A BIBLICAL STANDARD OF SUCCESS
GARY L. MclNTOSH
Before becoming a pastor I was actively involved in the sales field. Numerous items were entrusted to me which I was to sell to the public. Once it was stereos. Another time it was vacuum cleaners. At one store I sold lawn mowers, baby furniture, pot-n-pans, and fireplace screens. It seemed I could always create in others the desire for the product I sold. Often people would say to me, “You’re a born salesman.” Actually I wasn’t. But I was motivated. In each job I knew the standard of success by which I would be measured, and I worked hard to achieve it. The standard varied from dollars received to quantities sold. Yet, there was always a clear standard against which I could measure my efforts to determine whether I was successful.
In my move to the pastorate I found myself floundering. At times I thought I was successful. But then, as I looked around, I was not matching the fantastic ministries of those men who received pages of publicity and were models for my ministry. It became difficult for me to know if I was pleasing God or not, or if our church was reflecting God’s desire. I began searching for an acceptable standard by which I could measure my ministry. It didn’t take long to find out that the perceived definitions of “biblical” success were as varied as the pastors I asked. There really seemed to be no commonly accepted standard by which pastors measured their ministries. But without a standard one cannot be either a failure or a success. Perhaps that’s the “hidden agenda” behind such non-measurable thinking.
Yet, if such a standard could be found and commonly accepted, Ibelieve it would do two important things:
It would free pastors of improper comparison. Accepted standard or not, pastors are going to compare their ministry with something. Usually it is with another pastor or another church. What pastor has not left a ministers’ meeting frustrated that his ministry is not as productive as another’s? What pastor has not wished for church growth and then criticized those who see it happening? What pastor has not read about a “church growth success story” and felt a measure of desperation? Certainly a few may have escaped the fear and insecurity caused by undue comparison, but not many. Certainly not me. What is needed is a biblical standard that invites growth in our ministries instead of critical comparison.
It would give pastors proper motivation. Business executives know people need standards to be productive. There is an innate desire in all of us to achieve, to reach, to strive for accomplishment. The business world has developed a whole system of rewards to identify those who have been successful. . . vacations in the Bahamas, million mile clubs, plaques . . . all symbols of reaching a certain measure of success, and all tangible motivation-creating devices. What creates motivation in the pastorate? Based on 1 Corinthians 13 most would likely say “love.” I agree. Love ought to be our motive. Yet in practice what often seems to motivate us is the desperateness of our situation.
Our church must be bigger and better than another’s. Our sanctuaries must be full. Our budgets met. An understanding of God’s standard for success would move us much closer to pleasing God by reaching His standard.
I believe God has revealed a standard of success that relieves comparison and develops proper motivation. The problem is we have been operating too long on a misunderstanding of what God wants.
OUR PRESENT THEOLOGY OF FAILURE
“God doesn’t want you to be successful; He wants you to be faithful.” That phrase adequately states the foundation for much false thinking going on today. For many pastors has fostered the attitude that they can be unproductive and still be faithful. It has opened the way for pastors to be faithful failures.
What did Paul mean when he said. “Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” ( 1 Corinthians 4:2)? He was speaking against the allegiance of people to other people. He was simply stating that he, and Apollos, and Cephas were stewards of the mysteries of God. As stewards they were entrusted with God’s truth and were to be faithful in their handling of it.
In being faithful with God’s truth, what did Paul actually do? He went out from Antioch faithfully preaching the word of God, expecting people to respond. He expected to establish churches. He even returned to Antioch to report his results. As far as Paul was concerned faithfulness meant seeing results. Paul could never have accepted the concept of plugging away “faithfully” without ever seeing results. In fact he spent very little time in Athens, a city he perceived as quite unreceptive, and went on to Corinth where he stayed a year and a half, “for I have much people in this city.” (Acts 18:8-11) His was not a theology of failure, but of success.
The modern church growth movement has caused a shifting in many pastors’ theological seats in this regard. It is no longer easy to be faithful and unproductive. We have been forced to ask serious questions about our ministries. Do we dislike “numbers” for biblical reasons, or because they reveal our ineptitude? Are we actually in favor of small churches or against large ones because we are not in a large church? Is it faithful to maintain a church for ten years without any new people becoming disciples? Is that faithfulness . . . or is it stagnation? Is that faithfulness or is it complacency?
In the past we have often embraced a theology of failure which has, as a result, generated little motivation for growth and implanted criticism for our fellow pastors. Our understanding of faithfulness needs ripening in a proper understanding of God’s standard of success.
GOD’S BIBLICAL STANDARD OF SUCCESS
Success is reaching the Master’s goals with the resources he has given us. Such a statement may seem a bit general at first, but I believe it adequately states the principles involved in God’s criteria for a successful ministry. The basic principles are found in the Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25:14-30.
Servants have various resources. In the beginning of the parable the master is seen giving various possessions to his servants. The possessions, called talents, were large sums of silver or gold. Their responsibility, as faithful stewards, was to protect and invest their master’s money. While both of these responsibilities were important (protecting and investing), the close of the parable indicates that investment was the chief concern of the master.
What is also important to notice is that they did not have the same resources with which to begin their service. One had five talents, one had two, the last had one.
Similarly, pastors and churches have been given varying resources by our Master. Our resources fall into two areas. First is our people. Peter makes it clear in I Peter 5 that pastors are to shepherd the flock of God “among” them. Again he says we have been “allotted” a people (v. 2-3 ).
