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Success, Failure, and Growth

Success FailureA while ago, Alan over in readingreport posted an article questioning how we define success, in light of noticing YouTube being ranked as one of the ten biggest tech failures of the last decade according to Time magazine. YouTube is considered a failure not because it is not popular or it does not have a big audience, but because its business model is not profit-generating.

Applying it to the church, we can draw similarities in saying that:

Company: Big audience, but not making any profit = Failure
Church: Big audience, but not making Christ-like disciples = Failure

Now consider this:

Company: Making profit, but not having a big audience = ???
Church: Making Christ-like disciples, but not having a big audience = ???

Considering the business case, I believe it can still be successful. That’s what operating in niche markets are all about. As long as the company is profitable in the long run, who cares how big or small is your customer base?

Now for the second case, how would you evaluate it? I believe Eugene Peterson would consider it acceptable or even ideal, but he’d disturb many pastors who would consider this as inward-looking, lacking passion in evangelism, or even disobedient to Great Mission.

Marva Dawn once said many baby boomer pastors have this inherent obsession with success, growth, and numbers. In theory, they would deny equating numbers with success, but in practice, they all do. (This is what I call having a dichotomy between theory and practice.)

My take on this is:

Faithfulness comes first; growth comes second.
Moreover, growth is granted, not pursued after.

According to the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), each servant is entrusted to a certain amount according to his unique ability. If he is good and faithful in stewarding that, then the master will grant more, again according to his newly expanded capability and faithfulness.

So I’d say that, if the Lord gives you 30 people, just be faithful and equip those 30 people well. If the Lord gives you 300, be faithful and equip those 300 people well. If the Lord gives you 1,000 or even 10,000, it’s still the same game. Be faithful in what is given.

Now if the Lord reduces a congregation from 300 to 200, or from 100 to 60, before blaming it on the congregation’s uncontrollable mobility and crying foul, isn’t it better to reflect on one’s faithfulness first instead? Don’t we believe that “The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away” (Job 1:21)?

The reason Jesus is using a common master-servant scenario in his parable is because this isn’t anything unconventional or particularly insightful. That’s just how the real world operates. If you do your job well, your manager may increase your salary or even promote you to a rank with more responsibilities. If you don’t do well, don’t even think about it.

Now if a church only focuses on increasing its numbers, how is it different from an employee only eyeing on a salary increase or a promotion in everything he does, and not really doing his real job?

That’s why the master can justifyingly call these wicked, lazy, and worthless servants.

The good news that arises from this parable is that we are freed from equating numbers with our success. All we have to concentrate on is to be faithful in what has been given. We need not feel incompetent because we are not as big as the church next door. If the congregation shrinks in size, consider it grace. It’s like a professor telling a student: “You find writing a 3000-word essay difficult? Okay, try handing in a 1200-word paper then. Just focus and do the best you can.” Isn’t this liberating?

Faithfulness comes first; growth comes second.
Growth is granted, not pursued after.

Posted in Church, Mission & Evangelism, Posts in English, Theology, Work & Marketplace.

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4 Responses

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  1. alan says

    Jesus only discipled 12.

  2. L says

    I’m not sure if the parable of the talents really goes well with this post: afterall, isn’t the servant who didn’t work on growing what was given to him (the 1 talent) that was scorned by his master for being “wicked” and “lazy”?
    I think faith and growth go hands in hands: it was the faithfulness of the first 2 servants (the 5 talents and the 2 talents) which drives them to grow on what was given to them. When one has faith, one would seek to grow His kingdom; when one sees His kingdom grows, one’s faith is strengthened.

    • Anson says

      Leo, I agree with your observation, but I think there are those who are given 1 talent but obsessively and unrealistically desire 10 talents, and they try to do way more than they are capable of, but end up accomplishing nothing….. I think they are just as wicked and lazy….. in a sense that they are not faithful to the scope and boundaries they are given.

      Two more questions to reflect on:
      1. Of course we do seek and desire the expansion of God’s kingdom and the reign of Christ declared over all the earth. But do we seek to grow God’s kingdom through our efforts, or is that God’s business and we just do what we’ve been tasked at? I tend to think God’s kingdom as a chess game. God is the one who’s playing chess. We are just his chess units. If I am a pawn, I do my best being a pawn. If I’m a knight, I do my best as a knight. Each person has his or her own role, and we just have to be faithful in our corresponding roles. As far as how the big picture goes, of course I’d desire progress and growth, but I’ll leave that in the hands of the one who has an omniscient view.

      2. What’s the main point of this parable? Is it about numbers or is it about faithfulness? One may tend to think it’s about having a return equal to what is given, that if you are given 5, you better make an additional 5. If you are given 2, you better make 2. But I think the numbers 5 yielding 5, 2 yielding 2, just indicates the potential of return. It’s almost like saying yielding 5 is a natural result of being faithful and putting the original 5 talents to work, and not about how hard working the first servant is. As long as you are faithful, you WILL very likely have a return proportional to what you originally have. But I don’t think the equality in numbers is the main point. Even if the person who has 5 talents end up making only 2, but if he’s faithful in putting the money to work, I think the master will be satisfied. This point is emphasized in the third servant’s story. The master said to him he could have simply put the money into the bank and at least come back with some interest. Here it is clear that the master does not expect absolutely a 1:1 return, but simply faithfulness from his servants.

      So that’s why I think it’s a good news and liberation to us. The thing God cares is our faithfulness, not the numbers. As long as we are faithful, even making less than ideal is okay. But God also promises us that if we truly put the resources to work, we’ll naturally have a return proportional to what has been given.

      After that, the master will increase the responsibility of the servant to handle bigger things. Now that’s what I mean by growth as a given, not something we pursue after.

  3. L says

    Well said. Maybe you can add that to your post. 😀
    As I was also reminded of in the discernment meeting, it’s never about what I can do for God (as if I can do anything on my own), but rather, what does God want to do through me.