When your numbers plummit.

empty seats

We live in a world that is governed by numbers.  Statistics, revenue, attendance and bottom dollar are how we discern our success in most areas of life.  It is normal and right in most situations to evaluate our business practices, spending habits and effectiveness by response and budgets.  If we do not keep our spending in check, we will run out of money.  If we do not tailor our businesses to the market, we will never make a profit and fail.  We can learn much about culture, history, trends and predictions from statistics and make informed decisions for our every day lives and also for our nations.  Numbers can be extremely helpful.

But there are also times that numbers are extremely detrimental.  Sometimes for the sake of data collection businesses will dishearten customers by requiring registration.  Sometimes people will double or triple register for benefits, and thus the numbers are inaccurate.  But for us in the church, we regularly evaluate our effectiveness by numbers – either intentionally or unintentionally.  We might count our attendance, or our new baptisms, or tithes and offerings and consider that a direct reflection of our success and/or Spiritual impact.

To evaluate the work of God by numbers is extremely dangerous.

Western 21st century culture is that of the entitled consumer.  We want to be successful, beautiful and comfortable.  We buy more than we can afford and we expect the world to recognize how wonderful we are.  Thus the extremely successful people are entrepreneurs at heart:  they figure out what people want and they sell it to them, convincing them that they will have a better life in the process.

We are consequently seeing churches follow the same pattern.  There is an entire movement of so-called churches that are drawing a crowd by preaching the health and wealth gospel:  God wants you to be successful and healthy, and all you need to achieve it is faith.  These churches draw huge crowds of people hoping to find a quick fix to a better life.

We are also seeing churches that might have started strong but find that people are “changed” and stick around in response to self-help style messages and books.  Every sermon is another three-step guide to happiness, contentment or self betterment.

Most tragically, however, we are observing the culture at large make peace with sin and continue to alter the moral compass of our country as a whole.  For the sake of not wanting to offend, to be seeker-friendly, and to allow people to define right and wrong on their own, churches are taking no position on sin or the concrete doctrines of the Bible like Hell, depravity, our need for a savior, or grace.  We just preach a secular love and make people feel good.  The old adage rings true:

Even a circus draws a crowd.

We are making ourselves a circus.  And a pretty bad one, most of the time, to be honest.

Let us once again consider Jesus:  our perfect example.  Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus drew extremely large crowds.  People came to Him to hear Him speak and for healing.  One day Jesus was out with His 12 disciples and a large crowd was following Him because He had been healing people.  Scripture says that there were 5,000 men – plus women and children.  This was a huge crowd – at least 10,000 people.  Just watching and waiting to hear what Jesus had to say.  Jesus felt compassion for them and proceeded to take five loaves of bread and 2 fish and multiply that food to feed the entire crowd – to the extent that there were twelve baskets full of leftover food.

Jesus saw a need in the people, He met that need, and worked a mighty miracle.  The crowd was amazed and wanted to continue to receive the benefit of being near Him.  They were following Him.  In everyone’s eyes then – and by all methods of modern evaluation, Jesus was extremely successful at that moment in His ministry.

That night, Jesus left the crowd and went to a town without telling them where He was going.  The crowd figured it out, however, and followed Him.  The very next day He began teaching the same crowd about eternal life, true bread and following Him.  His teaching was so difficult to hear and in vocabulary so offensive that the entire crowd left.  Jesus turned to His twelve disciples and asked if they were going to leave as well, and they said that they had no where to go, and Jesus simply observed:

“Jesus answered them, ‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’  Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.”

 – John 6.70-71

In twenty four hours or less, Jesus went from having well over 5,000 people follow Him to 11.  All of the peripheral followers left, and even one of those who appeared to be devoted was deemed worse than all the rest.  The 5,000+ could not bear His teaching and one of His hand-chosen twelve was wicked to the core, such that Jesus called him a devil.

Have you ever been a part of a church that is dwindling?  Do you wonder if it is dying?  Have people started joking, or worse yet – believing – that “Ichabod” has been written over the door?  Are your loyal congregants and even leaders pouring out of the door to find other churches or to just stop going altogether?  It is definitely a good and right thing to evaluate the tendencies of our congregation.  First of all we need to pray.  We need to remember that our churches are not our churches.  The only person who can truly call the church “my church” is Jesus.  He is the head.  He directs, He guides, He is sovereign over them.  And we must submit to His leadership.  We also need to find out why people are leaving.  Is something sinful or heretical being taught?  Is there a faction within the church?  Is there a predator working with our children?  Or are people just bored, or convicted, or looking for more friends?  In short:  are they being driven by the Holy Spirit or by their flesh?

