How Do You Measure Success?
2 Corinthians 3:1-3
January 17, 2010
Would you hire this man as your pastor?
*Arrested many times.
*In and out of prison.
*Often run out of town.
*Never built a building.
*Never spoke on television.
*Never had a website.
*Never had a Facebook page.
*Never owned his own home.
*Had to work on the side to support himself.
*Never stayed very long in one place.
*Not a skilled public speaker.
*Sometimes preaches for hours at a time.
*Seems to get involved in public controversies.
Most churches would take a pass on a man like that. After all, you can’t trust your pulpit to just anyone who comes along. And that’s why the Apostle Paul would not feel at home in many of our churches today.
Every year I spend a good part of my time talking with pastors. I love pastors and I love spending time with them. Sometimes I’ll ask, “How is it going?” and then sit back and wait for the answer. Just as I typed that sentence, I shrugged my shoulders, as if to say, “It depends.” It depends on who is asking and when and where and why. And it depends on what day you ask.
Success in the ministry is notoriously hard to define. Even if we have met all our goals, have we truly been successful in the eyes of the Lord?
How do we measure success in the ministry?
That’s the question Paul faced in 2 Corinthians. He had to justify himself because a group of critics had virtually taken over the church, filling the people’s minds with base accusations against Paul’s character and his conduct. “You can’t trust him. Look how fickle he is. He says he’s coming for a visit, then he doesn’t show up. How do you know he’s not a fake?”
Part of Paul’s answer comes in 2 Corinthians 3:1-3 where he declares that the real measure of his ministry is the lives changed by the Holy Spirit. That constitutes true success in the eyes of the Lord.
Success in the ministry is notoriously hard to define.
It’s not about programs or buildings.
It’s not about budgets or titles.
It’s not about a big reputation.
I. Inadequate Measures of Success
“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?” (2 Corinthians 3:1).
Paul says, “I don’t need to boast and I don’t need a letter of reference to prove the validity of my ministry.”
That’s different from the way we do things today.
Sometimes we measure success by our degrees. So we go to college for four years to get a BA or a BS. Then we may go to graduate school for an MA or an MBA. Some will seek a professional degree, such as an MD, JD, DDS, or DMin. Those with a scholarly bent will pursue a PhD so they are qualified to write or teach at the highest levels. So in the end the extremely studious person may have a string of degrees after his name, such as BA, MA, PhD.
And of course these things matter. We pay attention to them. We put our degrees up on the wall. We want people to know we went to Georgia Tech or Miami or to Notre Dame or Princeton or Multnomah or Biola. And it’s not just those letters. We gain status, we make friends, we network, we may meet our spouse at college or in graduate school, and when we graduate, having a degree from a particular school may land us a job some day. So it does matter.
Sometimes we ordain people to the ministry. That’s important because it means that a certain group of well-respected people examined you carefully regarding your testimony, your background, your education, your doctrine, your spiritual life, and your call to the ministry. In some denominations a candidate without ordination papers will not be considered for the pastorate. We put our ordination paper on the wall. It’s a mark of accomplishment, a sign that someone, somewhere has checked us out and we pass muster.
Paul never gives us any attendance statistics from his churches.
Often we measure pastors by church size. Probably nothing matters more than this. Go to any ministerial gathering and after the initial greetings, someone is sure to ask, “How large is your church?” or “How many are you running in Sunday School?” That matters because 50 is better than 25, 100 is better than 50, 500 is better than 100, 1000 is better than 500, 2000 is better than 1000, and anything over 2000 is considered a megachurch. And these days there are quite a few churches in America that draw more than 7000 people very Sunday. Currently the largest church in America attracts over 40,000 people. And around the world there are mega-megachurches that number over 100,000 or 200,000.
There are other ways of looking at success. Who do you know? How well are you connected? Do you know a senator? How many millionaires attend your church? Do you have Bill Gates’ cell phone number? Do you Twitter with Shania Twain? Do you drop by and say hi to Donald Trump when you are in New York? Have you met President Obama? Will Peyton Manning return your calls? Did you eat lunch with Chuck Colson last week? On and on it goes. Because we live in a celebrity culture, it matters to all of us who we know. Knowing important people gives you clout, it helps you get things done, and it elevates you in the minds of others.
But these things, the “letters of recommendation” that Paul is talking about, the approval and recognition of others and the applause of the world, these are not the true measures of success.
God views it differently.
