Redefining Success

No doubt you’ve heard the news: technology juggernaut Apple Inc. recently released their fanciest product to date – the iPhone X. Even in the days leading up to it, the reviews from the pros were mixed, ranging from sentiments like “this is the best thing ever!” to dire predictions of their stock dropping significantly, and, of course, the arm-chair prognosticators covered everything in between. Time will tell how things will actually pan out for this particular product, but undoubtedly Apple has a lot of things going for them. (The understatement of the century, I know). It will still be the world’s ninth-largest company by revenue. Likely for generations, it will be a case study in business schools the world over as one of history’s most successful business enterprises. And, at least in the technology world, it is likely to continue enjoying relatively unrivalled success.

This recent event has turned my thinking more and more toward that word “success”. Success is something we want in ministry, isn’t it? Don’t you want to be successful in your ministry as a pastor or church leader? Shouldn’t we desire to lead successful, growing churches? Shouldn’t we want to see individuals in our church family be shepherded toward growth that will help them to be successful in their life and then watch as they pass on their spiritual successes to others? Second Timothy 2:2 anyone?

Sure, we each want our local church to be successful and surely so must the God who called us to shepherd and oversee it. But, I wonder – are we working with the same definition of success as God is?

Recently a note was shared with me from Mario Bruno, a former missionary to Italy who now pastors in a Fellowship Baptist church in the Etobicoke suburb of Toronto, Ontario. He writes:

“Going to Italy as a missionary meant I would be writing a prayer letter every month. After years of very few visible results I was under great pressure every month when I had to send out a new letter to my supporters and those who were praying for our ministry. What caused the pressure was what I viewed to be success. Having grown up in a Western, capitalistic society where success is measured in “more” of whatever the “bottom line” of the balance sheet was, I thought if I didn’t have more converts, more baptisms or more church plants in short order, I was a failure. Through reading the Scriptures, the Lord slowly taught me that success was not measured in numbers, but faithfulness to Him and His glory. That meant sharing the treasure He had entrusted to me, namely, the Gospel. That thought liberated me. I then was able to put on my calendar each day not an “S” or “F” representing success or failure, but an “F” or an “F” standing for faithful or failure. If I went out and shared the gospel I was faithful (and therefore a success). If I did not, I had failed the trust the Lord gave me. The results of each day’s work were left in the Lord’s hands.”

I don’t know about you, but that was a perspective-changer for me! I read that and I thought something along these lines: my ministry has got to be less about flash in the pan and more about faithful plodding. (And because I’m a preacher, it had to be alliterated, right?!)

Jesus clearly stated: I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:3 ESV) It’s quite likely that many of you have read all the commentaries and done the exegesis on this passage yourself. Perhaps you’ve even asked your church family as you’ve preached this, “when’s the last time you saw a branch striving to bear its fruit?” and then you closed the service, said “amen”, and shook hands at the back.

But then Monday happened.

Monday after Monday after Monday rolls around, and we wonder “did I miss something in the Greek somewhere?” Some days it seems like there’s a missing manuscript that we pastors are reading from that reads a bit differently: “apart from me you can do nothing… except pastors.” You and I may preach it the correct way, but I practice it this way – All. The. Time. And, I suspect that if you’re honest, you do too.

Pastors: we’ve got to stop it. We have to stop striving to bear our own fruit. We have to stop striving after what the world deems as “successful” in local church ministry, namely the size of our facilities, the fleeting satisfaction of “brand name” notoriety, and the vanity of counting noses & nickels and the butts & budgets.

Pastor, what if the local church you lead never becomes one of the country’s fastest growing giga-churches? What if your name isn’t ever included in the who’s who of church leadership? What if your locally contextualized methodology and ecclesiology isn’t ever sought by anyone except your own church family, and even then with notable exceptions, right?! And, what if the Lord never again allows you to experience your highest ever Sunday morning attendance?

Are you okay with it? Am I okay with it?

I hope so, because Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build MY church.” It’s HIS church – the church you oversee is HIS church. For me, particularly as a young senior pastor, that’s a liberating thought. You too, I hope.

I’m a branch and you’re a branch – neither of us can grow our own fruit. All we do is bear the fruit that the root system of the vine produces. Our true success lies only in our faithfulness to channel Jesus’ life-giving sustenance to others.

Less flash in the pan.

More faithful plodding.


Charlie Lyons is a 6.4 Fellowship Regional Resource Leader and Pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ontario.