Success in ministry is a loaded term. At the risk of stating the obvious, whether or not a church's work is "successful" depends entirely on what one defines as success. Today we're awash with conflicting definitions. Success for some is growth. For others, the depth of spiritual formation and the persistence of a congregation. For still others, the degree to which a church engages in community partnerships, justice efforts, and more. For many struggling churches, success is measured by whether their doors are open next year, or next month, or next week. How we define success depends on our interpretation of the Bible, our training, and the company we keep. It depends largely on values, some of which we all share, and others that seem diametrically opposed.
By many of these measures of success, Seattle's Soma community scores high. Soma's founder, Jeff Vanderstelt, is in demand as a speaker and writer. They're locally involved. They're growing through conversion in the largely post-churched Pacific Northwest, and using what they've learned to plant and train other churches across the country.
I sat down with Jeff behind a white-screened partition in the speaker's lounge at the Exponential church planting conference. While our espressos cooled to the sipping point, I asked him how he grounds the church's more overt points of success, such as growth and media visibility, with deeper factors like personal maturity, faithfulness, and discipleship. The key, he says, is mutuality between church leaders and the congregation.
How did you first realize that you needed to take steps to balance out Soma's leader/congregation relationships?
In the early days, we felt like we'd figured out "church." Honestly, I think we were slipping into method-olatry. We were worshiping how we did ministry. Our leadership has regular times of prayer and fasting. During one of those, God confronted us in our pride and the Spirit told us, You guys are arrogant.
We all heard it and knew it was true. We all thought that Soma was a big deal, and we had the attitude that the way we were doing ministry was the right one. We realized the stench that our arrogance was to the Lord. As a result, we went before the whole church and we repented. We told them that our hearts were wrong, and that we were sorry.
That began a culture of regular repentance from the leadership. I can't tell you how many times we've confessed something from up front—personally or as a leadership team—and repented of it. It lowered us. It took us down to where we should be. Part of the body.
Is this just a posture, or does it impact your church structure?
It certainly impacts our structure. All of our leaders are required to be in a missional community—a very intentional small group. We don't ever call anybody at our church to do something that we're not willing to do ourselves.
What that means practically is that nobody's impressed with me. There's something about living closely with a leader that creates real relationship and notches down harmful pastoral mystique. When he heard that I traveled to speak, one guy in my missional community said, "I don't get it. Why would people like want to hear you speak? You're just a normal person." And he's right.