Have you ever noticed that, though a fast food burger has very little real meat, it is shaped like and looks like a real hamburger? When you eat it, you may be satisfied, but a steady diet of fast food will leave you unhealthy and malnourished.
I am convinced that many churches are like fast food. They may look like church, but the lack of “meat” leaves you unhealthy and malnourished spiritually. The shape and substance of a truly successful ministry is about relational presence with God and His people. You may feel like you are getting those things in a fast-food type of church, but are you?
The common assumption is that success in ministry means numerical growth; lots of people showing up. Right? We look to mega churches as the standard of how ministry should be done. I mean, you don’t see small church pastors speaking at church conferences. But, numbers cannot be the metric for success. What would it look like to have a framework for success that doesn’t include numbers?
If numerical success were the goal, then Isaiah would be a failure. But, a simple reading of Isaiah 6:9-10 (coming off of the famous cry of obedience “Here I am, Lord, send me”) shows that Isaiah’s ministry was marked by people who would never receive or respond well to his message. Yet, in God’s eyes Isaiah was successful.
If numbers were the goal, then Jonah would be a booming success, perhaps the most successful of all of God’s ministry leaders because we see the entire city of Nineveh turn to Yahweh. Yet, Jonah 4 shows that even though he was numerically successful in ministry, Jonah was disobedient because of racism and pride. Though God used Jonah to reach Nineveh, Jonah himself had a heart far from the heart of God.
If numerical success were the goal, then we would need to assess that Jesus’ ministry was regularly fraught with failure (John 6:51-66). But, we aren’t comfortable saying that. We know that’s not the case. So, how should we understand success in ministry if numbers aren’t the goal?
Jesus speaks of his ministry in terms of food. Not fast food that leaves you malnourished, but a substantial spiritual food that satisfies. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on the very word of God” (Matthew 4:4). “My food is to do the will of the Father” (John 4:34).
I am no longer satisfied with what is often presented as ministry in our culture. I want a completely different menu from which I can order. I want a different food from numerical success; one that will nourish my soul. Jesus says He is the food (John 6:51). If that’s the case, I can be successful in ministry if ONE person shows up: Jesus. As we seek to honor and serve Jesus, enjoying His presence and being sensitive to where He is working, we find true success in ministry, even if the big numbers don’t follow. Taste and see that the Lord is good says the Psalmist (Psalm 34:8). Instead of a successful (at least in terms of numbers) ministry, I want to eat the same food Jesus ate by seeking God’s presence.
One may be tempted to think that this is a plea for individualistic, “me-and-Jesus” thinking. Like going through a drive-thru for fast food, many of us believe that we can nourish ourselves by pursuing Christ alone. The presence of Jesus is not an individual effort only, but a communal one (Matthew 18:20). We need the people of God to fully enjoy the presence of God, no doubt. But, let’s not assume that more people means more of God’s presence. It’s where “two or three are gathered…” NOT where “two or three thousand…”
So, the shape of our spiritual food is Jesus alone. I am reminded here of the Lord’s Supper. The whole thrust of what Paul expresses when he encourages his readers in how to eat the bread and drink the cup is related to their ‘togetherness.’ “So, my dear brothers and sisters, when you gather for the Lord’s Supper wait for each other” (1 Corinthians 11:33). The stakes are high. If we eat of Christ’s body and drink of Christ’s blood in an unworthy manner, we may be eating and drinking judgment on ourselves; even to the point of death (11:27-30). So, the encouragement in this meal of Christ is to examine ourselves. He says this because how we gather and for what purpose matters.
If you lead a ministry, why do you do it? Have you examined your inner motivation? Is it to feel “successful” because you’ve got a lot of people showing up? Is it to create a name for yourself so you can feel significant or successful?
If you go to church, why did you choose that church? Is it because the Spirit of God is there? Or, is it convenient, or fits your preferences, or doesn’t require much of you (services are only an hour!)? Or, maybe you just go because a lot of other people do and so you assume God must be at work.
Either way, as with Jonah, God moves in spite of wrong motivations and His grace meets us there as well. But that doesn’t negate our responsibility to examine our hearts before God. God will not be a means to something else, not feeling of success/significance, not convenience, preferences or anything else. If we make our goal anything other than the presence of God, we may be missing the spiritual nourishment offered in Christ.
That last sentence…yes!!!
I love the image of “feasting with Jesus.” The issue of “large numbers = success” is perennial. In the American system of church life, funding depends on voluntary financial support (unlike, say, the United Kingdom, with government funding of the Church of England). Thus, those who want to be funded full time must have the communication skills/leadership gifts required to bring in the people who will bring in the funds. And all too easily it becomes an exercise in building a business enterprise: consumer Christianity.
In Acts and the Epistles, I find that in the beginning of the Church, numbers are cited: 3000 baptized on Pentecost, for example. Yet later in Acts, no numbers are given, nor are they noted in the Epistles. When I read texts such as Acts 19:10 (“all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord”), my American mind wants to know: How many congregations were planted? How many were baptized in each city? What was the numerical attendance in each of the house churches? I have to check this kind of thinking, because what I see in Acts and the Epistles is that lives were being transformed by Christ. Somehow, Law-minded Jews and pagan Gentiles experienced that “feasting with Jesus” was working an eternal change.