What is success? Well to most Americans it means being a winner. In the church-world that means being big, well known and influential.
If you read church history using this American definition of success there’s never been a successful church. It’s always been counter-cultural oddity. Biblically, it was same thing. Israel was never successful, at least not for any long stretches of time. Most of the time they were a mess. The prophets and priests did their best to keep them on the straight and narrow but never in a way that impressed the big mainline boys – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, or Greece. The same goes for Jesus’ ministry, which turned our idea of success on its head. If you didn’t know better you’d think he was anti-success. He attracted the least, the last, the losers and the lost and in the end died a loser’s death, crucified by the winners and power brokers of the day.
I think trying to be successful in the eyes of our American consumer culture is at the root of a lot of spiritual leaders’ restlessness, dissatisfaction, impatience and ineffectiveness. They think if they get the right system, the right staff, the right programs, the right facility, the right location, the right demographics, the right look, it’ll be a snap and they’ll be successful at doing church. And for some it is: if you’re extroverted and charming enough; if you’re smart and clever enough. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, being a successful spiritual leader is not that. It’s helping people get ordinary everyday life right, which turns out to be unglamorous, unspectacular work. It’s a very ordinary and often messy, “doing-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers” kind of job that doesn’t look or feel much like winning much of the time. As a matter of fact, compared to our flashy “American Idol” brand of success it looks and feels more like losing because it looks and feels like a cross – selfless service in the name of Christ for the sake of others over the course of a lifetime.
In my opinion much of the muscling exhibited by church leaders is actually a useless attempt to be winners and feel good. But you know what? I don’t think the Lord is looking for winners at all. He’s looking for servants who are willing to die to the world’s success schemes and instead be “losers” (in the world’s eyes anyway) that depend on God’s grace, which can only be logged onto in a weak way (in the world’s eyes anyway) – prayer.
So with that in mind allow me a personal paraphrase of Paul’s winner-loser thing found in 2 Corinthians 12: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to help me successfully beat this thing. But all I got was, ‘My grace is enough, for my power doesn’t work on winners who are only alive to success, it only works on losers who are willing to die to all that.’ So being convinced of that, I’m now happy to be seen as a loser for Christ so that I can enjoy his resurrection life. I don’t have to be a success in the eyes of the world. I can celebrate that I’m a “dead loser” because that’s the only kind of person that his resurrection works on.”