Redefining Success

By Alan Ahlgrim

In Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, Kent and Barbara Hughes begin with Kent’s angry lament: “Most people I know in the ministry are unhappy. . . .
They are failures in their own eyes. Mine as well. Why should I expect God to bless me when it appears He hasn’t blessed them? Am I so ego-centered to think He loves me more?”

Success . . . and Disappointment

We live in a success-obsessed culture. No one hopes to one day be a colossal failure; we all dream of achievement. That’s not a bad thing. God created us to pursue our hopes and dreams, but what do we do when we are forced to confront the reality that our lives and accomplishments don’t measure up to our desires and expectations?

Dealing with disappointment is the common lot of every Christian leader. The apostle Paul himself repeatedly struggled with this. At one point he wrote, “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it” (2 Corinthians 1:8, New Living Translation). At points, Paul and other godly leaders not only dealt with severe difficulties in ministry, but even feared for their very lives.

I’ve never feared for my life, but I have feared for my “success” and that of the church. After I led our church through a multimillion-dollar legal battle and a massive multicampus expansion, we were on the brink of bankruptcy. I’ll never forget the day our key financial person entered my office and said, “I would be remiss in my fiduciary responsibility if I didn’t tell you that the church could be defunct within six months.”

While our two beautiful campuses serving more than 2,000 people indicated success, I felt failure. I had many dark-of-the-night struggles and relentless doubt. Did I over-inspire? Did I not listen to God? Did I position the church and the Lord for a colossal community embarrassment?

I felt trapped and daily pleaded for help. I learned a ton through that awful time. I learned, as the apostle Paul had previously, to stop relying on myself and to rely on God alone.

Runners reaching finish lineSuccess . . . and New Measures

My definition of success was reshaped forever. Years ago I studied everything I could about church growth and even earned an advanced degree in that specialty. I’m not against financial and numeric growth. I’m all for it. But I’m no longer enamored with it. I’ve been forever cured of measuring success merely in quantitative terms. Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just bigger and often not better at all.

Let’s face it, every person we add to the church is a potential problem; therefore, the more people we add, the more problems we will face. In his insightful book Leadership Pain, Samuel Chand makes the point: “You’ll grow only to the threshold of your pain.” Clearly, growth must have some qualitative markers.

If success is found only in mega this or mega that, few will ever experience it. In the church world, most congregations will never crack the 200 barrier, much less 2,000. Does that mean the devoted leaders serving as staff and volunteers of smaller churches are to be numbered among “the lesser thans”—lesser than the influential leaders of the largest and best-known congregations? I think not.

I am privileged to know the private struggles and battles of many large church leaders. I can assure you that mega sometimes can refer to mega disappointment, difficulty, and doubt. I have yet to see a correlation between church size and church health or leadership holiness. Some of the largest churches and their leaders are shallow and performance-driven; while some of the smaller churches and their leaders are happy and holy.

Yes, some small churches are hotbeds of pettiness and discord, while some of the largest are dynamic and devout. But the point is this . . . we dare not be guilty of focusing on mere externals. Just as God is not impressed with the outward stuff, but rather with the inward issues of the heart, the same should be true of us.

Healthy churches are noble ones and therefore led by noble leaders. Some of these churches are large, some are small. Most are somewhere in between. When it comes to nobility, size doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of heart.

A while back I was taken with a simple verse: “The godly people in the land are my true heroes! I take pleasure in them” (Psalm 16:3, NLT). Another word for pleasure here is delight.

Success . . . and Good Models

That set me to quickly making a list of some of the people that my wife and I take delight in—our spiritual heroes. You might want to try it. If you do, you might be surprised who made the top 10 on your list and who didn’t! We discovered that our spiritual heroes, the folks we especially delight in, had several things in common.

• Long obedience: Everyone on our list happened to be married for a very long time. Not only that, but they had also typically been members of the same church for decades. While our consumer culture encourages church shopping for the freshest and most relevant experiences, the people we personally admire have chosen to stay put both in marriage and in a ministry. Endurance is underrated by the world, but is highly valued in the eyes of God and those who determine to measure depth by his definition.

• Deep joy: Everyone on our list loves to laugh. While laughter isn’t always possible, it is important and reflects an attitude of confidence in God. Life is hard, but God is good. We believe that no matter how tough the times may be, our times are in his hands, and he will redeem all things.

Those who made our hero list all enjoy life and breathe life into us rather than suck life out of us! For us, holiness and humor are closely related. We have learned that joy is a choice we make despite the circumstances we face. We must always default to joy!

• Strong generosity: Everyone on our list actually believes it is more blessed to give than to receive. Imagine that! The godly make a lifestyle of living generously.

While that certainly means giving beyond a tithe of their income, it isn’t just confined to tangible things. Generosity is an attitude that permeates their lives. It’s revealed in their decisions to consistently give others the benefit of the doubt and to forgive those who have failed. The generous are compassionate, and it’s contagious!

Success . . . and True Impact

Could it be the same markers for our personal heroes might also apply to churches? I think so. The churches I find most impressive are those that have been rooted in their communities for years, those that have a joyful atmosphere permeated with frequent laughter, and those that delight in generously giving in a variety of ways.

What? You say, what about their faithfulness to the Bible? Doesn’t that matter? Of course, and their devotion to the authority of the Scripture is reflected in their attitudes of obedience, joy, and generosity. Therefore, these are within reach of us all.

At the root, it’s really more qualitative than quantitative. It’s a matter of being more than doing. It’s celebrating who you are and whose you are and the particular place to which God has called you.

Successful people are devout, not driven . . . grateful, not envious. I love how Paul phrased it, “But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us. . . .
For we are not overextending ourselves” (2 Corinthians 10:13, 14, English Standard Version). Much of our problem with success has to do with our sin of discontent. We all have a propensity to long for something more—and while there’s a place for holy ambition, we need to be careful not to miss the privilege of being gratefully present where we are.

Success is certainly defined by influence. That’s why we consider the most successful churches to be the largest, the most successful conferences to be the biggest, the most successful authors to be among the best sellers, the most successful bloggers to have the most followers, and the most successful politicians to have the most supporters. However, ironically, influence like this rarely translates to personal impact, much less personal transformation.

The ones who have had the most impact on us are almost always among the ones we are closest to. We measure the success of others mostly by their contribution to us and their model for us. As a young convert said of her new church friends, “I want to be just like them!” I’d say that tiny new church was already a great success!

Success in the eyes of God is to serve well and to finish well. Finishing well is a heart issue, it’s growing more in love with Jesus until we see him and serve him throughout eternity. This is the best definition of success I know—and it applies equally to individuals and to churches. Our primary focus is not on what we do for him but on what he has done for us.

So here’s the bottom line, success is not based on our performance for Christ, but on our position in Christ. That’s the gospel, and that’s good news for us all!

Alan Ahlgrim served as founding pastor with Rocky Mountain Christian Church, Niwot, Colorado, for 29 years and now serves as pastor-at-large. In addition, he serves as director of pastor care and leadership development with Blessing Ranch Ministries, New Port Richey, Florida.

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