What Makes a Church Successful?

by Rick Burke

Some years ago, as part of a small church plant, I was challenged to consider what makes a successful church. Is it having a nice building with traditional church architecture (white pillars, tall steeple and located on Main Street, USA)? Is it the number of people attending on Sunday morning… the bigger the church, the more successful it is? Or is it the excellent programming from music to eloquent preaching and engaging ministries? All of these items seem to explain success- building, attendance and programming but is that the Bible’s definition for local church success? Our culture defines church “success” with those parameters but does that align with scripture?

Churches in North America tend to operate in such a fashion to accomplish our cultural definitions of success but the Bible discusses building the Kingdom of God rather than these cultural markers. Over the next articles we will review some of the biblical markers of success for local churches either as church plants or established bodies. We will be following ideas from J.D. Greear’s book, Gaining by Losing. I also want to acknowledge my colleague Cathy Nelson’s help in formulating these articles.

This book stirs up some great questions about how the church conducts itself. We count our success in numbers, but the Bible does not. It counts by how many seeds we are planting. We tend to do what leads to the success of our church-the Bible discusses building the Kingdom. Jesus was referred to as “sent” forty-four times in the New Testament. Then He said, “As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Sending is costly but “life for the world only comes through the death of the church.”

Greear begins chapter one with a good illustration. He says some churches operate like cruise liners offering Christian entertainment, childcare services, and networking. People choose the cruise that fits their preferences, even mixing attending Bible studies at one and youth group at another. Some churches are more like battleships, fighting in God’s mission. But the strategy is for the pastors to find the targets and fire the guns and everyone else watches. He suggests that we ought to be more like aircraft carriers, sending people off to fight the war in their own locations.

So that means a church should send. The reasons are that: 1) unbelievers won’t come to churches no matter how attractive they are, 2) multiplication always beats addition, 3) the presence of God accompanies those who send and 4) Jesus’ promises of greatness are related to sending.

To explain why unbelievers don’t come, Greear tells about living in a Muslim country. Although he was invited, no matter whether there was a special Muslim holiday, or if he was facing hard times or if the imam was doing a good series on relationships or told funny stories, he would not have attended the local mosque. When he finally gave in to someone’s invitation, he felt so wrongly dressed, out of sync with the service routine, and altogether awkward that he never returned.

I won’t explain why multiplication beats addition because you have heard of putting one grain of wheat on each square of a checkerboard vs. doubling the number on each square. Soon it is obvious which works better! But that means that each believer has to be reproducing—a spiritual parent is the term we are using here at First Free with our Pathway to Discipleship circle illustration.

“God’s presence accompanies those who send” is his next point. I think that could be better stated, God blesses those who send or blesses those who are sent. Psalm 67:2 refers to Israel, but could also refer to the church blessing the nations.

Jesus’ promises of greatness in the church are related to sending. I had trouble finding Grear’s argument convincing but I found a verse he didn’t use, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).

Chapter two begins with the journey that Greear’s church went on to learn to send. They realized that their city would not be sorry if they disappeared, in fact they might prefer it! So they needed to fix that. He himself learned that he really wanted to grow his own church, not God’s kingdom or any other church. That was painful but woke him up. When the Body saw that God was bringing a large number of college students, they realized they had a resource for “mormonizing” and sent out college students to help with church plants around the world. He knows each church has differnt resources but are we using them strategically?

Do some of us find ourselves bored in church? Do we have a nagging sense that we ought to be doing something? “The church exists for mission. Without the mission, a church is not a church; it’s just a group of disobedient Christians hanging out.” We don’t need to “find God’s will for our lives” because it isn’t lost. Instead we know God’s will and need to get on with it. Jesus has given us a mission. He is not willing that anyone perish.

Success of the local church must somehow be found in being faithful to God’s commands to love God with all of our being (The Great Commandment) but also being faithful to the Great Commission to make disciples. We have been “sent” and need to be a sending center to love and make disciples of all the nations! Yet success would also be more than just being faithful to God’s commands but also to be fruitful. In other words how effective are we being in the Great Commandment and the Great Commission? Jesus says in John 15:16-17: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit- fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.” So, how faithful and fruitful are we being? Are we aiming at the culture’s definition of success or are we aiming at Jesus’s definition?

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