“He spent his life climbing the ladder of success only to find when he got to the top that it was leaning against the wrong wall.”
I don’t know when or where I first read the above quote but I was always saddened by it.
A person spends her whole life time working towards a goal only to discover when she finally achieves it that it wasn’t what she was looking for after all.
I have been wondering over the past couple of weeks if maybe this applies to churches as well as people.
Is it possible that for the past fifty or so years churches have been striving for success but the ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall? Is it possible that churches have been using the wrong measuring stick to determine what success really looks like?
When numbers are the measuring stick
I have been told, more times than I like to count, that Sunday morning attendance is the measuring stick of church success.
I was first introduced to this idea by the Church Growth Movement centered in Fuller Seminary in the 1970s and 1980s and I have to confess that I bought into everything that they taught. Their focus was certainly on numerical growth and I was caught up in the dream of pastoring a large church.
As is true of most church consultants, the leaders in the Church Growth Movement would not acknowledge that numbers were their focus.
C. Peter Wagner in his book Leading Your Church To Growth outlines the type of growth that according to him churches should be looking for.
“But I am vitally interested in lost men and women who put their faith in Jesus Christ and are born again. I am interested in true disciples who take up their cross daily to follow Jesus. I am interested in kingdom people who relate to Jesus as their Lord. I am interested in Spirit-filled people who have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and are using their spiritual gifts. I am interested in responsible church members who continue ‘steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers’ (Acts 2:42) as did believers in the Jerusalem church.” p. 23
It sounds excellent. Those are the kind of people that I would want to see in my church. That is a fairly good description of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
The problem is that in the remaining almost two hundred pages of the book, Wagner doesn’t tell us how to produce those kinds of people. Instead he outlines a series of principles for growing a church numerically.
While there is an acknowledgement of the importance of discipleship the focus of the book is numerical growth. The measuring stick being used to judge the church is numbers rather than disciples.
This is not unique to the Church Growth Movement. It is true of many books and seminars offered on the subject of church growth.
Large churches have been the wall that we have been encouraged to lean our ladders against and I am afraid that it has left a lot of churches leaning their ladders against the wrong walls.
A life-changing discovery
The Holy Spirit is in the business of changing lives and often he brings us to crisis points to teach us life-changing lessons.
I had one of those life crisis moments about twenty years ago and it radically changed my outlook on my life, my ministry and the church.
I came out of Bible college with a dream of being the pastor of a large church. I had bought into the Church Growth material hook, line and sinker and my goal was to pastor a mega-church.
I went on a journey filled with ups and downs, successes and failure but my dream church was always just a little out of reach.
Then came a turning point in my life.
God impressed on me the fact that my calling was not to be the pastor of a large church. My calling was to be his instrument in changing lives. I was called to be part of the process of transformation that the Holy Spirit was working in people. It might not be a huge part but I was called to be a part.
That was my job as a pastor. God wanted to use me to touch people’s lives and to encourage them to become more like Jesus.
That was radical enough but there was more. God impressed on my heart that that is best done not in a crowd but with people one-on-one. God changes people’s lives one person at a time.
The exciting part of this discovery is that God gives me the opportunity to minister to people almost every day of my life.
With this new focus I didn’t stop serving as a pastor. I didn’t stop dreaming about the potential of what God might do through my ministry.
I just shifted my ladder to a different wall.
I shifted from the large-church wall in which my goal was to accomplish something huge for Christ as I was being told I needed to do to the serve-people wall in which I was committed to helping individuals become more committed disciples of Jesus Christ.
I’m not sure what God has in store for me in the future. The largest part of my active service is now behind me. I have been in some form of full-time Christian ministry for more than forty years.
I never did build that mega-church. I have never preached to large crowds of people. I’ve never been one of the popular speakers who gets invited to all the conferences.
I let go of those early dreams that used to dominate my thoughts.
When I come to the end of my ministry time I want one thing. I want there to be people who are walking a little closer to Jesus because I was part of their lives.
It may not be a spectacular goal but I believe that it is a biblical goal. I believe that it is the wall against which all of our ladders need to placed.
Then we won’t spend a life-time trying to get to the top of the ladder of success only to find when we get there that we are leaning against the wrong wall.