For months I felt like I had been pounding my head against a brick wall. I was doing everything I had ever been taught to do in order to see my church grow. For fifteen years, I had seen the churches I served grow both in worship attendance and in membership. Decline was something I had never experienced in one year, let alone successive years. Each new district assembly served to highlight the decline. Other churches grew. Why not mine?
I read the most current literature. I engaged in conversations with colleagues. I imagined the church growing and thriving, climbing to the next size structure. We should be averaging 150 in worship. We should be building a new family ministry center. We should be the new hot and amazing church in the area—yet, we were not.
We were declining. Finances were tight. There was no new building. The realities of my vocational success were insignificant. A cloud of depression hung over me. Slowly, without the notice of others, I surrendered to feelings of hopelessness. Everything my colleagues were, I was not. I was not a successful pastor. I did not serve a successful church. I was a failure. Each district assembly reinforced my failure as a pastor-leader.
During the throes of my faith crisis, I read and studied about how small churches recovered from being stalled or in decline. Over time, an epiphany occurred. It was not a burning bush, but it was clear. I had unwittingly surrendered to a faulty measure of success defined by American consumerism: Success equaled more. The goals set for ministry, and ultimately the yardstick against which I measured my perceptions of success, had more to do with the numbers that we throw around at clergy meetings (noses in worship, dollars in the plate, and the size and additions to our buildings) than what appeared to be most significant in the body of Christ. Perhaps I was encouraging my congregation to pursue the next size barrier more than I was inviting them to be formed in Christ. Perhaps I remained too focused on the positive feelings I experienced when others recognized me for the growth of my church, rather than for the spiritual presence of Christ we experienced as we gathered for worship. It took the crucible of several years of decline for me to realize success in the kingdom is measured differently than success at the corner of Wall Street and Main Street.
Other churches grew. Why not mine? -Art Roxby
Grappling with this new insight, I reflected on the ministry of my declining church over the previous years. At one point, I realized that many of the teens who left the community to go to college had not left the church of Jesus Christ. They had merely changed locations of worship and were ministering to the world. The church had nurtured and formed several who were actively engaged in vocational ministry. Members were still being called to ministry. Although numbers were declining (as was the population of the community around them), the church was making a difference in the world. That is when God spoke to me about the ultimate measure of success in ministry and in his kingdom: faithfulness.
This began a journey. I searched the Scriptures, seeking to understand how the early church assessed participation in God’s mission. Early Christians understood themselves as successful when they lived out God’s calling in their lives—individually and corporately. Success came from new believers finding faith in Jesus Christ, of widows being cared for, and disciples finding maturity in their faith. Interestingly, I discovered that, in the book of Acts, the only mention of numbers is in relation to the activity of the Holy Spirit moving upon people who knew the power of the resurrected Christ and were baptized. The use of quantifiable numbers never referred to the number of people who attended worship services. Faithfulness was measured in terms of the mission that God had given to his church—to be living witnesses and to make disciples.
Faithfulness is Making Disciples
It is far too easy to forget that Jesus did not call us to build a big church or to create slick new ministries. Jesus did not call us to be the popular church or the most-loved leaders. Jesus called us to make disciples. He called us, both as leaders and as churches, to pour our lives into people. We are called to create sacred space where people find Christ, and where the nominal believer comes closer to Christ. God uses us to create the environment in which believers can grow and mature in their faith and become the witnesses that we are all called to be.
Faithfulness is Responding to the Brokenness of the World
In the early days of the Church of the Nazarene, local churches had compassionate ministries that sought to alleviate the hunger, suffering, and pain of people in the communities where they lived. Worship spaces were designed so that everyone might experience a sense of welcoming and belonging in the worship space. Nazarenes located themselves in the neighborhoods overlooked by many, or defined as poor or dangerous. After World War II, perhaps as the church grew in social stature, it sometimes moved to the suburbs. In doing so, the church may have misread the compass giving direction to participation in the missio dei.
The image of the early church in the book of Acts finds a people holding their possessions so loosely that they could sell what they had to care for the needs of the poor and the underprivileged. The early Christians laid hands on the sick, the unclean, the broken, and the blind. Through their faith and prayers, all manners of illnesses and even death were healed. This is faithful participation in the missio dei. As followers of Jesus Christ, we too are called to respond to the broken, the hurting, the lonely, and the infirmed in our world today.
Faithfulness in Prayer
The early Christians were people of prayer. They spent significant time in intense, corporate prayer meetings. Jesus repeatedly stole away from the crowd to spend time with God in prayer. The miraculous outpourings of the Holy Spirit came in response to the humbled, gathered church bowing before God in prayer. Prayer was the central factor in the power of the early church.
As a fire exists by burning, so the Church exists by mission.
Far too few Christians and churches today spend significant time in corporate prayer. We have long prayer lists for many things, but all too often we are not given to the discipline of joining together corporately in both large and small groups to pray for the renewal of our churches, for salvation of the lost, and for disciples to grow in grace, knowledge, and the power of the Spirit of God. The result is a weak and lukewarm group of nominal believers who make little difference. If we are to realize our unique calling as the body of Christ, we must return to faithful, ongoing prayer.
Faithfulness in Mission
Much has been made lately of the centrality of mission. Theologian Emil Brunner once said, “As a fire exists by burning, so the Church exists by mission.” We are charged to carry out the message and hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ in our local communities and in the world as a whole. Success may only be measured in terms of our faithfulness to that mission.
The realization that faithfulness to our real calling is the true measurement of success was both liberating to me and sobering. It would be easier for me to create a program that people found pleasing and exciting, to which they would want to invite their friends. Living in the story of Christ and leading my congregation to move into that story is in some ways more difficult. However, the understanding that my pastoral “success” and the church’s “success” are really only measured by God released me from the tyranny of living for nickels and noses and challenged me to pursue the only goal worth pursuing, making a difference in the world for the cause of Jesus Christ. It may be time to remember that we live the economy of the kingdom—not the economy of Wall Street and Main Street.
My prayer is that you too might find liberation in the calling of Jesus Christ.
ART ROXBY serves as lead pastor of Milford (DE) Church of the Nazarene.