“When I find myself competing with other churches or leaders, I know my head and heart are messed up.”
I love the Outreach 100 special edition and look forward to it every year. I enjoy reading about and learning from the churches and leaders that are making such an obvious impact around the country. It encourages me to see that, with all the bad news about churches losing people, some are making huge gains for God’s kingdom. It inspires me and gives me hope.
But if I’m honest, it’s also dangerous for me. It can bring out the worst parts of me—the dark, jealous and competitive parts.
For years, I was in smaller, struggling ministries. When I’d read lists like those in this edition, it would discourage me. I wanted to have a ministry like they were experiencing. But it wasn’t happening. We’d reach people who would ultimately leave and go to larger ministries that, in their words, “provided more opportunities for them and their families.” In our discouragement, my wife and I came up with a saying: “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It was hard. It felt like I was losing, or more accurately, that I was a loser. It really messed with my head—and heart.
Then something crazy happened. After experiencing years of decline prior to my arrival and many difficult changes following, God started doing an unexpected work and our church made “The List.” We were in the “Top 100.” You’d think that would have made life easier, eliminated the dark side for me. But it didn’t.
Once on the list, my motivations proved suspect. I knew who was behind me and in front of me. I began competing with the list. I wanted to move up. Even more, I didn’t want to move down. I started to think in terms of defense, not just offense. I continued to think in terms of me, my reputation as a leader, my position in the kingdom, rather than God’s will—what he was doing and what he wanted me to do. It had some very real negative impact in my life and leadership.
Along the way, I realized my problem. It wasn’t the Top 100 List—that’s meant to be a positive, something to learn from and celebrate. I was the problem. I had the wrong view of success. I had to get a handle on it. Success in God’s kingdom is not found in size. It’s found in faithfulness—faithfulness to God, his mission and his calling. It’s found in giving everything we have to God and his work, while trusting him for and accepting the results. Of course, when we’re living this way, we—and our churches—will be healthy and grow. We will be reaching people. Lives will be changing. We may never be on any list, but God will be pleased.
What a Wrong View of Success Costs Me
When we have the wrong view of success, whether we’re experiencing it or not, it’s dangerous. We go about ministry in the wrong ways. We don’t experience God in our lives or engage spiritual leadership as we should.
So with that as context, I thought I’d bare my soul in hopes of helping those of you who can relate to and share my problem. Here are some of the negative realities that I’ve found messing with my head—and heart—when I’ve embraced the wrong view of success in ministry.
I find myself believing there’s something special about me. I deserve more. I deserve better. It’s obviously wrong, but it creeps in when my view is wrong. Sadly, when I allow this idea to take root in my heart, it destroys what Jesus wants to do in and through me.
I find myself pursuing a strategy for success more than pursuing God. Of course, this is messed up. There’s no value in any level of success without God. And yet, when I begin embracing the wrong view of success, I begin valuing and pursuing the wrong things in the wrong ways. As important as strategy can be in ministry, the right strategy without God is worthless. No matter how successful we are at reaching people, if we’re not walking intimately with God, or if we begin compromising his truth, our success is failure.
I find myself losing my deep longing for God to work in and through me. I call this the dark side of contentment. Before we experience any kind of success or impact through our leadership, we’re hungry for it. But once it happens, it’s easy to lose that hunger, the willingness to give everything to know God and see him work.
I’ve not only experienced this personally. I’ve seen it at work in others. It’s one reason that once a big dream is realized, a church of 300, 500, 1000 or 10,000 so often plateaus. The problem here is that our hunger shouldn’t be found in our dreams and goals. It should be found in God’s calling, in knowing his pleasure. One ends, the other doesn’t.
I find myself playing to the wrong audience—or for an audience. Before our church was on the Top 100 list, when I had the wrong view of success, I was motivated to get on it. After we made the list, I was motivated to move up the list. Rather than being motivated by a genuine desire to please God and reach people with his love and grace, I was motivated to elevate myself. It was a simple game of using God’s church to build my own kingdom. The wrong view of success is all about accepting the values of the wrong kingdom—ours versus God’s. When I find myself competing with other churches or leaders, I know my head and heart are messed up.
I find myself being owned by the complexities. Complexities multiply exponentially the longer we’re in a ministry and the larger it becomes. There are a lot of expectations and responsibilities placed on those leading in the church. When we have the wrong view of success, we try to live up to them. But in truth, our calling is simple: Know God and make him known. A great example of this is found in Acts 6. Ministry was becoming more complex. Expectations and responsibilities were growing. But, the early church leaders handled it brilliantly. They released others to manage the growing complexities so that they could simply pray and minister the Word. They had the right view of success.
I find myself becoming more susceptible to my vulnerabilities. And I’m not alone. It’s happened to far greater men of God than I’ll ever be. It happened to King David. It led to his most significant failure. He used his God-given position and influence for himself, not to please God or benefit the people. The wrong view of success crept in and messed up his head and heart. The same can be true in our lives. I’ve had to take extreme caution in this area of my life. I don’t want to fall, as so many others have, after experiencing God’s work in my life.
I find myself valuing and pursuing the privileges more than the point of my God-given leadership position and influence. I start focusing on the things I can get instead of the things I can and should do. When this happens, I’m in serious trouble.
I believe these are realities and struggles that all Christian leaders, in any context, will ultimately face. We all have the natural tendency to view success through the wrong lens, to define it in the wrong way. The way we deal with this problem will determine whether God can use us or not; whether God will ultimately see us as successful or not; whether we finish well or not; whether we hear “Well done” or not. My prayer is that all of us will.