Comparing Churches in the Locker Room

March 2, 2009

Happy new week, everyone. As we begin a new week, it will be another week of work, of getting the job done, of striving for success. ‘Success’ is a funny word. It seems Christians have a peculiar sense of ‘success’ and ‘failure.’ I submit to you two case studies, compiled by the Church of No People Instititute.

Corporation X is trying to decide how to take on a new business venture. They hire consultants to tell them how to maximize the chances of their success. They do focus studies to measure the public’s reception to the new product. The boss discusses action-items, department goals, efficiency standards with employees, who have no idea what the boss is talking about. The boss does not know what he is talking about.

New Product is released onto the public. A catchy slogan, design and infomercial is produced. The public, previously unaware of New Product’s existence, now needs New Product. Desperately.

Boss attempts to sustain New Product’s success by keeping Corporation X efficient. He talks about ‘synergy.’ No one knows what ‘synergy’ means.

If New Product makes Corporation X a lot of money, they have been successful. If not, they have been unsuccessful. Simple.

Church Y is trying to decide how to approach a new ministry venture. The minister and committee read lots of books by George Barna, who will tell them how to maximize their chances of success. The pastor talks about things like unchurched people groups, postmodernism and missionalism with members, most of whom have no idea what he’s talking about. At times, the pastor does not know what he is talking about. Then the board members get their picture taken for the monthly newsletter.

Church Y prays together and has a financial campaign. They post a large paper thermometer in the foyer to illustrate how close they are to reaching a large sum of money. If they do not fill up the thermometer, God will probably strike them dead. The church is sure, above all things, that they are doing God’s will.

New Ministry is released onto the public. A catchy sign, slogan and mass-mailer are designed. The public, previously unaware of New Ministry, now has a slight passing interest in it. Several people join and are served by New Ministry.

Church Y members are thrilled. After thousands of dollars and months of prayer and preparation, they are seeing some small fruits of their labor. They are now sure that they are doing God’s will. The fruitfulness of New Ministry is proof enough of God’s blessing and will, there can be no doubt. Knowing this truth is reward enough for their labors.

After some months, New Ministry’s momentum halts. New Ministry stops reaching ‘unchurched people groups’ for unknown reasons. The recent mailers have failed to bring in a single new unchurched person. On top of this, some unsavory characters have found their way into New Ministry, stirring up controversy. There is dissention among the laypeople. New Ministry seems to be in trouble.

Some members of Church Y doubt that New Ministry is or ever was a part of God’s will. Why would God allow a ministry which was part of his will to flounder, to be corrupted?

But there is a loophole which allows New Ministry to still be considered a ‘success.’ The pastor announces these recent developments to be ‘Satan’s attacks’ on New Ministry. ‘Satan is bringing his army to our door to bring us spiritual warfare,’ he says.

‘Why would Satan be attacking us?’ asks a member.

‘Obviously, Satan’s attacks are proof that we are doing God’s will,’ the pastor answers.

The people are relieved. They have a technicality that the world’s for-profit businesses do not have. Corporation X has to pull the plug on New Product in the face of massive recalls and plunging stock prices. This is considered a failure. Church Y deals with problem after problem, yet never pulls the plug on New Ministry. Success as well as failure are both proofs of ‘success,’ of being in God’s will.

I have been in both types of churches – those with moderate ‘success,’ and those without. Almost every guy I met in seminary described his church, not by their failures and difficulties, but by their positive numbers, by their triumphs. I have often been a little embarassed at the above-average amount of difficulty I’ve experienced in churches, being in the ministry for such a short time. And people tend to look down on churches that do not have runaway success.

Here’s a secret: a lot of pastors tend to think of their churches as an extension of themselves – as a measure of their manhood (or man-of-God-hood.) And what do guys like to do with their manhood? Compare it to another guy’s manhood and see if it’s bigger, of course. Bigger church = bigger man. There was more than one day that seminary felt distinctively like a sweaty locker room. But everyone knows you have to make it look like you weren’t actually looking and comparing…

One pastor in a class told us rather meekly that his church had a mere 40 people. Many pastors would feel sorry for him for having such a humble church. Many American laypeople would find that to be much too small a church for their ‘tastes.’ But then the professor asked how big the town was he pastored in. He answered that the town was about 400 people. The professor pointed out that his church contained 10% of the local population, a greater percentage than even Joel Osteen can boast. Who’s the big man now?

As a guy who is admittedly addicted to the idea of success, yet strangely deprived of it, how do you measure success? How do you percieve being in God’s will? Is it by ‘success’ or ‘failure?’ Have you ever felt like a failure, yet felt that you were where you were being called? Have you ever felt called to leave behind great ‘success’ for something much less glamorous? Is ‘success’ by increased numbers or ‘failure’ by Satan’s attacks legitimate measures of God’s will?