Success at church is easy to measure. How clearly are we communicating the gospel to our community? How often are we presenting the message with the energy, freshness and creativity it deserves? How focused are we on individual life transformation that makes people more like Christ?
If the answers are very, always, and like a laser, then we are being successful. If our answers are less than clear, then we probably have some work to do.
We measure success in a lot of ways. At home, success is often the biggest house in the nicest neighborhood with the most expensive cars in the garage. At work, success is the biggest paycheck in the corner office of the most prestigious company. In school, success is being popular, talented, athletic, attractive and smart…or at least four of the five.
In life success is a comfortable early retirement and money to travel with. At church, success is a sanctuary full of the “right” kind of people and a campus with the right kind of facilities to impressively host our children’s weddings and our parents’ funerals. It’s a charismatic pastor with a nice, encouraging message that reinforces our political, cultural and social biases.
At church we’re supposed to tell you that that’s what the world thinks and at least give lip service to trying to convince you of something different. But what do we really believe? Do we really believe anything with enough conviction to truly set ourselves apart? Who doesn’t want a big paycheck and a big house and a fancy car and nice vacations and an impressive church home and an early retirement?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all want all of those things and identify success with the same things the world calls successful. That’s our default position. That’s the position we wake up to every morning. It’s what our culture teaches us. It’s what our friends tell us. It’s what many of our parents taught us. It’s what our bosses entice us with. It’s what what we want for ourselves deep down in our bones.
BUT…That’s not what Jesus teaches AT ALL. All of the above goals are self-centered, not in a pejorative sense, but in the sense that they are inwardly focused on ourselves. If we are to follow Jesus, then we must change our outlook and refocus our perspective.
At home, success would be a happy family well-provided for and growing in Christian love. At work, success would be satisfying, fulfilling work done well. At school, success is mastering a knowledge base that allows for a meaningful contribution to society. At church, success is becoming more like Christ and leading others to do the same. These goals are focused on how we can have a positive impact on OTHER people, hopefully all for the cause of Christ and to the glory of God.
If we approach each area of our life with a selfless, other-centered, outward focus, we may very well end up with a comfortable home life and workplace promotions and opportunities to travel and full sanctuaries and impressive buildings. But if those are the primary things we aim for, we’ll miss what’s most important.
Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to seek God’s kingdom first. If we do that, Jesus promises all the other things the world chases after will follow (Matt 6:33). Do we believe that? Do we really believe that God will bless those who seek God’s kingdom, those who put others first as Christ has put us first?
If we don’t, or we don’t believe it enough to change us, then the first step of discipleship is for us. We can’t make disciples until we are disciples ourselves. We can’t ask people to follow us until we are first following Christ or there’s no telling where we’ll all end up.
Discipleship isn’t a one time event. Following Jesus isn’t a one time decision. Unless it is a decision made over and over again, every day, we quickly revert back to the default position. And let’s call it what it is; The default position is selfish, self-centered self-interest. That’s the way of the world; but it is NOT the way of our Lord.
When Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” we ought to be reminded that refusing to conform to the world is an every day decision (Romans 12:2). It’s a decision that both individuals and church communities must make over and over again.
So what does it look like for a church to follow Christ? Are we outwardly focused? Are we more concerned about others than ourselves? Are we clearly communicating the gospel to our community in fresh and creative and engaging ways? Are we focused on life transformation that leads us all to look more like Christ?
My prayer is that for all churches everywhere, the answer will always be a resounding YES.