I’ve been reflecting lately on experiencing breakthrough in ministry – what it takes to really grow and thrive as a church, and how to know if we are cooperating with God so that breakthrough can happen.
Tim Keller provides a helpful discussion on how to evaluate ministry effectiveness in his new book Center Church that speaks to the topic of breakthrough.
In the end, however, I believe his discussion falls short.
Keller observes that there are two dominant approaches to assessing one’s effectiveness in ministry.
- Success. “Successful” ministers are those whose churches grow rapidly, attract thousands of attendees, account for many conversions, and amass significant financial resources.
- Faithfulness. Ministry in this approach is evaluated by one’s faithfulness to God – soundness in doctrine, commitment to Scripture, godly character, and perseverance in preaching and pastoring people.
Keller submits, I think rightly, that there is something missing in both approaches. On one hand, success-driven evaluation is likely to produce consumer Christians and shallow Christianity. On the other hand, God calls ministers not only to be faithful but also competent.
Keller, therefore, offers a third way of evaluation.
- Fruitfulness. Fruitfulness includes elements of effectiveness that the success and faithfulness approaches neglect on their own: both conversions and godly character, for instance, are referred to as fruit in the New Testament.
Keller’s most incisive critique of the success and faithfulness approaches is ironically the same line of thinking that calls his fruitfulness criterion into question:
The gardening metaphor shows that both success and faithfulness by themselves are insufficient criteria for evaluating ministry. Gardeners must be faithful in their work, but they must also be skillful, or the garden will fail. Yet in the end, the degree of the success of the garden (or the ministry) is determined by factors beyond the control of the gardener. The level of fruitfulness varies due to “soil conditions” (that is, some groups of people have a greater hardness of heart than others) and “weather conditions” (that is, the work of God’s sovereign Spirit) as well.
The difficulty in evaluating ministry with the criterion of fruitfulness is that fruitfulness is often an outcome or byproduct of ministry that is dependent on factors largely out of a minister’s control – in the same way even the most skilled farmer would not see a fruitful crop at harvest time if it didn’t rain all year long (a factor out of his control).
Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 3:6 – Paul planted the seed of the gospel. Apollos watered it. God made it grow and bear fruit. God creates the fruit, not us.
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t command his disciples to bear fruit in John 15. He only tells them to stay connected to him and love each other, and that fruit would follow.
There are also examples in Scripture where God calls people, like Isaiah, to be faithful and skilled in their ministry, but tells them that they will most certainly not be fruitful (see Isaiah 6).
Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman shares a similar perspective in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.
“Luck” – whether in the form of God’s sovereign work or human free agency – is a factor beyond our control.
Here’s my point: it doesn’t seem helpful or fair to evaluate a person’s ministry based on something that is largely out of her control.
We need an alternative criterion for evaluating ministry that includes both character and competency but does not assess on the basis of outcomes that are largely beyond the control of any one person or group of people.
I propose this alternative criterion:
- Wisdom. Wisdom of the type described in Proverbs 1-3 accounts for both faithfulness and skill, character and competency. It is also something that God gives generously to all who ask and without discrimination (James 1:5).
When we are “wise” in ministry, fruitfulness is sometimes the outcome, but not always (at least not immediately, or even in our lifetime). We are not in control of the fruit. Regardless of the outcomes, if we are wise, having sound character and adequate competency, we can be satisfied with our work.
So maybe the new ministry evaluation question should be: are you a wise minister?
My major takeaway from this discussion is just how dependent we are upon God to do anything “effective” in this world. We cannot bear fruit unless God grows it for us. Neither can we have wisdom unless God gives it to us.
Tim Keller also makes this observation in Center Church: “We can only prepare for revival [=fruitfulness or breakthrough]; we can’t really bring it about. God must send it.”
All this leads me deeper into prayer and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Which seems wise to me.
What do you think? What is the best criterion for evaluating effectiveness in ministry?