What’s wrong with success?

by Martin Turner

How does the church deal with success? I have been fortunate  to have been in a number of  churches during my ministry where (despite me!) numerical growth has taken place.  I fully recognise that there are others who have worked hard, prayed hard but through no fault of their own have not been in such situations of potential.  Nevertheless the response to such growth and what others have termed success has often been underwhelming! I recall how on one occasion I was asked to share some of my experiences of ministry. I gave an account of four situations where considerable growth in numbers,  response to social need and depth of fellowship and spirituality had taken place, to be met with a stony silence. It was only when I started to speak of a more difficult situation where such things had not taken place that I was greeted with enthusiasm!

Why it is that Methodism seems to struggle with success? I can think of three possible reasons.

First, most of us have been in a declining Church all our lives, our situation shapes expectation, subliminally it is easy to rationalise and justify decline.

Second, the theology of the sixties and seventies had a strong emphasis upon the idea of remnant, the thinking being that the small faith group was more effective and positive than the large.  I remember hearing with amazement a senior Church leader describing how his situation had declined numerically to an astounding extent, but he was delighted with that because he felt that he was being faithful to the radical and challenging gospel.

Third, we are quite rightly wary of the so called “prosperity gospel” pedalled by American television evangelists and, from my London experience, affirmed by some of the ethnic churches of other traditions.

The theological question I want to ask is does God want us as a Church to grow numerically and be successful?  Now of course we must ask what does the word “successful” mean?  In a brief article I cannot spell out the various ways we might view success, so please excuse me if I share my own  view, perhaps in the feedback others may like to share theirs.

I firmly believe that three criteria need to be  in place for success in the life of the Church.

First, the creation of  a community in which the love of God is experienced and self evident.

Second, the proclamation of the gospel that through faith in Christ we can receive salvation, know forgiveness and commence discipleship.

Third, an openness to the guidance and work of the Holy Spirit to empower our mission and answer our daily prayer “Your Kingdom come…”

That pattern is set out very clearly in Acts Chapter 2 where we see the fruit of a Church working well leading to success coming in various ways:-

  • people becoming more theologically literate and therefore more confident in their faith (v42)
  • seeing God at work through changed lives, healings and the sometimes extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit (v43)
  • the quality of the community life, so different to that of the local drama group, choir, golf club or pub (v44-45)
  • worship which challenges and inspires and where God is clearly at the centre (v46 – 47A)
  • outreach which makes an impact in the local community and leads them to think positively about their local Church (v47B)
  • numerical growth (v47B)

I suspect that the point which causes Methodists the most difficulty is the last: numerical growth.  If numerical growth is not important why does Luke bother to count and report a growth in numbers?    Are we lauding the virtue of faithfulness, in the context of a declining Church, in order to avoid facing up to issues of decline where a more appropriate response might be repentance?

Growing churches see and experience faithfulness and success  as being inextricably linked.

So the question I would ask is whether or not we think that God wants us to be successful, however we understand it?  Linked to this, if God does want us to be successful as a Church why does Methodism in many ways, especially numerically, not seem to be?  Is the personality of the leader a factor? Do our structures and the way CPD is sometimes applied constrain risk taking?   What might we do to enable success?

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4 thoughts on “What’s wrong with success?”

  1. Thanks for these helpful reflections Martin,

    I think my response would be that I’m not sure success (however that is measured but particularly if it’s in terms of numbers) is any indication of our faithfulness either as individuals or as church communities. Was Jesus being more faithful to the task God had called him to when he was surrounded by over 5,000 people (surely a wonderful quantifiable sign of success) or when he was standing alone silently in front of Pilate? In both places he was being faithful – the outward signs of success were irrelevant in measuring his depth of faithfulness.

    So, the more important question is “are we being faithful to the task God has called us to”. Sometimes that faithfulness might result in massive church growth, sometimes it will lead to us being ignored and alone in the gutter. What is important is the prayer and discernment around this question of faithfulness rather than success.

    In the Ignatian tradition we explore the concepts of consolation and desolation when asking this question of faithfulness – sensing those times, places and relationships where we are fully engaged with the Spirit of Christ and those times we have turned another way. There is also the concept of ‘false consolation’ that’s a time when on the face of it we look like we’re being faithful, following the will of Christ – and it’s usually the big shiny things that give us this impression: events and ministries that have all the outside trappings of success – but actually there is a hollowness to this ministry that is really serving our own ego than following the self-giving path of Jesus. I always find ‘false consolation’ the hardest to discern, it takes deeply honest prayer and conversation with people we trust in order to tease the truth out.

    So, in my own ministry I feel that the question of whether I have been successful or not is irrelevant – maybe I preach to a room of thousands of people, maybe I spend my days praying alone, silently and unseen – neither has any bearing on whether I have been faithful to the ministry Christ has called me to.

    Every blessing,
    Ric

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  2. Many thanks Martin. I’m often reflecting and wrestling with precisely this language. I, like Ric, always prefer the language and calling of faithfulness over success. However, I do believe that growth is important for all of us, individually and as congregations and as the Methodist people – growth in prayer, growth in confidence, growth in the Word, growth in deepening relationships, growth in risk taking experimentation. I believe when we take that growth seriously then God blesses us with opportunities to share our faith and introduce people to Jesus. In one of our churches this year we have tried to be clearer at articulating who we are as the church and what is is that we represent. We have celebrated baptisms and made new members. I don’t want to claim that as success, but by being faithful we have experienced numerical growth, and I think you could be right, Martin, that we may have bought into decline and defeatism, and remembering that Jesus wants all to experience ‘life in all its fullness’ is one of my daily reminders to ensure through my own work and calling that I have a responsibility in my own discipleship to grow closer to God, and to share that hope with others.

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  3. I stray on to this territory with much trepidation, lacking as I do theological training and often being tempted (as a previous President encouraged us to be) to think outside normal parameters. I simply want to remark that I am perturbed when we define success by reference to the norms within which we live and have our being. Of course, those do define our individuality and we want therefore to see them protected and developed – we want our defensive structures to survive! But what if they can ever be more than transitory and are themselves evolving (to adopt one mechanism) into something else? The Church as an institution is not to be confused after all with the kingdom. I imagine one response to this will be to say that institutional shape may change but the defining characteristics cannot. Christ’s values are eternal and infinite. So the question might then become is it possible tosee those characteristics existing or developing elsewhere in the world – bleak as that prospect seems at the present time. Martin I think suggests not – citing the drama club or the pub. But are those the places to look – might not charities, health services, educational foundations offer, human rights groups, ecological movements offer greater potential? Even then, these do not hold much opportunity to worship God as our tradition requires or develop our own spirituality – but perhaps these very concepts are time-limited and are beginning to be renewed in emergent theology.

    I write in these terms not to promote my own ideas but rather to clarify and sharpen my own. I would welcome anyone offering me guidance.

    Thank you Martin for prompting this reflection.

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  4. There’s nothing wrong with success, numerical or otherwise, but it would be a great mistake to think that it was dependent on us. We can only ever sow the seeds and provide encouragement and a nurturing environment. The ‘success’ comes from God. Just because we don’t see the harvest doesn’t mean there isn’t one. And when we do see it, we’re usually harvesting someone else’s sowing. Just as well really or we might be tempted to take the credit when both the seed and the growth come from God.

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