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Posts Tagged ‘Success’


Envy is a problem for everyone. The 10th Commandment is essentially about envy- wanting what someone else has. It is a cancer to the soul, breeding complaints against God like a whiny teenager. “If you loved me …”

Ministers are not immune. We can be tempted to envy how God is at work in other churches. At least in how we perceive it.

I had one of those experiences recently as a few fellow pastors gathered to discuss a common project. One, a church planter, noted upon being asked how their new facility is already packed. The attendance is about 50% higher than ours.

For me it turns into self-condemnation of a sort. “You stink. If you were a good pastor/preacher/leader you’d see that and more.”

Envy destroys contentment. And that is the 2nd mistake that Dave Kraft addresses in Mistakes Leaders Make.

It isn’t limited to ministry success. You can envy how much other pastors make. As a Presbyterian, I know how much new pastors in the Presbytery make. When you pastor a smaller church, that is tough. Suddenly you think about your retirement, that cruise you wish you could take and a host of other things. It can easily distract you from the task at hand.

“I think it is good to compare what is happening through me (and in me) with what could potentially happen. It is good to compare where I am with my growth and ministry effectiveness with where it is possible to be, with God’s grace. Where I get into trouble is when I compare with others who have different gifts, callings, capacities, and personalities.”

There are several important things there. First, comparing is okay if I’m wondering what God could do with me (keeping my gifts and limitations in mind). It becomes a question of faithfulness, am I being faithful? How can I be more faithful? That is a far better standard than success.

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I guess it was the Super Bowl that reminded me of a gift I once got for Christmas. It was a Patriots’ uniform, with pads, helmet, jersey and pants. It wasn’t really designed for a real game. But in my young mind I looked cool. I would put it on and play in our finished basement. I would toss a football to myself, trying not to skid it off the suspension ceiling. I imagined playing in the big game (at this point in time the Patriots hadn’t even been to a Super Bowl, much less won one). In my fantasy, I never failed.

It was the same when practicing baseball or basketball. I always caught the final out. If I missed the jump shot, miraculously there were another few seconds to hit the game winner. I suspect I was no different than any other kid growing up. That is the nature of fantasy- you always win the game. As we grow up the fantasy changes- you always get the girl or the really cool job.

But real life was different. When you were playing for real you were afraid you would strike out, miss the shot, or drop the ball. Not all of us are as crippled by that fear as one of the kids in the movie Parenthood. Steve Martin’s character was vexed by his son’s struggles, probably because he didn’t want his son to grow up like him- living in fear of failure and settling for a life of minimal risk.

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Don't let this good thing become ultimate!

I am re-reading Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods.  There are so many great thoughts to ponder there.  I’ve been very busy, so I haven’t had the time to blog on as many as I would like.  Today is semi-quiet and I have time to put some words to one of the things I read this morning while waiting for CavWife’s car to be repaired.

Keller was talking about religious idols.  Not graven images that people bow down toward.  Rather, the types of idols that religious communities are prone to worship instead of the One True God.  To some people that may sound strange, but it really isn’t.

“Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ.”

Being a part of the Reformed community, I have seen my share of all three.  At times I’ve been guilty of worshiping them in some way, shape or form.

Keller is not saying it is wrong to pursue truth, seek to be effective in ministry or live an upright and godly life.  The problem is when any of these takes the place of Christ as the basis of our standing before God.

Presbyteries are funny things.  They are to hold ministers and churches to the doctrinal standards of the denomination.  But we can easily focus on the minor points and exclude brothers unjustly for not signing every jot and tittle of our doctrinal standards.  This is merely the opposite extreme of not holding people to established standards.

But it is not just Presbyteries or denominations.  Christians can go at it rather heatedly over fine points.  People can leave churches over fine points of theology.  It is not the discussing of them that is the problem, but the lack of love in which we pursue it because we worship our theology more than we love our brother made in God’s image.

Central to the debate between Van Til and Clark

In one of the books I’ve got stashed in a box until I get to Tucson, there is a quote by Dutch theologian Herman Bavink from his deathbed.  It basically reads, “My systematic theology cannot save me.”  He was counting on Christ, not his theology, to save him from God’s wrath.  We can worship truth instead of the Truth.

When we do this we condemn those who disagree with us.  We are unable to graciously disagree with others on lesser points.  This ought to be a sign to us that we have gone off track and have put our theology (or moral rectitude) above God.

