I have been trying to gather some leadership lessons from a few of the current controversies buzzing in broader evangelicalism. Here is one I have come up: Never justify my actions by the size or "success" of my ministry.
It has surprised me how many times certain church leaders have appealed to large or growing numbers of followers to defend themselves from criticism. Critiques of their decisions or statements are shrugged off as irrelevant since “we just added 5000 people to our church,” or “I pastor 13,000 people meeting in six locations.” These numbers are utterly irrelevant. There is no place in the Bible that lists “large numbers of conversions” or “growing amount of members” as the gauge of success or as a reason everyone should just do what you say.
The NT rarely lists numbers and when it does it is more out of surprise at grace than anything else. And nowhere in these texts does one find the idea that this increase made the leaders where it occurred better pastors or teachers than the others. In fact, if numerical growth were the gauge of success, Jesus was a dismal failure – His crowds shrunk to zero.
Thus, when a man is challenged on his public actions, and all he can do is appeal to numbers, that reveals an alarming pride. The notion that “big equals success” is Western, not Biblical. What disturbs me about this is not that it is new, but that some of the men defending themselves in this way really ought to know better. They have preached better.
What is the lesson? Don’t believe my own press. Don’t fall prey to thinking that even one convert makes me a better pastor than the man who, as yet, has seen none. At the same time, expect to see many conversions! We believe the Gospel is the power of God used by His grace to save sinners and we preach it like sinners will indeed be saved. But if the membership of my church is bigger than the membership of another church, that doesn’t mean I am a better pastor, a smarter pastor, or a pastor with greater ingenuity, charm, methods, or passion. In the end, it just means I bear greater responsibility and accountability.
And lest I excuse myself too easily, I must remember that this deceptive heart may find other ways to boast of numerical growth than the blatant statements above. Even Biblical sounding language, (“the Lord is adding to our numbers day by day”) can be foaming with envy and boastfulness.
Most of all, I must never allow my apparent “success” turn into a carte blanche defense of all criticism – especially if those critiques are coming from smaller corners of the vineyard. The Apostle Paul did not boast in numbers, but in Jesus. And when he did defend his ministry from accustation, he pointed to his personal suffering for the Gospel, not his "success." Godly leaders will listen carefully to their critics and compare their accusations to the Word, not their attendance charts.
(For more, see Tim's post yesterday about church size and Phil's post from today on basically the same topic.)