Ask the question, ‘who wants to fail?’ and you have a fairly sure thing that no hands will be going up in the room. Nobody aims for failure. This is just as true for Christians. Nobody who wants to share the gospel with their friends, family, colleagues and neighbours is planning to fail. Everybody, at the end of the day, wants to be successful. In truth, there is nothing wrong with that. Only an idiot or a scammer would purposefully go into something to fail on purpose. So, let me say this clearly: it is right to want to succeed in our Christian witness.
Where we tend to go wrong is in our measure of what success ought to look like. Despite the fact that almost every Christian recognises this is a terrible measure, we so quickly fall back onto numbers. At church we ask, “How many people came to the event” as if that is some measure of anything. Sometimes we try to be a bit more spiritual and ask, ‘how many people have said that my life has made them consider Jesus?” but these are really all ways or saying much the same thing.
Others prefer to judge it by ministry output. If you can increase the ministry opportunities and the range of ministries you do, you have ‘made it’. Some consider punishing schedules that they take largely upon themselves as a sign of success. If you work and work, preparing to burn yourself out for Jesus, then you are a success.
The problem with all these measures is that they are all unbiblical. In fact, by all of these measures, the ministries of Jesus and the apostles after him were unsuccessful. They also unhelpfully labour under the presumption that these things are somehow within our hands. But the people who are saved, the people you are able to influence for Christ, and potential ministries you are able to do all ultimately rest in the Lord’s hands. None of these are really measures of your success and are more things that the Lord was pleased to do with you.
The measure of our success is nothing less than faithfulness.
The measure of our success is nothing less than faithfulness. Whether your church grows in number or not, whether you lead more or less people to Christ this year than last year: the only question that matters is this: were you faithful? Did you faithfully obey the Lord in the ministry he has given to you?
Jeremiah’s 40 years of ‘no response’ must be judged a success on this measure. Isaiah’s ministry of nobody listening is a similar success. They faithfully did what they were called to do. Our call is, likewise, one of faithfulness to Christ. Our ministry will be a great success if we do the things that Christ has called us to do.
And what has he called us to do? Live godly lives, make the most of every opportunity to speak for Jesus, to always be ready with an answer for the hope we have in Christ, to speak to anyone with gentleness and respect, and to be ambassadors for Jesus in this world. The number of people who respond, and the ministry opportunities that present themselves are above our pay grade. You cannot save a single soul, you cannot grow a single person, you cannot create and single ministry opportunity. These things are all the within the hands of the Lord. Your task is to remain faithful to that which he has called you to do.
You should definitely want to be a ministry success. But ministry failure is not when people don’t want to hear your testimony, or reject you or the gospel. The only failure unfaithfulness to Christ. The success for which we are aiming is faithfulness. The big concern with that is as we look at scripture and see the unfaithfulness riddled through the history of God’s people. But knowing that we have the Holy Spirit who gives us the words to speak and, all the more, remembering that we have a sovereign God who will ensure that what he wants to achieve will be achieved, including our faithfulness. So even in our one task of remaining faithful, we rest on the Lord who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
Stephen K. Kneale
is married to Rachel and has two children, Clement and Aurélie. He is the pastor at Oldham Bethel Church, an FIEC church in the Greater Manchester area of the UK which is also affiliated to the North West Partnership. He holds qualifications in History & Politics (BA, University of Liverpool), Religious Studies & Philosophy (PGCE, Edge Hill University) and Theology (MA, Kings Evangelical Divinity School). He blogs at Building Jerusalem, where an earlier version of this article appeared.