We’re all familiar with the prosperity gospel that promises financial and material blessing. But that’s not the only prosperity gospel that is rampant in the church. There’s another prominent one— one so subtle the enemy is laughing his hiney off as he watches person after person believe it.
It goes something like this: if you are truly obeying God and being faithful to Him, then your ministry will be evidently and outwardly successful. If your ministry is not flourishing, then you should pack up and go home.
A Pervasive False Gospel
In the last 15 years of ministry, my husband and I have seen this repeatedly. What’s one of the first questions other pastors/ministers will ask you about your ministry? How many people/congregants/students do you have? That should give us a hint as to how we define ministry “success”.
We were once flat out told (by a pastor we very much respected, no less) that since our ministry was “only x# people, it must not be successful”, and we should do something else. We have been to conferences that profile “successful” (read: BIG) ministries and churches, explain their story and strategy, and leave the minister wondering how he’s gone wrong because he’s doing all the “right” things, but his ministry hasn’t exploded like theirs. We’ve personally walked through many times of doubt, wondering why, if God has called us to this, we aren’t reaching as many people as we’d like to reach or are struggling to build a team of committed people.
Ah, how subtle this is! Ministry growth is part of the goal, right? God’s calling can be confirmed by successful results, right? Ministering faithfully and obediently should lead to fruitfulness, right?
Right…ish. Each of those statements is incomplete. The space between their incompletion and the whole truth is a place that leaves many ministry leaders discouraged, weary, and burned out. It’s not a success problem, or a strategy problem, or a personality problem. It’s a theology problem. To get to the root of this, we need to take a closer look at these three partial truths and put them up next to the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Recalculating Ministry Growth
The Partial Truth: Growth in ministry is part of the goal – in fact, Paul makes it abundantly clear in Colossians 1:28-29 that he is toiling endlessly for the maturity of the believers and flourishing of the gospel in their lives. That’s a form of growth!
The Whole Truth: What Paul is laboring for is not easily measurable. It can’t be counted by attendance at a service or event, the number enrolled in Bible studies, or even the quantity of baptisms. Paul labors for maturity in Christ. He isn’t concerned with exploding stadiums, starting second services, or outgrowing BSU building. Not unless maturity in Christ happens to lead to those things. Numbers aren’t inherently indicative of maturity.
Maturity growth is often painfully slow and not obvious to the distant bystander. A ministry that strives for making mature disciples who make more mature disciples may not look as flashy or vibrant because the bulk of the growth happens internally before it happens externally.
Challenge: Take a close look at your goal. Is it possible you’ve been subtly misled to believe that your ministry success is wrapped up in numbers and attendance rather than maturity? What markers of growth does your ministry use, and do they center more around external growth or the internal growth of changed hearts and lives?
Reexamining Ministry Calling
The Partial Truth: God’s calling can be confirmed by the seeming success or failure of something. Yet if that were the only criterion for affirming calling, then we would have to conclude that many biblical figures misunderstood God’s calling. Take these three for example (there are plenty more):
- Isaiah preached endlessly to an unrepentant, rebellious people; in fact, that was the assignment (see Isaiah 6).
- Moses led a bunch of grumbling, complaining Israelites who never quite figured out the “worship one God only” thing.
- Jesus spent 3 years discipling 12 guys who didn’t really get most of what He taught them until after He was gone—one betrayed Him, another denied Him, and the rest scattered in fear when the going got tough.
They must have heard God wrong…right? Wrong.
The Whole Truth: The fruitfulness of ministry can be a factor in determining if we’re where God wants us to be, but it is by no means the only or even primary one. Scripture shows us that often the things God calls us to are hard and seemingly unsuccessful by external standards."Scripture shows us that often the things God calls us to are hard and seemingly unsuccessful by external standards." -@BritneyLynHamm #collegiatedisciplemaker Laying Down the Ministry Prosperity False Gospel Click To Tweet
Far more important criteria are how our calling aligns with God’s character, will, and commands—all of which Scripture clearly outlines. If we are faithfully serving Him in ways that align with those things, then we need not question if we are doing the “right” thing just because it isn’t producing the results we (or others) want and expect.
Challenge: Think about your ministry calling. Is it possible you question it not because of the Spirit’s conviction but because of the results? Why do you do what you do? Let the fact that He has made you competent as a minister of His covenant (see 2 Corinthians 3:6) give you confidence regardless of the size, ease, or “success” of your ministry.
Redefining Ministry Fruitfulness
The Partial Truth: Is it not true that ministering faithfully and obediently should lead to bearing fruit in your life and in others? Yes, but with caveats. In the cases of Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus, God was accomplishing His purposes through them. It didn’t always look or smell like the kind of fruitfulness people were expecting. It wasn’t the fruit they might have chosen. In the delicate balance of God’s sovereignty and the people’s free will, the immediate results were (respectively) worship of a golden calf and wandering for 40 years in the desert, unrepentance, and the betrayal of dear friends.
The Whole Truth: God is after a different kind of fruit—the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. God wants our whole hearts and our deepest affections. He wants to drive us to dependence on Him, to empty self and embrace Christ. Sometimes the “successful” seasons of ministry can trick us into self-reliance (or reliance on other people, strategies, books, etc.) rather than God-dependence, while the fruit of the Spirit comes through the times of trial, hardship, and frustration. If we are pursuing the wrong kind of fruitfulness, we might actually miss out on the genuine fruit He is trying to grow in us and in those in our ministry.
Challenge: Examine the things you consider fruit in your ministry. Is it possible you’ve misdefined what ministry fruitfulness is? What things do you celebrate as wins and losses? What kind of fruit does that point to, and what does that teach your students about the kind of fruit that matters to God?
Recasting the Ministry Prosperity Gospel
When the whole truth is in view, this false ministry prosperity gospel no longer holds up. Linking God’s favor to our ministry “success” is a recipe for disaster in our hearts and in our ministry. When ministry is going “well”, we’ll think God is with us and for us, and we’ll think we’re being obedient. But when it doesn’t go well, according to our standards or others’, we’ll think God is working against us, that we’ve lost His favor, that we’re outside His will, or that we aren’t being obedient. This is problematic and dangerous for too many reasons to unwrap here.
Like any false gospel, the solution is to remember the true gospel: We can do nothing on our own. We are dead apart from Christ. God has every right to smite every one of us in just return for our sin, but He doesn’t. He sent Jesus to live the perfectly humble, Spirit-dependent, obedient life we were created to live. He sent Jesus to die the brutal, wrath-bearing death that we deserve to die. He sent Jesus to rise victorious from the grave to give new life we could never obtain on our own. He sent His Spirit to empower us to live fruitful, Christlike lives for His glory and the good of others.
He doesn’t need us; He chooses to use us. He doesn’t ask us to create results; He asks us to be faithful. We can’t awaken hearts to faith; He can. We can’t transform lives; He can.
Friends, as we embark on another year of college ministry, let’s renounce this false ministry prosperity gospel. Let’s go out in Spirit-filled humility armed only with the power of the Holy Spirit and the good news: Jesus saves and transforms, and He is enough.