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Are you successful? Do others see you as successful? How do you measure success?

An example to ponder: Two Iraqi pioneers decide to go to Baghdad to plant churches – one plants none while the other plants five. Who was successful? It’s a question that demands a further question. Let me explain. The man who planted none was prayerful and faithful – he shared his faith regularly and learnt a lot along the way. The man who planted five was quickly seen by the Christian community as the ‘go to’ guy for church painting. Yet in reality this man felt the Lord speak to him before leaving, telling him not to go, but to stay in his home town and care for his dying mother. Who was successful?

Contrary to the ‘success syndrome’ paradigm, where numeric growth is the primary measure, could it be that ‘faithfulness’, regardless of the outcome, is what the Lord desires most? After twenty years in ministry, I am convinced that our primary measure of success should be faithfulness. Other measures are valid and important, but should never obscure our calling to faithfully obey the Lord.

Bonheoffer had deep reservations about a Christianity that hungered for success, pointing to the fact of the Cross, suggesting that this, the greatest act of leadership invalidates success as a primary goal[1]. Henri Nouwen, who believed our greatest temptation is to ‘be powerful’[2], argues our ultimate example is of the suffering Christ, who started at the bottom and worked his way down out of love-motivated obedience[3]. In a world where we often rush to present the ‘benefits’ of following Christ, is there an important alternative narrative?

I have the privilege of working alongside church planters in Iraq for many years. Though going as a coach to others, in reality I learn more than I teach. Most often the first thing I discuss with Iraqi leaders is not strategy, methodology or outcomes, but how to remain faithful, whatever the outcome. Yet, returning home I face the same challenge to focus on faithfulness instead of perceived outcomes. The Christian world can be highly competitive – this is why our understanding of success is crucial. If success is best understood as faithful obedience to Christ, regardless of the outcome it is possible that one person’s failure could be another’s success in God’s eyes, and vice versa. This measure causes me to think twice before categorising others, even myself.

Success is good, and certainly to be welcomed, but perhaps the better question is ‘Am I being faithful regardless of the outcome?’.

[1] Coupland, Simon, Success A Biblical Exploration (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2002), p3.
[2] Hernandez, Wil, Henri Nouwen and Soul Care: A Ministry of Integration (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2008), p.64.
[3] Ruddle, William, Henri Nouwen – Wounded Healer (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2005), p.9.

Mark