Success vs. Failure in Ministry
Visible results cannot be the metric by which we measure our ministries, which raises a disturbing question: What if the immediate results are not what you envisioned? What if, in a dark turn of God’s providence, your faithfulness starts looking like what the world would call failure? What if, for all your faithfulness and patience, your leadership is still ignored, people are still leaving, the church still isn’t adding new converts to its numbers, or the gospel is still generating more conflict in the church than you expected? What if that same problematic leader is still threatening and plotting to get you fired, precisely because you’re following [wise] counsel?
Of course, even faithful leaders have room to grow, so there will probably be some soul searching. No pastor is without his sins. Even so, if numerical growth, or even gospel progress, remains elusive, don’t get jaded and don’t give up. The gospel is still the power of God to salvation, and it is still doing its work in you and in those around you. Jesus is still your High Priest, and he knows what it’s like to be sinlessly faithful and yet end his earthly life with little to show for it. Jesus’s best twelve guys—the dynamic dozen!—all abandoned him when the rubber met the road. One of them outright betrayed him, another repeatedly denied ever knowing him, and one actually ran away naked (Mark 14:50–52). Jesus died the death of a damned criminal.
Small wonder we overhear the suffering servant praying, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God” (Isa. 49:4 ESV). Jesus felt that, thought that, prayed that—and if you serve him, then maybe you will, too. In a similar way, the apostle Paul was treated as an enemy by some of the very churches he planted (Gal. 4:16), and at his first public defense, none of his converts showed up to support him—not one (2 Tim. 4:16). Yet none of us thinks of Jesus or Paul as failures, do we?
Now, don’t get us wrong. We don’t want you to lead in a way that initiates unnecessary conflict. Be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. Know your context and your congregation, and adapt accordingly. There’s no virtue in suffering simply because you spoke before you listened (Prov. 18:13). Patience is a pastor’s preservative. Still, just because you take [wise] counsel in doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up pastoring a thousand-member church in the heart of a cool city. That doesn’t mean it’s not working or that your ministry has failed! God uses all kinds of pastors in all kinds of places in churches of all sizes. Moreover, not every pastorate, and not even every local church, succeeds in the way we might want or expect. God never promises his servants a celebrity spotlight or what the world salutes as success.
Remember what God said to Baruch in Jeremiah 45:5? “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (ESV). Baruch wanted to be known as the scribe who served the prophet who turned the moral tide in Israel so that the people would avoid the exile, return to God, and see the renewal of the kingdom—you can imagine worse ambitions—yet it wasn’t to be. Similarly, Elijah thought his own showdown with the prophets of Baal might just be the great turning point for God’s people, yet he was sorely disappointed in their response to his ministry.
Worth the Cost
Don’t misunderstand—we’re gospel optimists, and we want you to expect great things from God, too. Be strong and courageous! But there is no fast track to explosive numbers or evangelical stardom or exemption from the costs of the cross. If you commit to building a healthy church on the foundation of the gospel, then prepare yourself for a cross-shaped life and ministry, because the gospel is the gospel of the cross. You are taking up your cross and following Jesus. He who saves his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for Christ’s sake and the gospel will find it. A call to ministry is a call to die—to self, to sin, to selfish ambition, to idolizing your own success, and to enhancing your own image. If you’ve never died like this in ministry, then chances are you’re not doing it right.
If you commit to building a healthy church on the foundation of the gospel, then prepare yourself for a cross-shaped life and ministry, because the gospel is the gospel of the cross.
But it is worth the cost, because here’s the hope: the call to ministry is a call to the kind of death that always issues in resurrection—maybe not immediately, but eventually. There is no glory in the Christian life or ministry without suffering first—not even for Jesus himself (Phil. 2:5–11). But if we do suffer with him, then we will be glorified with him (Rom. 8:17). No one who dies with Christ and for his sake will ever be left in the grave. He always raises his people.
Take it on the word of an old apostle: there’s a depth of fellowship with Christ even in the midst of the suffering, not to mention in the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3:10–11). To suffer with Christ is one of the great privileges of Christian ministry—it is indispensable to Christ-likeness, and it is one of the great keys to our own fruitfulness (John 12:24–26). Our death to self in ministry is part of what God uses to create life in others. We are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:10–12 ESV).
Christian, expect a cross, even multiple crosses, in Christian ministry. And then expect God to raise you from the dead, time and again. “Indeed we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9 ESV). Jesus reproduces his sufferings in us, to reproduce his resurrection in us, so that when others see us, they see the power of Christ crucified—and risen. This is what Peter was preparing the churches for in his first epistle—suffering, and only afterward, glory. Jesus died in shame to rise in glory (1 Pet. 1:18–21) so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. And he suffered, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (2:22–24). Those steps lead through the cross; but praise God, they don’t end there.
This article is adapted from How to Build a Healthy Church: A Practical Guide for Deliberate Leadership by Paul Alexander and Mark Dever.
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