Naturally the people a pastor has to work with is a determining factor in the possibilities for growth. One of the axioms of church growth is that the people must want the church to grow and be willing to pay the price. The resources pastors have in their people is one of the most important resources they will ever have. I distinctly remember pastoring a church which owned a beautiful building, had a park-like landscape , and a nice five bedroom parsonage. But, while the building seated 225 people, there were only twenty-eight in the congregation. I learned quickly that people are far more important than adequate facilities. God has given all pastors a portion of His worldwide flock and we are to faithfully steward it and invest it until His return.
Second, we have been given resources within ourselves. All our natural abilities and the spiritual gifts granted to us by the Holy Spirit are resources from which we are to shepherd God’s flock among us. All pastors are not gifted teachers or administrators or evangelists. God has gifted us individually. Therefore we are to serve Him with our personal abilities and gifts.
I was once talking with a denominational leader about the people in my congregation. His response to my lamenting about the problems I faced was, “You’ve got to work with the people you’ve got.” That tells the story for all pastors. It makes no use wishing we were in a different place or had different gifts. God has given us His allotted charge and gifted us as He deemed suitable. Now it is our responsibility to reach His goals with these resources. We’ve got to use what we’ve got.
Servants have the same goal. The service of the servants in the Parable of the Talents involved more than simple protection of the master’s money. As indicated by the master’s actions at his return, he definitely expected them to multiply (or at least try to multiply) what he had given them. The two servants who demonstrated an increase were rewarded, while the third, who merely protected his money, was scorned. In fact, the master indicated he would have been happy with the smallest amount of increase (bank interest) if the servant would have at least tried (Matt. 25:27). Since the servant didn’t even think increase was important he lost his reward.
Pastors have several areas they are accountable for in shepherding their flock. They are 1) protecting, 2) leading, and 3) feeding. These three ideas come out in Paul’s last words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28. He tells them to be on guard for the flock (protect), that they are to shepherd the flock (feed), and that they are to oversee the flock (lead). God expects pastors to feed and protect His flock. The pastor who fails in these areas certainly is a hireling, not a shepherd. Equally important, however, is the area of leading the flock. It is the nature of shepherding to lead the flock somewhere. It is God’s goal that His flock be led to increase. What is going to be Christ’s response to the pastor who has esteemed growth of the church as unimportant? Does it make Christ happy when we simply maintain what He has given us without so much as an honest attempt to increase it? I don’t believe so. Christ expects pastors to lead His church forward in growth. It is the pastor who strives for the goal of growth who will be called faithful.
Servants have similar reward. The servants began their stewardship with various resources. It is of no surprise, therefore, that they had differing results. The one with five talents doubled to ten. The one with two doubled to four. It would have been illogical for the one with four to have been envious of the one with ten. Likewise it would have been wrong for the one with ten to be critical of the smaller results of the one with four. As shown by the reaction of the master, the fact that results were achieved was more important than the exact amount of increase.
Each of the servants who increased his master’s holdings was granted a reward. Surprisingly it was the same reward: “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” It made little difference that their outward increase had been different. The master spoke the same words to both. Note the word “faithful.” The faithful servants were the ones who demonstrated growth of their allotted trusts. The servant who had made no effort at growth was the unfaithful one. Faithfulness is directly related to growth in what God has entrusted to us.
As pastors, we must realize that to maintain our churches by guarding them and feeding them, while neglecting to lead them forward in growth is not pleasing to our Lord. Faithful leadership has the goal of growth for the Body of Christ.
Our ministry may never be as large as another’s, but it should be a growing, thriving, increasing ministry. God wants His church to grow. The local church is His possession that He has entrusted to us. And, like the master in Christ’s parable, He expects an increase.
CALIBRATING GOD’S STANDARD OF MEASUREMENT
So . . . what if God’s standard of success is reaching His goals with the resources He has given us? How can we measure ourselves against that?
God’s goals are measurable. Effective goals are always measurable. There are three strategic areas we need to check ourselves against. First, our ministry is successful if we are making disciples. Discipling surely indicates we have people with whom we are currently working. Normally we have understood discipling to be a process directed toward believers. A careful look at Matthew 28:19 reveals that discipling is primarily directed toward nonbelievers. “Disciple the nations” is the basic idea. If we are successful we should be able to identify-by name-the people we are presently discipling. Recently I evaluated my ministry and found I had no nonbelievers that I was discipling. Lately I have made a determined effort to pull around me persons whom I am presently seeking to win to Christ. Now I know who my people are. I can name them. Who are the people you are discipling today? Can you name them?
Second, our ministry is successful if we are folding people into our church. Simply put, this means our church is growing, especially through the addition of new believers. A rapidly growing church should be able to see a 50 percent increase of new people in the church every five years, or every seven years if in a rural area. Certainly a minimum percentage increase would be 5 percent more new people than we lose in a normal year. How many new people have come into your local church since you have been there?
Third, our ministry is successful if we are teaching others to move into ministry and disciple-making. Paul told us to teach the things of the Word to faithful men who, in turn, would teach others (II Timothy 2:2). I know of one church in Oregon that can trace eight “spiritual generations” of people who have been discipled and in turn discipled another. How many of us even have one “Timothy” we are teaching?
As pastors we are truly successful if we are seeing 1) nonbelievers discipled, 2) people folded into our churches, and 3) our efforts multiplied in others. All of this done through the resources God has given to us as His stewards.
Success is teaching the Master’s goals with the resources He has given us. How are we doing?