II. The One Thing That Matters Most
It’s all about lives changed by the Holy Spirit. See how Paul explains it in verses 2-3:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
As far as Paul was concerned, the real proof of his ministry was the changed lives of his hearers. As he preached the gospel, the Holy Spirit applied it to his hearers so that when they believed in Jesus, their lives were completely changed. Corinth was a thoroughly pagan city, given over to idol worship and gross sexual immorality. As a seaport town, it had a reputation for sensuality to the point that “to corinthianize” had become a by-word in the first century. It meant to live on the level of brute sexual appetites. Corinth was a place where you could say that truly “anything goes.” So when the gospel entered with its promise of life transformation through the power of Jesus Christ, sinners were converted, and some of them were radically changed. Paul had written about that in his first letter to the Corinthians:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
In today’s world we tend to regard that as a “hard passage” that makes us squirm because it seems so negative-and it is! But that’s not the end of the story. Read on to verse 11:
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
The most important part of this text is the first phrase of verse 11: “And that is what some of you were.” In those eight words we find the entire Christian faith. The effective power of all that we believe is summed up in those few words. Christianity is supremely a religion of conversion. Everything we say and everything we believe is built upon one fundamental and revolutionary premise: You don’t have to stay the way you are. Your life can be radically changed by God. The miracle of conversion happens when the life of God intersects with human personality. Once God enters the picture, your life will never be the same again. Until then, you may be religious and you may be a very good person and you may obey all the rules of the church, but you have not been converted.
Christianity is supremely a religion of conversion.
Let’s just write it down for the whole world to understand. The Christians at Corinth were . . .
Wicked no more.
Immoral no more.
Idolaters no more.
Adulterers no more.
Homosexuals no more.
Thieves no more.
Greedy no more.
Drunkards no more.
Slanderers no more.
Swindlers no more.
Talk about a change. Can you imagine the impact in Corinth when an idol worshiper came to Christ and his buddies at the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, wondered what happened to him. Why didn’t he come around anymore? Why didn’t he offer sacrifices? Why didn’t he partake in sexual escapades with the many priestesses attached to the temple? Why didn’t he join in the bacchanalian celebrations? What happened to him? “I met some people who told me about Jesus, and he changed my life completely.”
Conversion is the miracle whereby God changes the tenses of your life:
Or suppose a woman was one of those priestesses who practiced a form of religious prostitution. What would her friends say when suddenly she stopped plying her trade? Her answer would blow their minds.
Or here is a man in Corinth who has lived a homosexual lifestyle. But no more. He has been washed, cleansed, sanctified, given a new heart, a new life, a new direction. Yes, the temptations remain, but the direction of his life has been altered forever. Can you imagine what his friends would say when he declared, “I’m not going to do that anymore”?
There is another way to say it. Conversion is the miracle whereby God changes the tenses of your life:
This is what you were.
This is what you are.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ can do it, and we believe that only Jesus has the life-changing power to utterly transform your life from the inside out. That’s what happened to the first-century believers in the seaport town of Corinth. It could happen to you today as you read these words.
How did this radical change take place among those who heard his message? These former idol-worshiping pagans were now . . .
It’s a wonderful thing when your conversion is so real that no one can deny the change in your life.
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody” (v. 2). It’s a wonderful thing when your conversion is so real that no one can deny the change in your life.
Followers of Christ
“You show that you are a letter from Christ” (v. 3). Their lives were like a letter from Christ, written in their hearts, plain and clear for the whole world to see.
“Written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (v. 3). They had not been changed by “joining the church” or “walking an aisle” or “signing a card.” Those things have no power to change us. Only the Holy Spirit working within can write God’s truth in our hearts.
“Not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (v. 3). The Ten Commandments were written on stone, giving them permanence as a rule of life for ancient Israel. If someone said, “Is it okay to sleep with my neighbor’s wife?” the answer was, “Check out the tablets. What do they say?” Rules can do many things. They can tell you right and wrong, and they can provide guidance in tough situations. Only the gospel can change us from the inside out.
Christians are “living epistles,” letters that anyone can read.
Christians are “living epistles,” letters that anyone can read. Christianity written on the soul is
Jesus is the writer, the Holy Spirit is the ink, you are the letter!
You are writing a Gospel,
A chapter each day,
by the deeds you do and by the words you say.
People read what you write, whether faithful or true.
Just what is the Gospel according to you?
So what is the real mark of a successful ministry? It must be the lives changed by the preaching of the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the proof of the ministry can never be simply counting nickels and noses or listing degrees or books written or places preached or the size of your Sunday School or how many services you have or how big your budget is or who came to speak for you or who serves on your Board of Reference or how long you’ve been in the ministry.
Michael Andrus makes a telling observation on this very point:
Paul never gives us any attendance statistics from his churches; never tells us how many baptisms were performed in a given year; never reports on the number of new programs he started; and he never even tells us how the giving was doing compared to budget!
We count those things and say, “Well, if you’ve got those, you’ve got a successful ministry.” Paul said, “I’m not playing that game.” He wouldn’t ask for letters of reference nor would he provide any. He simply said, “If you want to know about my ministry, check out the people who listen to me. Look at what God has done in their lives.”
