What is Success for a Church?

by Peter Swann

A thirst for success seems to hound all of us. We all want our lives and efforts to count. We want to be deemed successful, for success gives us worth.

The worth of a church is viewed in the same light. It’s all found in the success that a church attains, presuming that that success will be what best glorifies our Lord. We all long for successful churches. But what really is success?

The easy answer is numbers. Success as defined by growth and size. The larger, the better, and the larger, the more successful. For the masses, that’s often a plain and standard view of success. For others, it may be a subtle, but no less significant, view of success.

Matthew 28 might define it slightly differently. In the Great Commission, Jesus challenges his disciples to make disciples of others wherever they go. It’s the 2 Timothy 2:2 idea of disciples that reproduce other disciples. No disciples are true disciples unless they are reproducing themselves, so it seems the worth of a church is found in its ability to simply produce disciples.

Success, then, is in discipleship. The only challenge there is that disciples are hard to measure. How do we know if a church is producing disciples? What are the metrics? How are they measured?

The truth, it seems, is that the answer is in the stories. Discipleship is all about transformation, so discipleship is gauged by how much people are being changed. No simple measurement gives us that, except testimonies of life change. It’s the stories of transformation that are our best measurement of success.

It’s also not just in hearing any stories. It’s in the depth of transformation, the nature of the transformation, the speed of the transformation, and the longevity of the transformation. The stories must reveal those things. In the process of that communal transformation, there should naturally be numerical growth in the community, but that is simply a byproduct of the real measure of success.

One challenge for some of us is what our pride has to say about it all. That’s definitely my issue. My pride presses against this theological framework. After all, outward and measurable appearances of size are standards of success in almost every sector of our society. It’s our default, and at least in my case, flows into my pride.

And so I’m thankful that at Hope, we’ve never counted numbers. We have no idea how many people are actually coming on Sunday, or how many people have come any Sunday. What we do know is the stories. That’s what we cherish, and that’s what we hold on to. That’s what determines success, and that’s what it’s all about.

If success gives us worth, then, I’m thankful that our worth is found in the same thing that fulfills the Great Commission.

It’s all in the stories.