Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Bethel Protestant Reformed Church in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
Success is described as achieving fame, wealth, or rank, accomplishing one’s goal. The notorious “success story” is about someone who began small and insignificant, but became big, rich, and important.
American culture has a carnal fascination with size and success. Our society appreciates everything that is big (except, maybe, the family). Success in business is identified with increased sales, advancement, and growth.
Christians often seem to think in the same terms. “Success” also in the church is defined only in terms of new building programs necessitated by an increase in attendance. The emphasis is on numerical growth, an increase in the number of those who are members of a congregation or mission field. It is invariably the case that when ministers who are meeting for the first time get together, they will talk about the size of their Sunday School attendance or Sunday morning worship service. (Never have I heard any talk about the attendance at the Sunday evening service.) One minister spoke of his denomination as being interested only in the “Three Big Bs,” by which he meant “Big Buildings, Rig Baptism roles, and Big Budgets.” Congregations have month-long competitions to see which can get the most to attend their Sunday School classes. The missionary who preaches week after week to a few people (enough to sit in a living-room) is considered either as a failure or an object of sympathy. Disparagement is cast upon those who attend the small country church. The most “successful” congregations are the largest and most rapidly growing. They are held up as examples of what a local congregation should be like. Churches send their ministers and leaders to attend conferences which deal only with how they can grow. At these conferences the methods of the mega-churches are examined, not in order to be evaluated in the light of Scripture, but in order to be emulated. The number of books and pamphlets which show “how too” make a church grow inundate book stores and book catalogs. Because success is identified by growth and size, it is thought that the saving of souls and the growth of the local congregation is the supreme goal of the church and of each believer. It is then so easy for one to be inclined to conduct himself as if the only power that can accomplish this work is the strength of man. All are persuaded by the thinking that if the church can be made to grow, any means is legitimate, including puppets, clowns, weightlifters, or monster trucks (I am not making up any of these; they all happened in the communities in which I have lived).
The Reformed believer is not exempt from such thinking. He too is inclined to conclude that successmeans a numerical increase. But what is it to besuccessful? And what does it take to be successfulaccording to the standard of the Scriptures?
It is most important to remember that Scripture does not define success as numerical growth. Size has never been. considered one of the marks of the true church. God specifically tells His chosen people, Israel, that they were the fewest of all people (Deut. 7:7). God’s people are often described in Scripture as a remnant and as a little flock (Luke 12:32). The history of David’s numbering the people (II Samuel 24) warns against any fascination with large numbers. Therefore, we must not be fascinated with size (and the money, which is often associated with size).
Secondly, we must note that the Bible does not allow the believer to dismiss and despise altogether the growth of the local congregation or of a mission field. On the one hand, Scripture urges us to have a proper concern for healthy church growth. We delight to see the Lord adding daily to the church the ones that He is saving. With the angels of heaven we rejoice in seeing the lost found and a sinner brought to repentance. On the other hand, good stewardship of the monies spent for church growth or for a mission field demands a concern for the wisest and best use of these talents.
Thirdly, Scripture places a. much higher priority on being faithful. To be “effective” and “successful” in God’s eyes is not the performance of some spectacular feat, which deserves God’s praise and the admiration of men. Rather success is “merely” being faithful. Often Scripture describes the believer and the minister of the Word as a servant of the Master, Whose will must be done, and Whose goods must be cared for. As servants of the Master Who has all and Whose we are, we are unprofitable. Therefore, God delights in “faithfulness.” Faithfulness is the diligent performance of one’s God-given calling, using one’s talents and opportunities to the best of one’s ability. God acclaims the good and faithful servant with a “Well done.” Jesus’ work earned Him the name “Faithful” (Rev. 19:11); and He is called the “faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5).
Therefore, the Reformed church and missionary must not be primarily concerned with numerical growth. The supreme object must be the glory of God, not the salvation of souls and the growth of the local congregation. It must be remembered that the only power that can accomplish the growth of the church is the Holy Spirit, not the strength of man. The emphasis must be on faithfulness to God and to His Word, for the Scriptures are the medium which the Holy Spirit uses to accomplish the growth of the church. Then one is being truly successful.
If being successful is being faithful, then evangelism and missions can be performed with great patience. There is no pressure to cease the work or close a field, just because there is not the kind of positive response that a business man would expect. We learn that God’s timing is often not our timing, for His ways are much higher than our ways. We must be convinced that we are successful when we faithfully sow the seeds of His Word at every opportunity and to every “neighbor.” Often it takes a long time before we are able to see fruit upon the seeds sown. Therefore, Paul writes that one sows, another waters, and still another gathers the harvest. Just because we are not doing any harvesting, does not mean that we are not successful. And James teaches that the chief attribute of the farmer is that he “waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it” (James 4:7). We are successful only by being faithful.
If being successful is being faithful, then we can rest in Him Who is faithful. His Word does not return unto Him void, but accomplishes that which He pleases (Isaiah 55:11). When we faithfully preach His Word, then we know that He is using it to accomplish. His will. We might not be able to see what He is accomplishing, either of a positive or of a negative nature, but our inability to see what He is accomplishing does not make us useless. We are being used by the Master Himself. We can then thank God Who “always causeth us to triumph in Christ . . . . For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish” (II Cor. 2:14, 15).
If being successful is being faithful, then we know that God is using us to bless the church of Christ. The addition of members in our congregation is not the only way in which God blesses positively His church. Often we are used of Him to help a fellow saint in another congregation or in another denomination. We can be assured that in such a case we are “successful.”
Let us get our thinking straight. Success is not numbers. Success is faithfulness. It is being faithful to God Whose Word must be declared into all the world.