What Does It Mean to Call a Church a Success?

In the Maine Conference United Church of Christ, I serve not only a local church, but I’ve also served at the regional and state levels. Over the years, I’ve been involved in and have witnessed some very interesting, and sometimes very troubling, conversations regarding church “success.” On the local level, good church people wish for their beloved church to be a “success.” Beyond the local level, as churches gather for regional meetings and as a Conference, good church people wonder how we can share “success stories” and a common path to “success” and how the Conference can help promote and assist with “successful” churches.

Almost every single one of these conversations equates church “success” with a full parking lot, and a full (or full-er) sanctuary.

I wonder about this. I wonder about it a lot. I wonder if this is the right way to think about and consider the best way of engaging in a “success” assessment in light of the Gospel.

In this part of the world, in this state that has one of the lowest rates of church attendance in the country, there are plenty of churches with full parking lots on a Sunday morning. There’s one church in Waterville that got so big that it renovated and moved into an old multiplex movie theater several years ago. There’s a Southern Baptist church in Augusta (though it doesn’t call itself that) that got so big that they purchased and renovated an old Roman Catholic church building to handle their burgeoning congregation.

By the metrics of the good church folk I know in the Maine Conference United Church of Christ, these churches that have moved into larger facilities and have full parking lots on a Sunday morning must, then, be “successes.”

I don’t see it that way. Many churches with full parking lots resist and obstruct the pastoral leadership of women; women are not allowed to preach, for instance. The gifts of women seemed confined to child rearing and nursery care. Many churches with full parking lots are not welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people, or to the extent that they are welcome, they are only welcome if they are willing to change their ways.

This isn’t how I read the Bible, or how I experience the life-giving, life-affirming, radical nature of the love of Christ. Jesus demonstrated through personal example the ministry involves those on the margins of society. Jesus also recognized the gifts and talents of women. Paul referred often to the leadership and missionary work of women. On one occasion, he did suggest that women not speak in church, but that goes against many other aspects of his writing where he praises the work of his female colleagues in evangelism, who presumably were not just taking care of the babies in the nursery.

I’ve found it interesting, and frustrating, that certain churches are so willing to shut women up based on one little Bible verse, but seem completely unwilling to teach one of the other sections of the very same letter, where Paul suggests that marriage is actually not the best arrangement for followers, because marriage diminishes the focus on Christ (1 Corinthians).

What is the appropriate metric for gauging church success?

When I think about how to measure success, and how to determine faithfulness to the Gospel, I often think of two things:

1. The very few of Jesus’ followers who stayed long enough to witness the violence of the crucifixion and to be there, even in a very small way, for the end of Jesus’ earthly life. Long gone were the crowds that chanted “Hosanna!” just a few days earlier—only a small group was willing to be present at this profoundly painful moment.
2. The road to Emmaus story—when two of Jesus’ followers were joined by Jesus himself as they were walking away from Jerusalem, after the crucifixion, and failed to recognize the risen Christ until they gathered around a table over a meal at the end of the day.

The Bible offers important, crucial, cautionary stories about what it means to follow Christ. Sometimes, we will be very lonely. Sometimes, we will have a very hard time recognizing the presence of Christ—even when it’s right in front of us.

Following Christ is challenging, and often difficult—going against the grain of culture and society. Our “success” ought not be simply measured by the numbers we amass and our ability to fill our parking lots or sanctuaries, as if we are corporations with shareholders. Instead, our “success” ought to be considered by our willingness to live faithfully, with a good dose of humility, knowing that sometimes the faith will actually leave us only with a very small group of friends. And sometimes, we may actually have a hard time knowing what exactly Christ wants for us or from us.

It’s hard to think of “success” in such terms. It’s a lot easier to think of full parking lots and sanctuaries. I sometimes hear the remark, in reference to one of those full parking lot churches, “They must be doing something right.”

Are they? They might be doing something right for those who are gathered there, but it’s a whole other thing to think about whether or not they are doing something right for Christ.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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