Jesus’ teaching and the Gospel in and of itself is offensive and difficult to hear.  Jesus was charismatic enough and preformed so many miracles that the crowds continually grew and were even oppressive by their vast numbers, but they regularly receded back – even to just the disciples – when Jesus began to preach the Truth.  People do not naturally want to hear the truth.  They want to have their ears tickled, their bellies filled, and their backs patted:

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

 – 2 Tim 4.3-4

Jesus appeared to be unaffected by the crowds.  In fact, when the crowds grew to be certain sizes, He often left them to go off to pray by Himself or to go somewhere else to teach and heal.  This is the exact opposite of our goal in western Christianity.  We want to be successful, we want to draw in the masses and be a big dynamic church.  We will start multiple campuses and use videos to broadcast our pastors, we will make our mark on this city.

Churches in persecuted areas understand much more clearly the heart of Jesus for His church on many levels:  they are wary of big numbers, they facilitate strong discipleship, the stick to the truth, and they launch small groups of believers all around the cities rather than establishing themselves in a big, worldly, and visible way.  You would expect to hear that they are slower to evangelize, but quite the opposite is true in most circumstances.  We are complacent and expect “the church” to reach the lost, so we rarely share the Gospel and only on occasion invite people to join us at church hoping they will get saved inside the walls of the church.  The persecuted church has experienced Jesus changing their world, and they seek to protect the church by only bringing in other believers, but yet they are excited to share what God has done in their lives so they get out and talk about the Gospel on their own.  We have much we can learn from them.

But while we live in our “bigger is better” society, we are given clear instructions of how we are to respond to a difficult culture that does not want to hear the truth:

“But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

 – 2 Tim 4.5

We should approach every decision, including our church devotion, by prayer.  Where is God leading you to serve?  There are certainly times that churches die.  It could be because of false teaching, it could be because of sin within the congregation that is not being addressed, it could be because the members are complacent and God is scattering them to get them out of their comfort zones and making the useful again, God could allow a church to die for any number of reasons.  But if He has called you to a body, then you must be faithful and follow His leadership even if it is difficult and if other people are leaving.

We must also fight the temptation to evaluate our success by numbers.  If we follow the example of Jesus, we will find that people might be intrigued by the good deeds that we do, but the vast majority of them will not stick around.  We will even find that within our “core” and faithful few, there will be devils who are there for the wrong reasons and will fall into gross sin.

We must be sober, and we must endure hardship.  We must share the Gospel boldly and we must fulfill our ministry, even when it appears unsuccessful to the world.  God is our judge, not man.  And in the end it is only His opinion that matters.  You will always do right if you obey God and do what He teaches.  And if we look like Jesus, chances are we will not have a crowd the size of the one the circus draws.

“But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.  For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.”

 – 1 Cor 4.3-4

What ladder are you climbing?

What ladder are you climbing?  We are all at various places in our lives and careers.  Some of us are still students, while others of us are knee deep in retirement.  Some of us are dating and some of us have a handful of teenagers running around and causing grey hair.  But when you stop and think about your life goals, what is your main drive?  Are you reaching for the next rung financially?  The next promotion at work, so you can have more power?  Sending your kids to college?  Putting a little more each month into your 401K?

Many of us fear failure.  We hear throughout life that we need to be able to laugh at ourselves, to not take ourselves too seriously, and to take chances.  You will never succeed if you do not fail, right?  When I first moved abroad and was studying the language, I did not want to try to speak unless I was sure I was forming my words and sentences correctly.  I one time told a man that I had bought a new bicycle while emphatically pointing at my new shoes.  (The word for bicycle and shoes is very similar.)  And there was no shortage of laughter at my blunder.  I, however, was not amused.  I was quite embarrassed and frustrated.  But you know what?  I never made that mistake again.

Dwight L. Moody took a different position on the issue of failure:

“Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at something that doesn’t really matter.”

– D. L. Moody

Can you imagine coming to the end of your life and realizing that you have done nothing of eternal significance?  James says,

“Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”

– James 4.14

It has been said that if you could draw a picture of the timeline of your existence, your life on Earth would be just a pin point dot, with a line stretching from it for as far as the eye can see representing eternity after death.  Our time of Earth is our opportunity to experience God as our Savior from sin, our strength to resist our flesh, and our joy.  Once we have shed our earthly bodies, we will reside with Him in perfect peace, if we have known Him as savior while alive on the Earth.

