His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ (Matt. 25:21, ESV)
I’m just being real. Having just observed the twelfth anniversary of my church plant, I expected we would have had a church building of our own by now – or at least a building program going. We don’t and are in fact meeting (however temporarily) on Sunday evenings in the building of our sister church- by the grace of God, via my good friend and fellow pastor’s provision, as we prayerfully await the Lord’s provision of a Sunday morning space.
I also would have liked if not expected by now, enough church bodies and a budget to have sent enough people to plant another church in our region or beyond, where the word ministry and gospel of God was desperately needed to be preached- faithfully. That hasn’t happened yet either.
Little did I know that something like COVID would come to our world and that I would fall prey to unrealistic expectations of myself and my church, and that I would learn hard lessons about what faithfulness really means and God’s own definition of success, which does not at all jibe with man’s.
For starters, I’ve learned that my pastoral ‘to do list’ as well as the mission of my church is and will never be accomplished on this side of glory. The first sermon I ever preached for my church was titled, “God’s Marching Orders”, which was a message that applied the Lord’s Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37-40), Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) and the ‘Great Commitment’ (Acts 1:8) to local church ministry.
It’s a goal that we have diligently pursued for over a decade, but I have come to understand remains out of our reach in its being completed within my earthly lifetime. We’re still marching.
Our mission remains the same, to make, mature and multiply disciples, preaching the word in season and out of season through the ups and downs, peaks and valleys of church life until Jesus comes back, in a very needy and challenging mission field we call South Florida.
But lest I wallow in despair over that reality, I also know the mission of the universal church to advance the Kingdom of God in general, still goes on too. That mission is 2,000 years old and counting.
It could be very easy for me- for any other church leader for that matter, to be frustrated and discouraged by what has been and is still going on in this country and its impact on church life, growth and even member retention (i.e. economic, racial and political unrest).
But then again, as I like to say, “Life is hard, God is good and Christ is coming back.” Nonetheless, considering the sovereignty and providence of God in all this, I reflected on the latest anniversary of our church and I asked myself if we had been successful somehow in that dreaded year of 2020?
I think the answer to that question depends on what we mean by success and whose counting. If we’re talking about great numbers of conversions to Christ- salvations, baptisms, bodies and budget increases in our church, the answer would be no. But then again, I reminded myself those raw numbers carry worldly and largely secular definitions of success and I’m in the ‘business’ of ministry and God’s kingdom rather than man’s.
In fact, by man’s definition of success – even among “church-growth” experts, preachers, prophets and pastors like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Hosea in the Old Testament to name a few, would have been considered abject failures- disasters in ministry by today’s standards. You know the history – little or no signs of repentance and conversions there.
A quick glance at the New Testament reveals that John the Baptist may not have done very well in that sense either, as he and all but one of the twelve apostles were martyred or killed for their faith. Not a terribly strong finish in the world’s eyes.
Thus, man’s standards of success don’t really seem to fit well with biblical ministry do they? For instance, my church’s size – in terms of the missiologists who track such things, would be classified as average or normative- similar to the early church period.
Whereas, despite the existence of headline dominating megachurches here and there around the country, those actually consist of a very small percentage of the 300,000 plus churches in the United States.
As I pondered this, I came upon a rather funny if not ironic and satirical story (not in the Babylon Bee) of two biblical figures who had responded to a want ad for a pastor’s position at a church in my community which yielded the following results:
Jesus: Has had popular times, but once when his church grew to 5,000 he managed to offend them all and his church dwindled down to 12 people. Seldom stays in one place very long. And of course, he’s single.
Judas: His references are solid. A steady plodder. Conservative. Good connections. Knows how to handle money. We’re inviting him to preach this Sunday. Possibilities are there.
Sarcastic but informative perhaps?Fortunately, I dug up (pun intended) a biblical definition of success for the Christian life and as an extension – of church ministry including mine, from the Lord Jesus Christ’s Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30).
This kingdom parable or short story – one of several in the gospels, pictures what the rewards will be for disciples in having faithfully prepared for the Lord’s return. And in this one, Jesus talks about a master (representing himself as Kyrios- Lord), who while away from his kingdom for a while (think of the church age between his first and second advents), leaves resources and responsibilities behind to his servants- “to each according to his ability.”
Of the three servants in the story, two obeyed their master’s instruction to “engage in business” – to be faithful with what they were given (a “talent” – literally the measure of weight of a precious metal like gold or silver – a form of money), regardless of how much or little that was. Their return on investment (ROI), would actually yield a return to serve and do even more (“I will set you over much”, or, “I will put you in charge of many things”).
The third servant from a heart of selfishness, didn’t do anything with the talent he was given and buried it, thinking his master was miserly and wouldn’t reward him at all, earning the master’s unsurprising rebuke, “‘You wicked and slothful servant!”
The master then laid out the consequence of unfaithfulness to that servant by taking the fruit of his blessings and bestowing them to the more faithful one (Matt. 25:29-30).
That consequence – a tragedy of wasted opportunity, resulted in hell and judgment for the unfaithful servant, proving himself to have never been a kingdom citizen to begin with. And how do we know that? That servant lacked the faithfulness that results in fruitfulness.
Now, even though the immediate context of the parable is individual, in a faith community, members make up the local body. Therefore, the charge- the command to be faithful is by application to be both personal and corporate.
To put it simply in other words, to be faithful, means to obey the word of God. To prayerfully seek, find and obey the revealed will of God for your life and his kingdom, found in the word of God. Being faithful to that means you obey God even when it’s hard, doesn’t seem to make sense, or when the fruit of your obedience isn’t entirely visible yet, if at all to the world.
As I preached to my church on our anniversary Sunday, I said our faith is not only true but in the world’s eyes, is crazy. Frankly, I think we need more crazy Christians…
- People thought Abraham was crazy when he climbed a mountain to sacrifice his son.
- People thought Moses was crazy when he announced God’s relocation project!
- People thought Joshua was crazy when he announced the battle plan for Jericho!
- People thought Paul was crazy for planting churches and taking the Gospel to the Gentiles!
- People – my extended family and some friends in particular, thought we (my wife and kids) were crazy to plant our church!
The kingdom goal for us, whether it be with our time, talents or treasure, is to serve, or to give, to get, to give again and then the Lord will give more to us and the cycle continues until he comes back to take us home and then the King’s process repeats itself all over again in a greater and more blessed way in the future kingdom – like the master of this parable.
That process can take years (Ja. 5:17-18) but it will be fruitful. The mission will be accomplished. The test of the service of the servants in the story was not how much they earned- but how hard they served. What did they- what do we and your local church do with what the Lord has given us?
Church ministry success to God is about the being and the doing. He takes care of the rest- the results. Church ministry and the Christian’s success according to the Bible is obedience to God’s word in faithfulness (Jos. 1:7-8). Any fruit that comes our way from that mission are to be blessings of grace that God promises to the faithful.
The Lord may have given my church for now just one or two talents instead of five. Maybe your church is similar. The question remains, “What are we going to do for him – the one who loves us and saved us with what he’s given us?
Be that guy that dug it underground and did little or nothing with what he was sovereignly given? Don’t we want to hear when he comes back, “well done, good and faithful servant- good and faithful church?” That will be enough for me to ‘enter into the joy of my master.’