One afternoon, I was playing golf with a friend of mine who is a leading executive for a company that grosses over a billion dollars in revenue every year. I was talking non-stop about the church and some new initiatives I wanted to roll out, and I asked him for his input. As he addressed the ball to tee off on the next hole, he paused, looked up at me, and said, “Craig, you just need to determine how you define success. Then do the things that lead to success.” He went back to work driving his ball down the fairway, but that statement sent my mind reeling. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Success for a coach is winning games. Success for a business is increased profits. Success for a school is higher test scores. But how do you define success in ministry?
There are many metrics leaders use to define success: growing attendance, increased baptisms, rise in giving, more campuses, greater media market share, caring for the poor, championing justice, selling Christian resources, international outreach…the list could go on and on. But how did Jesus define success? After all, at the end of the day, it is Jesus who will ultimately determine whether your ministry is successful or not. A businessman told me one time that he spent his whole life climbing the ladder of success only to discover it was leaned up against the wrong tree. He had been so focused on his career and financial success that he had neglected God’s desire and plan for his life. When I think about church ministry and the way we measure success, sometimes I wonder if our ladder is leaning on the wrong tree. Is success in Jesus’ eyes measured in numerical growth, financial stability, or creative worship? The church at Laodicea could have been a growing church running thousands in attendance, but they were so lukewarm it made Jesus sick and he was about to spit them out (Revelation 3.16). So, what is Jesus looking for in a healthy church?
Following his resurrection, Jesus gathered his faithful men on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28.16). I’m sure it was one they had visited many times before. I often take leaders to Israel to walk in the steps of Jesus. One prominent mountain on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee is Mount Arbel. While I’m not absolutely sure this was the mountain where Jesus met his disciples, it certainly could be. It has a distinct profile, with a protruding high peak and a steep drop off. This mountain stands out as unique among those encircling the Galilean lake. Also, it is strategically located along the Valley of the Doves connecting Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. I’m sure Jesus and his disciples passed by this mountain many times.
The last time I was there, I stood on top of this peak and looked out over Israel. On a clear day looking north you can see the borders of Syria and Lebanon. To the east, you can see Ammon and the Decapolis, to the south the Jezreel Valley and the hills of Samaria, and to the west the port of Caesarea Maritima, where Roman ships transported the Apostle Paul and the gospel to the west. You can literally see the nations stretched out before you. I can just imagine Jesus standing there with his men, in his glorified body with arms wide open commissioning his disciples. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28.18-20).
Buried in this final vision statement is Jesus’ definition of success. There is only one command here, one verb. Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples. Circle it. Simply put, Jesus envisioned his church multiplying disciples that would reach every nation on the planet. Notice what Jesus did not say. He didn’t say go plant churches. He didn’t say go grow congregations. He didn’t say go build buildings, produce resources, or increase revenue. Jesus never told us to build the church. That’s his job. He told Peter plainly, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16.18). Jesus told us to make disciples. That’s our job.
Now, I’m not saying that planting churches or growing congregations is wrong. However, we can focus so much on church planting and church growth that we plant and grow churches filled with people who aren’t true disciples of Jesus. We can have big churches filled with causal attendees and marginal believers who are not ever challenged to grow up and engage in Jesus’ command to make disciples.
I know this because it has happened before.
Photo credit: Hannah Busing