By Elie Haddad
Another year has gone by. It has become a practice for many churches and ministries to publish an end-of-year report highlighting the activities and accomplishments of the previous year. This is mostly a sincere attempt to quantify impact and measure success. We even do this at ABTS. But is this a healthy practice? How should we think about success and accomplishments?
Looking to Scripture to get an understanding about success, it is obvious that the New Testament does not address this topic directly. However, we may be able to gain valuable lessons by studying the stories and examples in the Bible to discern some patterns. Two of these examples were “deacons” appointed in Acts 6 to serve the church because they were godly and Spirit-filled.
The first one is Stephen. Beyond Acts 6, we do not know a lot about him except that he preached a powerful sermon that got him killed. It is unlikely that Stephen was on a mission to martyrdom. So, the outcome was not in line with the goal. Does this mean that he was not successful? Should he have toned down his sermon a bit to live longer and preach a few more sermons?
The second example is Philip. His ministry among the people of Samaria was fruitful. He proclaimed Christ to them, they responded to his ministry, and there was much rejoicing in the city. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard about this, they sent Peter and John to disciple the Samaritans while the Holy Spirit removed Philip and sent him to the desert to reach one sole person. Was this a sign of success of the ministry of Philip? A common practice today would be that if an evangelist is effective in one hostile city, send him to more cities, or at least keep him in that city to disciple the crowds that he reached. But remove him and send him to the desert?
There are many more examples that we can study, but what about the ministry of Jesus? According to the Lucan account, at the start of His ministry (Luke 4), Jesus started teaching with authority and all were amazed by His teaching. He commanded unclean spirits and they came out, and He was healing all who were sick. But if Jesus had such a “successful” ministry, shouldn’t he have continued with the ministry and looked for ways to grow it? This is not what Jesus did. He simply left and went to a secluded place. The crowds looked for him, found him, and tried to keep him from going away. Jesus’s answer was: “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.” It was clear for Jesus what His priorities ought to be, to do precisely what He was sent to do. This was His measure of success, whether He was doing the will of the Father or not.
John, in his account, communicates the same message about Jesus’s motivation. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34); “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 5:30); “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38).
The New Testament is clear about the priorities of Jesus. He came to do the will of the Father. It seems that success in New Testament language is faithfulness and obedience. Not mere accomplishments or the pursuit of significance. The ultimate reward that any of us yearns for is to hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). The impact of Stephen’s ministry is measured by his faithfulness and not by how many times he preached. The impact of Philip’s ministry in the desert is measured by his obedience and not by the number of people he personally reached. It was about doing precisely what they were sent to do.
How does this compare to our own end-of-year reports? Do we feel that we must show growth and numbers, or are we satisfied in understanding what we are sent to do and precisely doing that? Should the primary concern of Christian life and ministry be about activities and accomplishments? Is God impressed by our activities and accomplishments? Or is He pleased by our obedience and our abiding in Him?
The accomplishment lists frequently highlight numbers of beneficiaries and people impacted by our ministry. I don’t want to minimize the importance of numbers. Numbers are important. Several times the book of Acts mentions growth in numbers. Numbers are important because individuals are important. However, should numbers be our measurement of success? I would like to argue that it should not be so because it is God’s work not ours. We do not save people. We witness. It is God who saves people. We do not cause people to grow. We disciple, we model, and we provide environments where people can grow. It is God who grows people. We do not extend the kingdom of God. We proclaim, in word and deed, we embody kingdom values in the world, and we exhibit the marks of God’s reign. It is God who extends His kingdom. We do not transform the world. We plant mustard seeds. It is God who transforms the world. If we were to measure numbers, whose actions are we measuring, God’s or ours?
I find that it is even more challenging in a church setting than in an organizational setting. Organizations exist to do something. The Church, on the other hand, exists to be the body of Christ in this world. Its being, abiding in Him, comes before its doing, engaging in His mission. Doing is a natural outcome of being. Apart from being, doing is futile and has no value to God.
The problem with end-of-year reports and accomplishment lists, in my opinion, is when we crave to impress our audience, to compete with other ministries, or simply to appease donors. Many donors require reporting on numbers: the number of activities, the number of beneficiaries or some other quantitative measure. There must be something more profound than that, and the relationship with donors ought to go beyond being merely transactional.
We wrestle with this at ABTS. We want to fight the tendency to become donor driven. We want to be careful not to do our activities to get money, to grow our profile or anything of the sort. However, we do want to be influenced by our partners. We know that God does speak to us through genuine partners who are accompanying us on our journey of being faithful to the calling of God.
On the partnership spectrum, relationships can range from purely transactional on one end, where each partner is interested in profiting the most from the partnership, to transformational on the other end, where each partner is so engaged and absorbed in the collaborative ministry that it is transformed by this relationship.
Was our ministry successful last year? I believe that this is the wrong question. I suggest that we should be asking more appropriate questions: Were we faithful last year? What were our motivations for our activities and accomplishments? Did we seek to impress God or others by them, or did we seek to please God by our humble obedience? Were our relationships with other ministry partners exploitative or transformative?
I also suggest that there should be another set of questions that we need to ask going forward: What are our goals for this year? Are they God’s goals or ours? Are they Spirit-led or opportunistically prescribed? Do they seek to glorify God or ourselves? How do we exercise spiritual discernment corporately and cooperatively?
My desire for 2022 is that our sole driving force for the year would be to do the will of the Father. Nothing else.
Elie is President of ABTS, is naturally driven by accomplishments, and is learning to long for being found faithful.
You raise important issues here. The need to quantify our ministry output may be linked to a business productivity model which we have unconsciously imbibed. Your scriptural examples are telling and I wonder if most of us in our ministry journeys notice that God uses us when we least expect it. There is a balance, of course. We should plan and use resources as effectively as we can. But in the final analysis, Jesus calls us to follow him. A crucified Messiah doesn’t make a good business model or church growth strategy.
I certainty agree with you, Bro. Elie! Thank you for sharing your wise thoughts.