Recently I was in ministry leadership meeting at my local church. During this meeting, it struck me how many of the words out of the participant’s mouths, including my own, focused on how many people were coming to our events. There’s nothing wrong with trying to reach more people in one’s local church especially when it’s from a desire to help them grow in God’s grace. The problem becomes as I realized in the course of this conversation how we were so focused on numbers that the expectations of our ministry were completely wrong. Furthermore, not only were our priorities wrong but so was the measurement of our ministry. It is no wonder we felt discouraged since our expectations were primarily focused on the number of people we were reaching instead of how faithful we were to the Word and the gospel.

A Wrong Measurement for Success in Ministry

As I’ve continued to think about this conversation the past few weeks, it’s stood out to me that this is a problem not only in this particular ministry in my local church but from my vantage point in the church as a whole. You have x pastor who has a large following, and he writes a book. Nothing wrong with that, but often that leader can write the book because of his following. He is allowed to speak on issues he has no business speaking to nor does he have any knowledge of the topic. Instead, his “platform” allows him the opportunity to address any and all the topics he wants.

In my very early twenties, I was put on a fast track in ministry by a lot of people. Since I wasn’t ready for it, I burned out very quickly. It took several years to get back on track. My idea of success during this period of my life was reaching more and more people which the Lord allowed me to do. But the problem was my character was not ready. Furthermore, my life was a mess at this time although few people at the time would have known that.

Standard for Success in Ministry Is Godly Character

As the Church, we need to have a serious conversation about the biblical criteria of a successful ministry. Success in ministry is far more than reaching a certain number of people or having a book deal. Success in ministry is more than not falling into sin and causing people to stumble during one’s ministry. The standard for success in ministry should be one’s character. The Bible clearly outlines what a man’s life should look like in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The standard is possible to attain because of the gospel. The standard for ministry is nothing less and nothing more than one’s whole life being under the command and transformative power of the gospel.

Resetting Ministry Priorities Around the Word and the Gospel 

Our need to reset ministry priorities across the board is great. Many pastors are checking out of ministry each and everyday. We also see moral failings among ministry leaders far too often. The need for a recalibration is great and thus the need to have a better understanding of what ministry success is. Men like R. Kent Hughes have helped us greatly in his classic work on ministry success.

Success in ministry looks like being faithful to the Word of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus (Luke 24; Acts 20:24; 2 Timothy 3:16). It means not only preaching sound doctrine but having that doctrine mold and shape our lives. It also means not giving lip serving to the command to take up the cross of Christ in all of life (Luke 9:23-24). Lastly, it means being hearers of the Word and doers of the Word by God’s grace (James 1:26).

Our legitimacy for ministry arises not from our talent or gifting. Our legitimacy for ministry arises from our growth in holiness. The Lord has removed our hearts of stone and replaced it with a new heart, with new desires and affections all for His glory. It’s one thing to say, “Well, Dave, I know this” but it’s another entirely to have our lives molded and shaped by this reality in our day lives.

Living Lives Worthy of Imitation

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood and least taught on aspects of Christian leadership today is how Paul tells the Corinthians to follow him as he follows Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1). Here is a local church with all sorts of issues. They are in danger and ruining their witness for Christ in Corinth. Paul’s letter is corrective in nature for a reason. He wants them to see their sin and to walk in the newness of life that they have now in Christ. Doing this requires that they understood how the gospel applies to their lives now as Christians.

Here is where the perennial problem is in the church today in regards to success. You have many pastors and ministry leaders who have been taught in Bible College and Seminary to have a pragmatic view of ministry rather than a doctrinal and theological vision of ministry. Instead of seeing the vital place of doctrine and theology and helping people become discerning, mature, truth in love speaking, and gracious Christian leaders you have Christian leaders who can build programs and processes that will help people grow apart from having godly character.

Over the past many years we have seen many Christian leaders lose their ministry or check out completely. One reason among many for this is they don’t have the emotional, mental, and in particular, the relational maturity to handle a variety of issues ministry brings on them. They can’t handle the pressure because they don’t have a truly gospel-shaped understanding of ministry. And I realize these are strong words but my experience in growing up in the local church has shown me this time and time again. My experience in ministry has also confirmed what I’m outlining here. Furthermore, I have seen many people burn out from ministry and leave Christianity entirely. We desperately need to reset our perspective on success in ministry.

Resetting Our Understanding of Success in Ministry

Back to the story that began this article. As we continued to talk in the ministry leadership meeting, I said we need to reset our expectations for what success looks like. Instead of focusing so much on defining success by how many attend our events or meetings, we need to define success differently. We need to define it by how the Word of God desires to shape our ministry events and ground them in the gospel. We need to ask ourselves, “Were people helped by the time in the Word, in fellowship with others, and did people feel cared about, and prayed for while they were there?”

Whether one person comes to our Bible study, twenty people come to worship on Sunday, or whether one person reads our article, or review, we should rejoice. Ministry is not a right; it’s a privilege. As such we should consider it a high honor that the God of all grace has called every Christian generally and pastors and elders specifically to the task of equipping the saints for the work of ministry.

We desperately need to reset our understanding of ministry priorities. We do that by focusing on what is most important to our faith, the gospel of the Lord Jesus. The gospel is of first importance for a reason. We who were enemies and rebels of God are no longer enemies or rebels. Instead, we are friends of God and servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The next time you find yourself focusing on defining your success in your ministry by the numbers of people attending, I encourage you to take the time to reset. During such times, set your heart and mind on Christ who cares for and loves people so much He willingly came to die in our place and for our sin, be buried, and rise again. The gospel is not some abstract truth. Instead, it commands our allegiance, our “all” and provides the fuel and power by which we can go. God has indeed taken our hearts of stone and replaced them with a new heart, with new desires, and new affections.

Final Thoughts

It’s time we took up the cross and followed Christ in all of life. It’s also time that we applied that fundamental truth to our lives and lived lives as ministry leaders worthy of imitation. It starts with us. We set the tone in our ministries with the words we use and the example we set by God’s grace. It’s easy to point the finger at others and wonder why things aren’t changing. It’s harder to consider that we are the problem and we are the one’s that must change first before others will. This is not a call for introspection. Instead, this is a call to take a serious and heartfelt examination of our lives. In the process of this examination, we should ask our wives (if we are married) and others who know us well and our leadership the question, “What must change in my life and my ministry?”

Asking difficult questions of ourselves is very hard, but also very necessary. If we are going to last for the long haul in ministry, we must ask these types of questions. And we must be open to what others say to us as we ask those questions. We desperately need to reset what ministry success looks like. We desperately need to have a laser-like focus on being faithful to the gospel that has saved us, is sanctifying us, and will one day glorify the people of God. The people the Lord has placed in our ministries need it, our cities, countries, and world need it, and most importantly, Jesus calls us to be a certain type of person before He ever calls us to engage in any work for His glory.