We can do this, as mentioned, with moral rectitude as well.  When we put one sin above others- common ones include homosexuality, abortion, and drunkenness- we condemn those who commit those sins while ignoring other sins which we tend to commit- like gluttony, gossip, covetousness, and deceit.  We assume a position of moral superiority instead of humbly offering the gospel as one sinner to another.

When we worship success, we can quickly sacrifice doctrine and morality to achieve it.  Having a big ministry (or business) becomes the standard by which we measure people.  The book Outliers (which Keller mentions in another chapter) points out that most of what makes a person successful (or a failure) is beyond our control.  So we are exalting or ignoring people based on God’s providential working in their lives.  Their worth, or future effectiveness are not based on past performance.  We are not justified by success (nor condemned for it).

It is so difficult for “religious” people to see their idols because they seem such a part of our religious communities.  But we become toxic, harming others based on our standards instead of treating them with love, humility and grace.  We live out of step with the gospel, and keep people from the gospel.  May we let go of such worthless idols that we might grasp the grace that is ours through Christ.

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While on vacation I started to read Tim Keller’s most recent book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that Matters.  Yes, that is a long subtitle.  You’d think a Puritan wrote this book.

Others have tackled these topics, like Richard Foster in Money, Sex and Power.  But Tim Keller, for better or worse, frames it historically in light of the failure of many of these false gods in the economic crisis most of the world is experiencing.

This is an excellent book, though I am not sure it measures up to The Prodigal God.  Few books do.  This is a subject Tim Keller handles very well.

Some have been critical of the new, prevailing notion of idolatry as if it takes the place of sin.   Keller argues that the idea of idolatry makes more sense than the idea of sin (in this world of relativism).  Beyond that he refers to Luther’s point that idolatry is the root of sin rather than just being one of many sins.  So what Keller is doing here is trying to get to the root of our sin, the many false gods that we serve.

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The final chapter of Total Church covers the idea of success.  After a few less than stellar chapters, they end the book with a home run.

Pastors and congregations often fall prey to false (idolatrous) views of success.  Those idolatrous views often assume control, OUR control over outcomes.  We do have control over our choices and decisions, but we can’t control how those turn out.  So they suggest three shifts in outlook.

First, from larger churches to more churches.  We often measure the success of a church by how large it is (or isn’t).  There are many factors that go into how large a church becomes (faithfulness to the gospel, or lack there of an important one).  They suggest we change our model to more churches- measuring growth in terms of starting new healthy gospel communities.  Yes, this could become an idolatrous numbers game too since we are sinners prone to pride.

But smaller churches (or many mulitplying small groups) provide an environment where we can obey God’s call to love one another in various ways throughout the New Testament.  Smaller communities are more likely to maintain gospel fidelity (greater accountability), as well as work out how the gospel has application to the various circumstances of the members.

Second, a shift in leadership from performance to enabling.  It is easy for pastors to get stuck in the performance trap, and many a congregation enables or demands it.  In a smaller community, the pastor’s flaws are more obvious because he is known better.  And you also see how the gospel is at work in him.  Biblically, the pastor’s role is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.

Here is the rub, in many small churches it often falls to the pastor to do most ministry.  It can be difficult to find people to equip.  This is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

As someone in the midst of looking for a new call, I find many churches focused on performance rather than character.  Committees can want you to sell yourself rather than demonstrate character.  We need to rediscover the biblical qualifications for office- all but one is about character!

The third shift is from a theology of glory (success) to one of the cross (suffering).  I’ve been preaching this for years, and it is a tough sell.  But people want to see how to suffer/fail/lose well.  By well, I mean finding the grace to persevere and not be crushed by suffering and disappointment.  Luther took notice of what was happening in the Letters to the Corinthians.  Like the Corinthians, the church of Rome had embraced a theology of glory.  It was about power, success, honor and more.  The American church struggles with this as well today.  Paul preaches a theology of the cross, embracing suffering along with Christ.  The community is one that embraces broken people, instead of being image conscious.  It was where this mindset prospered in the early church that the church prospered.  They took in the orphans and elderly, and the gospel made great in-roads.  But when the shift to glory took place, the gospel was obscured.

Overall this is a very good, profitable book.  Not everything they say may “fit” every congregations situation.  But the overall focus they want people to embrace is a good one, and an overdue one.

