13), growing into a mature man in Christ (Ephesians 4:13-15), and growing in love (1 Corinthians 14:1, Philippians 1:9, 2 Thess. 1:3). He also knew the world and Christ were at odds with another (2 Cor. 6:14-16). He sought to please God rather than men (Galatians 1:10). How did he achieve this? Through the preaching and teaching of the Word.

Before Paul was executed, he wrote his second letter to Timothy in order to instruct him on how he should conduct his future ministry. None of what Paul writes has to do with the size of his congregation, how much money he had made, his community presence, or even the number of conversions. He reminds him of two things: remain faithful to the Lord you serve (2 Timothy 2:22, 3:14-15,4:4-5), and no matter what, preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

Christ has not called us to grow the church, as that is His work (Matt. 16:18). However, He has commanded us to make disciples, by teaching and preaching the Gospel to all of creation (Matt. 28:19-20, Mark 16:15). Any conversion or growth that comes from our faithfulness and diligence to fulfill that Great Commission is from the Lord, not us (1 Cor. 3:4-6). In this, there is great peace and clarity found in knowing that the burden is not ours, but the Lord’s.

Church Success According to Scripture

If we believe we must be the one to convince the unbeliever or the complacent churchgoer to obey the Gospel, we will exhaust and frustrate ourselves and inevitably fail as we attempt to do what only God can do. This is part of the reason for his article because I believe we have pastoral burnout statistics to prove it. When we have an unbiblical view of success, it can breed both a false assurance of success and a false dread of failure.

There are many large churches that are esteemed as highly successful, but biblically are utter failures because they are not faithful to the Gospel, they do not teach and preach the Word, and they do not make disciples. Rather they seek to attract the world with worldly methods in hopes of converting them with the world. They are building with wood hay and stubble and will have very little to show for it on the last day (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

On the contrary, there are many small churches, who are faithful in their ministry of the Word and in their discipleship but they are downcast and lack joy because they have bought into the lie of worldly success. They see their faithfulness to do what God has commanded them to do as success only if there is a positive and increasing response. We must remember in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, Christ does not praise or rebuke any of those churches based on their size, what their building looked like, their community presence, or how good their worship band was, but only upon whether or not they were faithful to Him.

We must also be reminded that God is doing work in the hearts and lives of people that we cannot see. Man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God has promised that as long as we preach His word, it will not fail because God cannot fail (Isaiah 55:11). That work may be positive, it may be negative, but it will always accomplish God’s intended purpose, we only need to be faithful to what has been said. We are not responsible for the outcome, only for our faithfulness to proclaim it.

Peter was successful on the Day of Pentecost because he stood up like a man and proclaimed the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ before thousands. He was unwavering in his doctrine, and determined to preach what he had seen and heard, and knew was the truth. He was bold, holding nothing back, and earnestly urged his people to repent and believe. It didn’t matter to him if the people rejoiced in his words or not, only that the truth was preached. God honors and gives success to such faithfulness to His word.

Success Before God

So for the big church, I exhort you to examine yourselves and your work. Are you building with wood, hay and stubble? Are you attempting to build the Kingdom of God by man’s methods, or by God’s? Are you faithful in preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God in season and out of season, being faithful to be found pure in Christ, and measuring your success by the quality of your disciples and not the quantity?

For the small church, the same standard applies. It could be that your lack of growth is due to your unfaithfulness, only you can discern that according to scripture. However, if you already seek to do and obey these things, take courage and do not believe the lie of the world that you are unsuccessful before God. See that your faithfulness, if indeed you are faithful, is your success. We seek to please our Lord and Savior, for it is by Him and His righteousness we stand or fall.

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