By Chris Travis
On the one hand, I get it. If you want a picture of what a church is like, then the number of people who come on Sundays fills in a lot of information quickly. But does it tell the whole story?
I think we all know it doesn’t, and yet, we’re really not sure how else to define success.
“What are you running on Sundays now?”
Three different people asked me that question within five minutes. This was not at a church planting conference. This was at my home church!
People didn’t ask how my wife was doing, or even how many people we have baptized. They wanted to know how many people were coming to worship with us on Sundays. When I replied, “We usually have about 90 people,” they tried to comfort me.
I’ve been serving in what many consider to be “hard ground”—church planting in a gritty neighborhood of New York City. We’re establishing a new church of legitimate New Yorkers. We’re racially and economically diverse, with all the challenges that presents. We have more single parents than couples. There is a very high incidence of mental illness. It’s not a place where explosive growth and fireworks make you feel like you’re knocking it out of the park every day.
I’ve had to do some soul searching and work on my ego to find contentment and peace in this calling. When I started this work, I had an immature view of God’s will. I’m discovering most people do. As a result, I have suffered through a lot of unnecessary discouragement. God has brought me a long way, and now, while the work is messy and challenging, I wouldn’t trade our new faith family for anything.
And I know I’m not alone. Many of us serve in contexts where success does not always mean “bigger and better.” And even people who lead large, fast-growing ministries suffer discouragement as a result of this same immature definition of success.
A More Biblical Definition
I’d like to propose a more biblical definition of success from Pete Scazzero’s excellent book, The Emotionally Healthy Leader. “Success,” he writes, is “radically doing God’s will.”1
You’d be hard pressed to find a Christian to disagree with that, but here’s how we get confused: In one sense, it is always God’s will for ministries to grow bigger, because he longs to save everyone (Ezekiel 18:32). So it is true that God wants our ministries to grow. But it is not the whole truth.
One time, Jesus crossed a line with his disciples, and many of them walked off. He told them they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. If I were on Jesus’ elder board, I’d probably advise him against that particular message. But what was God’s will in that situation? I think God wanted Jesus’ disciples to accept this hard teaching. They didn’t, and they left. Jesus’ ministry shrank. Does that mean Jesus did not obey his Father? Was Jesus failing? Of course not.
“Bigger and better” isn’t necessarily a wrong definition for success, but it is incomplete. God’s will is bigger than “bigger and better.”
Unhealthy growth is a real danger in nature and in ministry. Consider cancer, forest fires, and obesity. Many fast-growing cults and religions keep people from knowing Jesus.
And not all healthy things grow. In fact, most healthy things stop growing when they reach maturity. They may multiply or reproduce, but eventually, healthy things die. I am roughly the same size I was 10 years ago (OK, maybe my belt is a little tighter). But Lindsay and I have two little boys, and they’re growing like crazy.
It’s also possible to miss what God really wants if we mistakenly think he always wants bigger and better, no matter what. At Everyday Church, we have sensed God calling us to do things we knew were going to make us grow more slowly, for instance: singing songs in Spanish and offering translation, investing in children, pursuing diversity, including the poor, and welcoming people with mental illness.
As a result, we have a vibrant children’s ministry full of kids from our neighborhood and tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity. We’ve baptized about 45 people, almost all adult conversions of legit New Yorkers—people moving from darkness into light, not simply from one denomination to another. And it’s happening at an organic, healthy pace. We feel certain God wants us to focus our energy in these ways.
The result? We’re not the coolest church you’ve ever been to, but we continue to grow, one person at a time. And we’re on pace to be financially self-sufficient in the next year. I’m not aware of another church in our zip code to accomplish that in decades. I do think God wants us to grow bigger, but that’s not all he wants, and it’s not what he wants most.
More Peace and Fruitfulness
Letting God’s definition of success sink down into my soul has produced more peace and fruitfulness in my life and ministry. Here are some suggestions about how to nurture and maintain a more biblical view of success, and how to enjoy the peace that comes with following God to the best of your ability:
• Jesus pulled all-nighters in prayer. It’s foolish for me to think a superficial devotional life will be sufficient to keep my head straight.
One of the great gifts God has given me through this ministry is a renewed focus on my personal relationship with him. It’s tempting to get caught up in ministry and for God to become just a means to the end of ministry success, instead of the end himself. Regular personal devotions—time reading the Scripture to hear from God (not to prepare for teaching or preaching) and chunks of time in prayer and listening to God—is inseparable from a healthy view of success.
• Find peers. It’s been life giving for me to befriend other church planters in our section of New York City. That’s important, because sometimes I am doing something wrong or need to try harder. It’s not always easy to determine when I need to improve and when things are rough simply because that’s the way things are. Peers help define what’s normal.
I started a monthly prayer meeting with other area pastors, and it’s so refreshing to speak with people who really get what we’re up against. I often leave feeling like we’re doing a pretty good job, or with ideas about how to improve that are appropriate to our context.
• Limit social media . . . and maybe some relationships. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve dug myself out of an emotional hole just to find “7 Ways You Are Killing Your Church” in my news feed, and then fell right back in.
And there are certain people I don’t care to interact with much, because they’ve bought wholesale into the “success equals bigger and better” definition. It’s difficult to have a productive conversation when you don’t agree on the definition of the words you’re using.
• Celebrate! This might be the most important thing. God is doing all kinds of wonderful things. You’ve got to share those stories—with yourself, with your team, with your church.
When a new participant stops hiring prostitutes, you’ve got to celebrate the immense life change it represents.
When an illiterate adult begins to read, appreciate the difference that’ll make.
When your church helps an abused woman get her kids to safety, thank God for the opportunity to join his rescue operation. When children become the first in their families to read the Bible, learn to pray, commit to marry a believer, and go to college or keep a job, cast a big vision for how that will affect future generations.
• Support ministries doing God’s will in a financially responsible way, but that nevertheless may take longer to become self-sufficient, or may never become self-sufficient. A dream of mine is to see every megachurch adopt or start an inner-city congregation as a campus or target of support, and to learn from them. I’d love to see every church planting and missions organization include in her portfolio of projects some that might not “pay off,” but are nonetheless led with integrity and accountability.
And I’d love if we could all start asking different questions:
“What has God been doing lately?”
“Are people responding to the gospel?”
“What’s the most challenging thing you’re facing?”
“What’s your neighborhood like?”
“What are you learning?”
“How can we pray for you?”
“How are your kids?”
“What do you hope to accomplish next year?”
“What’s your congregation like?”
After hearing the response to one of those questions, finding out how many people are coming on Sundays might not seem so much to matter.
1Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 188.
Chris Travis serves as pastor of Everyday Christian Church in New York City. He is also author of InSignificant, published by Bethany House in 2012.