The Difficulty of Judging Success
It's nothing new, I suppose, this difficulty of judging success in ministry. How successful is a sermon, and how do you know? How successful is a presentation on mission? How do I know?
This weekend I presented and preached in southern Oregon. The people were wonderful - kind and hospitable - and the church building was impressive. I couldn't help feeling, however, that my performance at the lecturn on Saturday and again at the pulpit on Sunday would have only merited a six out of ten. People were polite in their compliments, and some said either were interesting, and a few even continued the conversation begun by my speaking (so I know at least they were listening). (And, I think both the presentation and my sermon will be better next week - always refining, always preparing, always looking to improve the next time.)
But even more than my lackluster performance, I am beginning to feel the weight of this job: I feel like, to some extent, I hold the future of the church in my hands, and our death or resurrection rests in my unskilled and clumsy shoulders. People introduce me as the Missionary Coordinator, and I can almost hear the older members breathe in sharply with hope and anticipation, as if I hold the key, as if I by virtue of my age or personality or training can spark the church into successful mission the way they've not seen for fifty years. I spent a good deal of time lately with people who said they had a lot of ideas for mission - and they do, but most of the ideas started with massive financial investments, assuming that lack of money was the key. Some of the ideas were genuinely interesting, and had potential - but many seemed to stop at the identification of the probability of a problem that the church could address - no real knowledge of the nearby community and their actual needs, let alone a way that the church or church members could faithfully respond to a need. Some of these people assume that just informing me of the potential for church mission is enough for me to single-handedly design and implement a wildly successful evangelism program.
I have to remind myself that this is vanity, too, to think that everything relies on me - that God has no part in it, that the responsibility isn't shared among every member, that I can only do so much with my finitude, and so on.
I also have to remind myself that this vision of single-handedly packing pews and baptismal fonts is not my vision of what I want to do. I really do believe we ought to be about the work of growing people, not churches; forming healthy individuals, not counting heads; developing disciples, not filling fonts. And that work doesn't require a loads of cash, it requires loads of time and energy and sincerity.
Don't get me wrong, cash helps. But cash implies product and success in immediate quantifiable exchange. Dedication of time, energy, and sincerity, will meet with a lot of failure, mixed reaction and frustration, as well as insight, growth and small, surprising successes.
As long as we're fixated on continuing the institution, we'll measure success or failure by the world's values, not God's. As long as we're focused on maintaining and filling church buildings, we'll overlook the genuine mission of Jesus and Zion - to be in the world making a difference.
I am beginning to feel that my job - in part - is to remind church members that they can't buy someone to do mission for them. They have to be prepared to do mission - and that means sacrificing some time, some energy, and a lot of sincerity. Few people are brought to Christ by a lecture. Most are brought by a friend, or a friendship. Disciples are not made through an evangelism tract. Disciples are formed through engagement with the world, most often via a community that engages the world in discipleship together. Being Christian in our world isn't an individual thing, but a communal activity. Part of my job is to help build up that communal activity; and part of it is to break down the idea that mission is something we hire someone else to do. Our world is in desperate need of transformation, and it's going to take all of us to transform it.
And, frankly, I don't know if we'll ever be able to know if we've been successful or not, until we've changed the whole world.