God Save Us From The Successful Church

Almost everybody wants to be successful at what they do, whether it is a one-time effort or a career; whether it is vocational or recreational. Most people like to believe that anything to which they devote their time and energy can be viewed in retrospect as a success.

How do you measure the success of a church? The Christian church (generic, worldwide) and Christian churches (denominational, local) purport to follow the teachings and example of Jesus. When you consider that He was crucified, and all but one of His twelve Apostles died as martyrs for their faith, the question of what constitutes success becomes somewhat, er, problematic.

For Americans, success is almost always measured quantitatively, and most of the time bigger is better. That mindset has carried over to our thinking about the church, and its effect has been negative in the extreme. Since we equate success with size, the most successful churches must be the largest ones. And since we all want to be successful, we operate under the guiding principle that we must always be getting bigger.

The point of this post is not to suggest that large churches are inherently wrong or bad. Rather, I want to suggest that churches dedicated to the idea that growth and size are the principal characteristics of a successful church are thereby locked into a business model when they should be following a Kingdom model for the life and ministry of the church.

Here’s what I mean. Success in the business world almost always means growth. To be successful in the eyes of their stockholders, businesses need to generate more revenue this year than last. That generally requires monitoring the consuming public and giving them what they want, only more of it. Generally that means tweaking the recipe or adding a product line or improving a feature or updating the packaging. But it almost never involves any changes that intentionally result in a decline in revenue or market share. That’s because businesses do not exist to serve the community in any altruistic sense. They exist to make money for their investors. Sometimes those purposes intersect; often they don’t.

Churches exist for one purpose—to serve as agents of the Kingdom of God on earth. They fulfill this role in a variety of ways. They serve as a setting for worship and fellowship; they provide counsel and guidance; they meet needs for which no other organization or agency is as well equipped. Much, if not most, of the church’s task relates to discerning and addressing needs of people who are not even part of the church. That’s why Archbishop William Temple once famously noted that “the church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

Sometimes a church’s faithfulness in carrying out its mandate from God to be the agent of the Kingdom will result in an increase in membership. Some of those who have seen Jesus in the ministry of a church will choose to follow Christ as well, and they may be drawn into a meaningful relationship with that particular church. They may choose to identify with another church, however, and that should be perfectly okay.

Unlike department stores or hamburger restaurants or insurance companies, churches are not in competition with each other… or at least they shouldn’t be. But the business model, to which most churches are committed, in which their success is determined by their growth and their size, compels churches to think of themselves as competitors in a contest rather than as partners in a common cause.

As an agent of the Kingdom of God, a church may sometimes be called by God to move in an entirely new direction with its ministry in order to be more faithful as a steward of both the grace of God and the material resources which He provides. For example, what if God wanted a church to abandon its plans for the renovation of its building in order to direct those funds toward the establishment of a new church in another part of the city? Or what if a church recognized a legitimate need in its neighborhood for a homeless shelter or a home for unwed mothers or a pre-school for working mothers of limited means? And what if the only way the church could meet that need was to cut back on plans to pave its parking lot or underwrite the tuition costs for its members who attend Christian school?

In each of these cases, following a business model might very well result in a different course of action than following a Kingdom model. You see, God’s purposes for a church may not be best served by the commitment of energy and resources to programs and expenditures which are primarily focused on increasing the number of people in the church’s pews. Faithfulness to Kingdom purposes might require course-corrections or restructured priorities. After all, the images which the New Testament employs to characterize the church are more dynamic and less institutional; the church is portrayed more as an organism than an organization. Organisms move and change. Yes, they can also grow, but growth is a by-product of life, not the focus of existence.

Let me be clear. I am not opposed to growth. I want to see as many people as possible come to faith in Christ and follow Him in faithful discipleship. Ultimately, however, it is up to God to call people to Himself and to enable them to recognize their need and embrace the truth as it is found in Jesus. It is up to the church to serve Christ and His Kingdom, and faithfulness in that endeavor may actually be counterproductive to rapid expansion and explosive growth.

Of this I am absolutely convinced. A church which needs to increase its membership in order to prove its success or to generate revenue in order to fund an agenda that is more institutional than visionary is likely committed more to a business model than to a Kingdom model. When it comes to planning and programming, the church needs to answer only one question: In what way will this program, this facility, this expenditure enhance our effectiveness and increase our faithfulness as an agent of the Kingdom of God?

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5 thoughts on “God Save Us From The Successful Church

  1. “the church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” “It is up to the church to serve Christ and His Kingdom, and faithfulness in that endeavor may actually be counterproductive to rapid expansion and explosive growth.” Couldn’t agree more! Building things of beauty sure is a art, but- is it the lighting, art, and music that attracts people to Christ? Not really. It’s the draw that God has the power to change lives!!!

  2. Worthwhile thoughts. Thanks.
    Sometimes thinking about growth, faithfulness, etc. reminds me of Screwtape’s strategy of getting one’s subject to think about a whole multitude of aspects of an issue, without ever thinking of the core–or something like that.
    As your article intimates, growth and faithfulness to calling cannot be completely separated. At the poles the contrast is clear. As we get nearer to the core it is tougher. The chief resource involved in the church fulfilling her mission is people, and people come from . . .

    Thanks for causing me to think.
    Howard

  3. Great points Eric. As long as the church views the gospel as good news about personal salvation vs. the good news about Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension and present reign from heaven, breaking free from equating numbers with success will be hard.

    Why? The second view (see Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel) expands the mission of the church way beyond individual salvation.

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