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I made a joke on a friend’s Facebook wall the other day.  He lamented playing too much ping-pong in seminary.  I joked that his ministry would be more effective if he hadn’t.  It’d be more like mine …

I figure he’s having a pretty effective ministry.  The church I pastored closed (lots of reasons for that).  I, by no means, took Winter Haven by storm for the Gospel.  But I had some meaningful ministry over those 9 years, and in the 1 1/2 years since then as I’ve done pulpit supply.

Lest we make too much of that (failure), let’s consider the Apostle Paul.  I did while trying not to wake up this morning.  Paul didn’t take every town he visited by storm.  Yes, he saw conversions- I saw a few of those.  He saw Christians grow- saw some of that too.  But he was run out of more than a few cities.  There were riots, a stoning, death threats and more.  Being run out of town might say something about you, but it also says something about those who ran you out of town.

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Considering Size


Today, the “miniscule” Dustin Pedroia (whose heart is like the Grinch’s post-Christmas) won the AL MVP.  He’s the first “small” guy to win the award in quite some time.

Jared Wilson has a great post today on whether size matters in churches.  He was attending a conference, noticing that all the speakers had BIG churches, which is why they were invited to speak.  Here’s one part of the struggle all of should reckon with:

One of the Catalyst speakers in his address said that every church has the Holy Spirit but that some churches have that something extra that makes them special. The crowd ate this up, and indeed, this seems to be the implicit message of all conferences, kits, consultations, and systems of this kind: You may have the Spirit, but do you have _______?

This not only implies that God isn’t enough, it only feeds and stokes the insatiable idolatry for that “x factor” the fans of these programs are operating out of. “Sure, I’ve got Jesus. But I need the tips, techniques, and know-how to take it to the next level!”
The level above Jesus? There is a place that is better or more “successful” than having Jesus?
Do we need the Spirit plus something?

Similar to the Galatian heresy: turning Christianity into Jesus + __________.  The difference being that in Galatia it was about being a Christian, and here it is about “growing a church” but the implications are pretty much the same.  Who gets the glory?  We are all too ready to give credit to the pastor if the church grows (and blame if it doesn’t- does a congregation repent because they didn’t take the Great Commission seriously or just fire the pastor?).  We worship success in this here country, and can’t understand why a church doesn’t grow.  So we add all kinds of things to the gospel, and often obscure the gospel, so the church will grow.

He was told about a small church conference which which wasn’t really a small church conference.  I’ll let him explain.

And then the respondent recommended we small church dudes check out The Sticks Conference. And he elaborated. The Sticks Conference is for pastors in small towns.

Hmmm.
What wasn’t said, but was nevertheless something I “heard,” was that small church equals small town. Because, again, if you have a small church in a big town, it is not successful. The implication is that the only acceptable reason for having a small church is that you are in a low populated area where there aren’t a lot of people.

So I checked out the website for The Sticks. It is indeed for pastors of small churches in small, mostly rural, towns. And the speakers are all pastors of megachurches that are in small towns. Each of the speakers’ bios glowingly related how large they had grown their churches, as if that is the point of the conference: get big.
<> Thanks, Sticks, for dispatching with the preoccupation with size.

Even the concept of The Sticks, which was suggested as an alternative to the success-obsession of the other conferences, is that if you are in a small church, your job is to get bigger.

Justin hits the nail on the head in what follows- we worship numbers.  There is a whole “industry” designed to feed our idolatry.  We ignore blatant heresy because the “pastor’s” church is big.  You can’t argue with success, right?  Yeah … what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul.  This is what many of us are doing- losing our grip on the gospel (and our soul) so we can gain a big church, becoming famous.

But it isn’t just pastors and church leaders.  The average search committee worships success.  They want the guy with the “proven track-record.”  Godly men are passed over because they don’t pass the success test.  You can talk about this in terms of providence if you want.  Okay, God often gives churches over to their sin just as he does individuals and cultures (Romans 1:19ff). In their quest for successful men, the church suffers extended periods of time without a godly shepherd.  And often the mini-messiah is not what the Shepherd ordered.  Churches around our land have been ravaged by moralism and pragmatism in this worship of success.  Where is the gospel?  Why do we think the gospel is insufficient?  Obviously we need means to present the gospel (small groups, SS, youth groups etc) but they are a means to the end of preaching and applying the gospel.

Whether you’re a tall, grande, or venti church, if your overriding concern is numbers, you’re an idolatrous church.  Be faithful, and God will give the increase in his measure and in his time.

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