The other day my wife accused me of harboring a secret desire to be a race car driver. We were on vacation in Tennessee, hiking state parks and national recreation areas. Getting to those places sometimes meant driving serpentine roads, skirting drop-offs and climbing mountains, and she thought (her estimation, not mine) I drove too fast.
On our way to Tennessee, we went through Kentucky and stopped at the farm where my mother was born. It was so far back in the hills that it had no road frontage, but I found the entrance to the property. Later we drove to the little church where my grandfather and grandmother, aunts and uncles, and a great many more distant relatives, are buried.
After walking among the headstones, I stepped onto the porch of the old church where my grandmother’s funeral had been held. I looked in through a window and read the figures on the attendance board. There had been about 30 people present on the previous Sunday, and it occurred to me that there were many more bodies laid in the ground than seated in the pews.
I wondered what it must be like to pastor that church or one like it (and there were ones like it around every curve in those deep hills). What might success look like in such an out-of-the-way place? An influx of new members seems unlikely. People will be born, will marry and die there, and the church will love them and tell them about the God who loves them and sent his only begotten Son for them. Is that success? Is that enough?
A suburban church might evaluate success quite differently, with a gauge that measures attendance and budget. It’s no secret that denominational officials research a target community’s growth potential before starting a new church. They examine the demographics. They create a plan, similar to any business plan, and prepare a launch. They take advantage of social and print media and promote the new church through multiple outlets.
Then they work the numbers: Was Launch Sunday a success? How many people attended? What was the median age of attendees? Was the music mix right for that age group? How many giving units make up the new church? How has growth proceeded in the weeks and months since the launch? Such questions become the benchmarks that measure success.
And failure. Church attendance in the U.S. is, on the whole, plateaued or declining. Churches are having to reduce the size of their staffs, delay raises for their pastors, and consolidate services. What constitutes success in a church that is in decline? When the pastor of a struggling church looks at the megachurch pastor, whose picture is plastered on the cover of magazines and whose book in on his nightstand, must he conclude that he is a failure?
Success, especially in an ecclesiastical context, is notoriously difficult to gauge, but one thing is sure: the ABCs of church success – attendance, buildings and cash – are not the measurements that heaven reviews.
Success has been defined as the degree to which a person (or, in this case, a church) realizes its potential. That’s a good definition, but a more biblical one might be, “The degree to which a person (or church) remains faithful to his or her calling.” So St. Paul writes, “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
Staying true, proving faithful, that’s what the Bible calls success. Use any other gauge and even the great heroes of the faith fall short. The Bible celebrates those who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated” not because they were successful by contemporary standards, but because they were faithful to their heavenly calling.
Attendance, buildings and cash are easy to quantify. Faithfulness is not. But attendance, buildings and cash will never fulfill anyone, still less will they win the heavenly affirmation: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” That is reserved for those who prove faithful.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/24/2015