We are driven by success. We dream of it, we strive for it, we sacrifice our families and our friends and our lives on the altar of success. This is no less the case in the church. We strive to be successful clergy. But what is success? If we are successful our churches will grow larger with more and more people. If we are successful, we will be highlighted as a model for other churches. If we are successful we will present at conferences and write books and perhaps have a blog which goes viral.
But success is a siren song.
An industry has been built around success and our thirst for it. Books are written, conferences are held, speakers are hired. Their ultimate goal is to show us that we are unsuccessful and offer success as something attainable.
“If it’s living it’s growing!” I heard a speaker exclaim to a room full of ministers and elders. The speaker was, of course, speaking of numerical growth. The implication is that big churches are alive and small churches are dead.
Our drive for success is only one side of the coin, the other is discontentment. Discontentment with the ordinary, discontentment with being one among many, discontentment with being a face in the crowd.
But scripture never gives us success as a value or a goal.
“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’” Jesus says, “‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3)
Not only the poor in spirit, but those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
To be sure, this is not a collection of successful people.
Blessed are the unsuccessful.
The siren song of success is loud and nearly irresistible to those who come near it. But when we find ourselves overcome by the song, we are unlikely to be able to see what is around us. In our pursuit of success, we see everything else as unsuccessful. The church doesn’t continually gain members, therefore it is unsuccessful. The preacher may not have the charisma to gain a following, therefore they are unsuccessful.
In my corner of the Bible Belt, our response to the last throes of the death of Christendom has been this cult of success. When our churches began declining in membership we turned toward church growth to find our salvation, and we labelled big churches and pastors of big churches successful, and all others unsuccessful.
I know well the siren song of success. I have fallen prey to its melody, and I try to resist. I try to resist not because success is bad, but because success is not the point. When we are overwhelmed by the siren song, we forget about the ordinary people in ordinary communities who are following Jesus in their ordinary ways. In our drive for success we have professional musicians, but have left out those who are growing in their abilities. In our drive for success we have made our worship services well scripted productions, and have left a majority of the congregation feeling inadequate to participate in leadership. In our drive for success we hold up big churches as faithful, and dismiss small churches as unfaithful. In our drive for success we have forgotten that our calling is not to be successful, or radical or extraordinary, but to be gloriously ordinary in our faith and life. Doing our ordinary things in ordinary ways.
To be sure Jesus wasn’t a success. Of course, he had a following, but when the going got tough, everyone disappeared, and even Peter couldn’t bring himself to admit to knowing him. He was eventually executed, which is certainly not a mark for success. But what we have seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is that what we understand to be success really isn’t. The last will be first, and the first last (Mt 20:16) and all that.
We love terms like “radical” and “extraordinary” and “success” but the truth is, Jesus came into the world in an ordinary fashion to live with ordinary people to show them that ordinary is not bad, in fact, perhaps ordinary life, ordinary faith, ordinary communities are the very seeds of redemption.