By Adam Young, Lead Pastor of Element Church Aurora, CO
Defining success in ministry, corporately as a church and individually as a ministry leader, is difficult to do. I’ve had the pleasure of serving in small churches as well as large churches. I’ve experienced the excitement of being in rooms filled with thousands, and the challenge of trying to fill my own living room for Bible study. Every shape and size of church comes with its own challenges. Ministry in any setting can be lonely and a heavy weight to carry, but it was never meant to be a journey walked alone. The relationships I made with fellow leaders, pastors, and planters across the state in my years at the Rocky Mountain Campus of Gateway Seminary have kept me going through some of the most challenging seasons of ministry. One of the most difficult was the first year of church planting.
In the early days of our church plant, we weren’t progressing as quickly as we had envisioned, nor as we had cast vision to our supporting partners. In that first year no one had prayed the ‘sinners’ prayer or been baptized. Attendance and giving were metrics that could be tracked, but were so small it was more painful to do it than to ignore it. At the point we had planned to be “launching,” we were still struggling to build a core team that met weekly in my home. I began questioning my effectiveness and gifting. There were many nights wondering if our work, planning, and prayers had any effect. Things began to change one normal, no-reason-to-expect-anything-different night as our bible study was beginning to gather in our kitchen.
A young couple and their two small children walked in. They lived just down the street and had been hanging out at our weekly bible study for a few months. They seemed to really enjoy the fellowship and new relationships they were making, but were only moderately interested in the real reason we gathered each week. Both had a little religious exposure from their childhood, he with a Catholic grandmother and she with a Jewish mother who tragically died while she was still very young. Neither had shown any real interest in their adult lives prior to their introduction to our group.
As was typical on most of these evenings, people gathered in our kitchen for coffee and cookies to talk about life and current events until I ushered everyone into our living room to signal a shift in the nightly itinerary. Before any of that could take place, however, the husband of this young couple walked in carrying one of the largest bibles I’ve ever held. He handed it to me, asking, “Is this a good one?” You see, he had heard Christians debating one another before about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bibles and wanted my opinion as to how his should be categorized. It was the bible his grandmother gave to him as he graduated high school and was shipping off to Army basic training. It was obvious, both by its appearance and his sheepish confession, that it had never really been opened or read. I could tell he had done his best to wipe off the many years of thick dust that had accumulated on it as it sat on a random shelf or in a forgotten box somewhere in his home. I don’t remember what translation or brand of study bible it was, but as I was looking through it, pretending to examine it carefully as though my judgment of the bible was hanging on what I might find, he began to tell me how he had spent a few weeks searching for it. Having just recently found it after years of neglect, he had also begun to read it each night with his wife.
I quickly declared he had a “very good one,” deciding to save the discussion of what these seemingly unaware Christians had been trying to debate in front of him for another time. I wanted to give him every reassurance I could that he was on the right track. I wanted to hear more about what was taking place in his heart that would lead him to his recent actions. Secretly, I think I also wanted reassurance that, in fact, all of our efforts in ministry were making a difference. It was during my time of prayer and reflection that night in my basement, when everyone was gone, that I resolved to redefine how we measured success in our church and in my ministry.
I once heard Andy Stanley say at a Catalyst One event, “What gets celebrated, gets repeated.” It was that night, after hearing the story of what God was doing on the inside of this young family, that I decided we were going to celebrate stories of life transformation more than we would numbers in a spreadsheet. Now don’t get me wrong, if it can be counted, we count it, track it, and set goals for it in our church. Numerical growth can signal that things are moving in the right direction and I’m thankful for the progression we’ve witnessed over the years. Numbers, however, can also be deceptive. We can be deceived by the numbers that communicate our mission is being accomplished, when, in fact, it might only show that our marketing is being effective. We can be deceived by less-than-expected numbers, which reinforce our insecurities that our ministry is broken and we are failures. I’ve seen churches of all shapes and sizes track their progression and rate their success in varying ways, none any more ‘right’ than another. Yet, let us not forget the metrics that matter most: the stories of life transformation taking place in the hearts of those confronted with and conformed to the gospel. Celebrate stories of transformation for the benefit of your church and the encouragement to your heart to keep going.