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Success is, first and foremost, doing what God has asked us to do, doing it His way, and in His timing.

Years ago, when I was first wrestling with redefining success, I imagined what it might be like to come before God’s throne at the end of my earthly life and say: “Here, God, is what I have done for you. New Life Fellowship Church now has 10,000 people.” Then He would respond: “Pete, I love you, but that was not what I gave you to do. That task was for a pastor in another part of New York.”

Have you ever considered that your ministry, organization or team may be growing, yet may be actually failing?

Measuring ministry impact with numbers is biblical. The book of Acts uses numbers to describe the impact of the gospel—about 3,000 baptized (Acts 2:41), about 5,000 believers (Acts 4:4), crowds coming to faith (Acts 5:14). We have a whole book in the Bible called Numbers. So, in the context of the church, it is good to measure things such as attendance, baptisms, membership, number of small groups and financial giving.

The problem comes when that is all we measure.

Measuring deep, beneath-the-surface transformation in people’s lives is also critically—if not more—important. (Consider Paul in Galatians 4:19, or Jesus mentoring the twelve.) The specifics of these internal markers will differ from ministry to ministry and from context to context. Think with me for a moment about some of God’s faithful and, hence, most successful leaders:

  • Jesus said of John the Baptist, “among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28). Yet, if we were to create a bar chart on the size of John’s ministry over time, it would demonstrate a peak followed by a steady and precipitous decline.
  • The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah both served God with passion and obedience, but they were mostly written off by an unresponsive remnant—definitely not what anyone likely considered success.
  • Jesus didn’t wring His hands and question His preaching strategy when “many of His disciples turned away and deserted Him” (John 6:66, NLT). He remained content, knowing He was in the Father’s will. He had a larger perspective of what God was doing.

It’s hard to see how any of the names on this list would be considered successful in most leadership circles today. Yet the Bible makes it clear that God approved of their ministries. The implications are that we may well be growing our ministries and failing.

Embracing God’s definition of success for New Life Fellowship through the years was initially difficult for me to accept. It slowed me down, and I suddenly felt as though I didn’t look as good as the leaders of larger ministries to whom I compared myself. It meant that New Life had one objective: to become what God had called us to become, and to do what God had called us to do—regardless of where any of that might lead us. It meant that all the previous markers—increased attendance, bigger and better programs, a larger budget—had to take a backseat to this one.

I encourage you to pause and reflect for a moment. What might change if you were to define success not by the numbers but as radically doing God’s will? What external markers might become less important? What internal markers might become more important? What fears or anxieties are you aware of as you even consider such questions?

Believe me, I understand how disorienting these questions might be. But I also know how rewarding and freeing it is to live and lead from the center of God’s will. If you are willing to take some risks and live with the tensions, I can promise you won’t regret it.

Prayer Points 

  1. Ask the Lord to show you His definition of success, and listen closely.
  2. Ask Him to help you to shake off your old notions of success and to be open to a different kind of measure.
  3. Pray for the kind of deep, personal transformation in your congregation that indicates Christ is in control.

Share your thoughts. See comments below, and add your own.

is pastor at large and founder of "Emotionally Healthy Discipleship," and author of "Emotionally Healthy Spirituality."