“SUCCESS”, in ministry terms, is very difficult to define. Perhaps “excellence” is a better concept for Christians to aim for. In his Letter to the Philippians, St Paul encourages Christian disciples: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things at the end of a long list of virtues that are to be the focus of the Christian community.”
The Greek word for “excellence” which he uses is arete, meaning “virtue’” or “excellence of any kind”. It does not imply relative excellence or superiority over things, but, rather, inherent excellence in relation to the thing in question. The problem is that, in popular use, excellence is so often understood to mean relative superiority, and is used to rate one thing against another.
There is no reason why what we do as Christians should not be at least as “excellent” as anything that happens in so-called secular spheres. (Some churches even serve decent coffee now, so I’ve heard.) But we need to be wary, as Christians, that we do not fall into the same trap as the rest of the league-table-obsessed world and rate everything in relation to everything else, so that the Christian consumer can choose what is best.
In Philippians 1, when Paul prays for the Christians in Philippi “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best . . .”, the term “best” implies godly, moral excellence: that which is different and distinctive from the way in which the rest of the world chooses to do things. We must be able to discern what, in God’s truth, is different from the various views of measuring excellence and using those measures offered by the world around us. All our thoughts of success and excellence must be grounded in the only one who was ever excellent in any sense, either relative or absolute: Jesus Christ.
THE Church is supposed to grow, in depth, commitment, numbers, and any other which way that can be named and thought of. But it is also true that we must look at such growth with the eyes of God, through the lens of theology; otherwise, it will be all too easy to be carried away by theories and motivations for growth that belong to another kingdom and to other gods, more to do with power, wealth, and dominance than with the cross and resurrection of Christ.
Two key Christian themes or doctrines, in particular, make counting and measuring different for Christians, and especially for Christian leaders, compared with people who do not have a Christian world-view in mind.
The first is eschatology. To measure something effectively, it is generally assumed that this will involve a certain timescale. To know whether something has been done or not, and therefore to be able to measure or count it, there needs to be an end date or time by which it was supposed to be completed. To measure growth, one needs to do that over time. To assess whether something has hit a target, there needs to be a point in time at which that target is located.
But the trouble is that God has no beginning and no end. God’s people are part of a story that began before creation (“since before the foundation of the world”) and which will not end ever (“there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever”). One day, our work on earth as we know it will be done, but Jesus was insistent that we do not know when that day will be: “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Perhaps that is to stop us trying to measure things too much. So, all this means that the work of God in the world is never finished. It therefore follows that all measurements need to have about them a measure of provisionality: the end is not in sight. And yet, in another sense, the end — as in the end of our time on this earth — is always in sight, with the eyes of faith.
The second theological theme that ought to inform our counting and measuring is the doctrine of grace.
Most measurements are about assessing how well something has been done, and whether certain standards have been met. At the heart of the Christian faith is the countercultural claim that we cannot save ourselves, but only God can; that no amount of effort will lead to greater salvation, which is sheer gift; and that life in Christ cannot be worked for (still less measured), but only received. Measuring is often to do with performance, assessment, and relative effectiveness, all of which concepts are anathema to grace.
There is much emphasis in business, education, and even the arts, on whether return for resource or effort constitutes a good investment. I know that resources are scarce and we need to be good stewards; so assessing the effectiveness of something or other is often necessary.
But the trouble is that the Kingdom of God is not often like that. Is forgiveness “effective”? Is grace good “value for money”?
THE trouble with using words such as “effectiveness” in relation to ministry, still less “value for money”, is that we might begin to see the work of God as a business proposition, where little trainee ministers are moved along an assembly line of lectures and learning outcomes until they become “effective” units of church growth and, more importantly, of income-generation to bolster the flagging economy of the Church.
I am always heartened by Jesus’s own telling of the parable of the sower. Not only does it point up the apparent “ineffectiveness” of even Jesus’s own teaching ministry (an encouragement to anyone who, albeit human and not divine, has ever felt the same frustrations), but it also highlights the fact that, in the Kingdom of God, the fragile work of ministry will often move slowly, unpredictably, unevenly, and in unquantifiable ways.
We are simply to be obedient in broadcasting the good news widely, and to leave the hidden, unseen work of germinating the seeds to God. Any “success” in the parable is the success of the word of God in the reign of heaven. Let anyone who has ears, listen!
Dr Emma Ineson is the Bishop of Penrith.
This is the second edited extract from Ambition: What Jesus said about power, success, and counting stuff, published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9). The first part was published in the 29 November issue.
Listen to an interview with Dr Ineson on the Church Times Podcast.