That’s the only thing that matters. The rest is just details. And a lot of it is just ministerial window-dressing.
III. The Source of Our Success
If you take this passage as a standard, it means that God measures our success in terms of lives changed. He’s evidently not that impressed by the size of our budget or by the stained glass in our sanctuary. The One who hung the stars in space doesn’t really care how many books we’ve written or how much money we make or whether or not we see our name in lights.
He’s Almighty God, Maker of heaven and earth.
Like we’re going to impress him?
I think not.
God measures our success in terms of lives changed.
I’ve already said that the proof of our ministry is lives changed by the Holy Spirit. So who does the changing? (This isn’t a trick question.)
The Holy Spirit (who is God himself).
If lives are truly changed under our ministry, God did it!
He has arranged things so that we get the honor and privilege of serving him. To us he committed the message of reconciliation and told us to go into the world and preach it in every nation, saying to one and all, “Be reconciled to God.”
We do the preaching.
God does the saving.
We do the praying.
God does the answering.
And it is God who takes the message we preach and writes it on the hearts of those who hear. And let us be thankful about that. If we had to save people, no one would ever be saved. I can preach from sunrise to sunset, I can preach till the cows come home, but if God doesn’t work, no one will ever be saved. A wonderful old hymn from the colonial era says it this way:
Brethren, we have met to worship and adore the Lord our God;
Will you pray with all your power, while we try to preach the Word?
All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down;
Brethren, pray, and holy manna will be showered all around.
I don’t know how you feel about this, but I’m very happy that “all is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down” because that means it doesn’t all depend on me.
My success depends on the Lord!
Not partly, but entirely.
Three Simple Conclusions
Let me draw three simple conclusions from this and we will be done.
My success depends on the Lord!
First, I have a part to play and I must do my part. I am called to preach and teach the Word of God. The where and the how and the when are not specified. Circumstances change all the time. Look at Paul’s life. He had great success in one city and was run out of the next. He stayed in one city for months and in another for three or four weeks. He was loved and hated, admired and reviled, praised and criticized wherever he went. Some of the churches he started had major problems. Not everyone who heard him believed his message. Not all of his disciples stayed true to the Master. And yet he determined to go wherever he was led, to become “all things to all men” so that by God’s grace, he might win some to Christ.
Was Paul successful? From the perspective of twenty centuries later, we know the answer is yes. But he ended up in jail in Rome (twice!) and evidently died by beheading at the order of Nero.
In 1 Corinthians 4:1 Paul reveals a key secret of success in the ministry. “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” There it is, plain for all to see.
That’s what God wants from you and me.
Be faithful to our calling.
Be faithful to the Lord.
Be faithful to preach the Word.
That is my part and I must do my part. No one else can do it for me.
Second, I won’t really know how successful I’ve been until I get to heaven. Several years ago I watched Larry King interview Billy Graham. At one point he asked Dr. Graham, “How many people have been saved under your ministry?” Without missing a beat, Billy Graham answered, “I have no idea.” “You have no idea?” “No, only the Lord knows that.”
Here’s a man who has preached to more people in person than anyone else in history. And hundreds of millions have seen him on TV. He is the best-known evangelist in Christian history. But when you ask how many have been saved, he says, “I have no idea.” You can count decisions but only the Lord knows the true heart condition of those who come forward.
His attitude is exactly right.
Since we don’t save anyone, all the glory belongs to the Lord alone.
Whatever success we have in serving the Lord comes because the Lord himself granted it to us. Since we don’t save anyone, all the glory belongs to the Lord alone.
Third, I shouldn’t bother comparing myself with anyone else. Years ago I heard Dr. Vernon Grounds, longtime president of Denver Seminary, share a story from a time in his early ministry when he was bring harshly criticized for some stands he had taken. The men criticizing him felt he should have been stronger or stated things more forcefully or done things a different way. They were so vocal that he could not ignore them. Eventually he became angry and discouraged. Then the Lord impressed upon his heart the passage in John 21:20-22 where Peter, evidently feeling a bit of apostolic competition, asks the Lord what will happen to the Apostle John. Here is the Lord’s answer in verse 22, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” It’s a polite way of saying, “What happens to John is none of your business.” The King James Version renders the last phrase this way, “Follow thou me.”
“Follow thou me.”
Dr. Grounds said the Lord used those three words to set him free.
“Follow me, and don’t worry about anyone else.”
“Follow me, and don’t worry about anyone else.”
“Follow me, and I’ll take care of the others.”
“Follow me, and you’ll have plenty to do.
Here is our calling put simply:
Feed God’s sheep.
If we do that, we are successful already, and when our work is done, we will discover that the Lord made more of what we did than we knew while we were on the earth. The applause of heaven will welcome us home, and that’s the only success that really matters.