Jesus implored us to,

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

– Matt 6.19-21

Eternal treasures are eternal life, reward for caring for those who are unable to repay you, fellow souls who were won through your witness, and those things that will last forever.  Scripture speaks of crowns that will be rewarded:  the crown of life, righteousness, glory, the imperishable crown, and the crown of rejoicing.  Some interpret these as literal crowns, but because the Greek term used for crown means “a badge of royalty, a prize in the public games or a symbol of honor generally”, I understand them to be figurative crowns.  They are the prize, the badge, the mark that we receive when entering our eternal rest.

Are you working towards the crowns of eternal reward in your upward climb at work?  Are you building up treasures in Heaven through your parenting and teaching?  Is your reward in Heaven as you date your future mate or continue your studies at the University?

Success in Earthly matters can be failure in eternal matters.  Jesus said that,

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”

– Luke 12.48

Are you giving and serving in proportion to what you have been given?  Jesus also said,

“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

– Matt 19.24

The more emphasis we place of worldly success and comfort, the less likely it is that we will enter Heaven.  Why?  Because where our treasure is, there our heart is also.  If we spend our time and energy investing in retirement, education, comfort or pleasure, our hearts are pouring into that which will not last.  And even if you are the most established for retirement, if you are the most comfortable and your wife does not have to work, if you have every toy you could ever want, we will be left wanting for eternity.

Let us weigh carefully our passions, drives and successes.  Let us test our motives and examine where our hearts and treasures lie.  Failure is neither the greatest thing to be feared nor the tool by which we should learn.  The wrong goal, success in anything apart from that which matters eternally, should be our greatest fear.

moody fear

True Success

“A successful man is one who, given the opportunity to wear anyone’s shoes, chooses his own.”

– Jim David

Jim is a friend of mine and he said this to me one day last month.  I have chewed on it and reflected on it many times, as I vacillate between regret and thankfulness for my life story.   I don’t know why our culture engages the question, but we regularly do:  If you could do it over, would you?  Or,  If you could change anything, would you?

Clearly none of us have the ability to go back in time and relive events or change history.  And our culture strives for success.  The American dream of pulling one’s self up by his boots straps, each generation providing more for the next so that our children can have “more than we had” permeates our educational system, our entertainment and our worldview.  While people might value certain things differently as success, we all want to be successful.

Jim argues that contentment is the key.  There will always be someone smarter, more talented, prettier…but success, in Jim’s eyes, is being satisfied and desirous of one’s own life above all others.

“Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance…You shall also observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a permanent ordinance.”

Ex 12.14, 17

The Hebrew people found themselves in captivity in Egypt, over 600,000 men – plus women and children.  God miraculously freed them from bondage by a series of plagues on the Egyptians.  The final plague that secured their escape was the death of the firstborn of every man and beast in the country.  God warned the people through Moses that the angel of the Lord would come and kill the first born in every household, and to escape this plague the family must put the blood of a lamb on their door frame.  The Hebrews did this and they were spared from the slaughter:  the angel of the Lord literally “passed over” their homes.  After their escape, God established an annual celebration for the people which was called “The Passover” in which they remembered their salvation both from death and their freedom from slavery.

They had quite a hard time in the wilderness – even though God physically and miraculously gave them food to eat every day, they grumbled and longed for their life of slavery back in Egypt.  They disobeyed God and did not trust Him to preserve them, even after he parted the waters of the Red Sea for them to cross over as the Egyptians pursued them.  But every year they still celebrated the Passover to remember the things that God had done.

The promises of God, of the faith, are those which sustain us in good and bad times:

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Heb 13.5)

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  (Rom 8.28)

“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1.6)

Thus it becomes and exercise of faith to be satisfied in the paths which the Lord has established for us and not wish to change things.  Whatever path you have walked, the Lord has guided your steps (Prov 16.9).  He has never left you, and He causes everything to work together for your ultimate, spiritual good.  And He will perfect and complete the work that He has begun in your life.

Are there things I would change about my life?  My flesh wants to scream out, “YES”.  But when I choose to trust God I become confident that the trials, the failures, the struggles are all a part of His perfect plan and will enable me to honor Him the most with my life.  And therefore, when we trust God we can become “truly successful” by enjoying the benefits of faith and our security in Him, and still choosing our own paths – no matter how difficult they may have been.

“I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands.”

– Ps 143.5