Tuesday, February 21, 2006

How do we define success?

I’m going to start by admitting that I don’t have a complete answer to this question. But, as you might expect, I have several thoughts on the issue.

First, the church has tended to use the worldly definition of success with a few minor modifications. We eliminate people from consideration who achieve their “success” by unscrupulous means (most of the time), but we tend to use the same criteria that world does: numbers, size, money, power.

Second, Jesus was a failure according to the Jewish culture of his day. Any would-be Messiah who gets killed before he can establish his kingdom is by definition a failure. This is why Paul said that the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews.

Third, Jesus was a failure according to the pagan culture of his day. He never accomplished anything of significance according that culture. He didn’t build anything. He didn’t win any great battles. He didn’t consolidate a political power base. This is why Paul said that the cross was foolishness to the Gentiles.

Fourth, the prosperity promised in the Old Covenant is no longer on offer in the New Covenant. I am surprised how few Christians (and Christian leaders) understand the terms of the Old Covenant (the Covenant of the Law given through Moses on Mount Sinai). To put it in its simplest terms, God said, “You keep my laws and I will make you prosperous.” This offer is no longer available. The Old Covenant has been replaced with the New Covenant.

This confusion between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is why so many Christians get certain issues so wrong: such as tithing, Sabbath observance and promises of prosperity.

The New Covenant proposes something very different. Jesus says, “If you deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me, then I will give you true life and a place of significance in my Kingdom.” (I’ll have to deal with this issue at more length in a future post.)

But what about the success of the early church? Peter’s first sermon produced 3,000 converts (possibly more depending upon how you do the math). God added to their number daily. The early church exploded on the world. Shouldn’t we expect similar signs of God’s blessings in our ministries?

One thing we overlook is that this was kingdom success. The early church was pretty much the sum total of the kingdom at this point. Peter’s sermon did not produce the results it did because he had a clearly-defined mission statement, or well-written long-term goals. Peter was faithful, and God produced the results. This was God building his kingdom.

Maybe we’re asking the wrong question.

Maybe success is not the issue. Could it be that the real question is faithfulness? Does the master in the parable of the talents say, “Well done, good and successful Apprentice”? Of course not. He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Jesus is focusing on his faithfulness, not his success. But in our culture we see them as the same thing. The first two servants both doubled their investment after all.

Here’s some insight into this issue from Allen Mitsuo Wakabayashi in his excellent book Kingdom Come:
The way of the cross sometimes leads us into those places where all we can do is hold on. We can’t see our way forward, we are confused that God isn’t doing what we expect, and we can’t see any meaning for all the pain and frustration…. We must always do what we know is right and true before God even if it doesn’t seem as if it produces results…. We must never forget that the path of the cross leads to and through the darkness of death, not around it. Yet the God that we follow is the God of resurrection. We must hang on and stay faithful for as long as it takes.
Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”



Stumbled across your blog, reading all the articles; this one is one of my favorites.

Darryl said...

A friend sent me your post. Excellent thoughts! I couldn't agree more.

Pastor Rod said...

Welcome, Darryl. Thanks for the kind words.