I had dinner the other night with Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church. He has been up here teaching a DMin course. By most measurements, he is a successful pastor. His church has grown to nearly 10,000. His innovative ministry, comprised of three campuses that offer numerous styles of worship (from rock and roll to country); his writing (including Sticky Church, Unity Factor); and his development of a small group ministry (that reaches nearly 90% of the congregation)—are all quite impressive. He travels, has a great family, lives in an incredible part of the world (north San Diego), and has been blessed with an inventive mind. And I do not sense he is all that caught up with himself, which is refreshing.
All of this gets me asking (again) the question—so what defines success in ministry? Get a Larry Osborne, a Eugene Peterson, a Bill Hybels, a John Piper, and a Shane Claiborne at a table, and you might get very different answers. My take is a lot of pastors are about pursuing some form of success. Who, after all, wants to be a failure? But if we are not careful, we can sell a bit of our souls to get there.
We can chase after the American Dream, something David Platt writes about in Radical. We can create ministries high on emotion and low on intellect. If so, it might be worth reading Thomas Bergler's new book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity. The June issue of Christianity Today has a cover story on it entitled, "Forever Young." It is a disturbing look at contemporary evangelicalism and its gradual drift into a self centered desire for fun. The church has become an extended youth group, led by pastors who equate success with messages that draw large crowds, that emphasize an emotional relationship with Jesus over intellectual content. As Bergler puts it, we have become a generation that dumbed down truth to the "lowest common denominator of adolescent cognitive development."
Ross Douthat, in his recent book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, sounds a similar warning. He traces a drift over the last fifty years, in which many evangelicals have accommodated to the culture, left aside orthodoxy, and gravitated to voices which tickle the ear. Behind much of this are pastors who, in their hunger for success, have capitulated to say what people want to hear in their quest for success and numbers and celebrity. Hence, Douthat describes our age as "a slow motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place…religions that stroke the ego and indulge or even celebrate our worst appetites."
Both of these books are needful reads today, as are Paul's final words in 2 Timothy 4:1-5. Seeing a church that was giving way to captivating voices in Ephesus, he closed his book giving a blueprint of sort for success for young pastors. It has little to do with size, numbers, eloquence, or books written. But it does have everything to do with our calling—
• Preach the Word-a reminder of Oden's words—"Effectiveness in a church is not measured by size of congregation, but by depth of genuine hearing of the Word of God."
• Keep your head–don't run off to the next fad. Keep clear of heretical intoxicants.
• Pay the price for having convictions–the price of losing people because you are not afraid of exposing sin or offending a tolerant culture, one that has become intolerant of those who have convictions.
• Share the gospel—always. Don't descend to preaching false gospels.
• Complete your calling–one in which you have worked through this checklist—
-have I been faithful?
-did I serve with humility?
-did I declare everything God called me to declare?
-did I follow the Spirit's leading?
-did I extend hospitality?
-was I generous?
-was I completely dependent upon prayer?
Numbers, size, speaking at conferences, traveling the world can all be good things. But in the end, we must hold to the things that really matter.