We Are Called to Be Faithful, Not Successful

In the spring of 2015, I faced an intimidating ministry transition. My family was serving in a small church plant on the west side of Indianapolis, and we unexpectedly found ourselves in conversation with a church in Florida. We knew it would mean the biggest move of our lives—both geographically and relationally—but we couldn’t escape the sense that it was the move we were supposed to make. The whole thing felt handed to us, from beyond us. So we said some difficult farewells and began stuffing all we had into suitcases and boxes.

Just a handful of weeks before our moving date, I got a phone call from one of the elders in Florida. The months of May, June, and July had been rough for the church. Attendance was markedly down. Finances even more so. Worse still, there were rumblings of some folks not sure if they were staying or going due to geographical strain (two-thirds of the church drove in from around 30 minutes away); desire for ministries the small church couldn’t provide; emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion; and yes, a fair share of “I don’t need to meet the new guy to know he ain’t the old guy.” I thanked the elder for his honesty, and told my wife we might be steering into a tough one.

“A tough one” was a remarkably inadequate phrase.

Before our first Sunday, 120 people—a little over half the congregation—decided this new turn in the life of the church was not going to include them, leaving holes in ministries, a bloodied budget, and one very scared family wondering what they’d gotten themselves into.

The downward spiral was just starting.

Two staff members had to up and move. An elder transitioned out of leadership. The movie theater we met in each Sunday booted us. We found a new Sunday home, but soon couldn’t afford it. A fall relaunch at a local school flopped. A volunteer drought shut down ministries. More people left; others talked about leaving. All of this—and so much more that is too painful and exhausting to write about—led to the tear-drenched decision to close the church. Just a year and a half after my family had moved to Florida, we spent our last Sunday together as a congregation.

And what did I do after that final Sunday? I crawled under a rock, not necessarily to die, but at the very least to hide from embarrassment.

I crawled under a rock, not necessarily to die, but at the very least to hide from embarrassment.

But there under my rock, I thought back to a memory from my freshman year at a small Bible college in central Illinois.

Twenty years prior to the church’s closing, I sat in a chapel service listening to a sermon by one of the school’s professors. I don’t remember the title or the text from which he was preaching. I only remember one thought he shared about halfway through his message. Surely others had heard it before—it’s a popular quote credited to Mother Teresa—but that morning was the first I’d ever heard it: “God does not call you to be successful; he calls you to be faithful.” The thought that faithfulness hovered somewhere far above success in God’s eyes was a foreign, yet wonderful notion to me. I jotted the old quote down in the cracked cover of my Bible and wrote it in the folds of my heart. I needed it spoken over me again 20 years later after the church I served packed away its Communion cups one last time.

In the weeks leading up to and following the church’s closing, the hissing voice of the Snake was in my ear: “You were supposed to save the church. This was what God demanded and expected—and the people, too! Plenty of ministers have done what you proved unable to do.”

But when I remembered that 20-year-old quote, a new Voice spoke to me: “I, too, am deeply saddened by what has unfolded. Even more than you, I wanted a great thriving! But think with me for a moment: Did you pray when called to pray? Did you believe when called to believe? Did you love when called to love? Speak when called to speak? Confront and correct when called to confront and correct? Forgive when called to forgive? Stand firm when called to stand firm? Let go when called to let go? If so, you have been faithful, and that is enough—as enough as it was for Peter, for Paul, for my Son, when breakthroughs proved ever-elusive for them. Your faithfulness is success, regardless of the scorecards you all so thoughtlessly dream up and ruthlessly impose upon one another.”

I offer this with no small amount of trembling, because it sounds awfully arrogant, but as I’ve carefully and prayerfully reflected on the year and a half we spent with this little church, I know my family was faithful. And the elders and their wives? The remnant of a church staff? The little band of men, women, and children who stuck with us through that final, holy gathering? All of us together, faithful. Were there things we could have done differently? There always are. Things that needed to be said or left unsaid? I can think of a few. But those fractured moments continue to prove themselves far less important than our little community’s faithfulness to the end. This faithfulness was enough in God’s eyes, so with each passing day, I inch out from under my rock just a little more.

As I write these words, I whisper a prayer for you as you read them—a prayer that you, too, might awaken to “enough-ness.” A prayer for you on Monday morning as you take stock of a Sunday sermon that fell far short of the goal you’d hoped for. (But were you faithful?) A prayer for you after another seemingly fruitless counseling session. (But were you faithful?) A prayer for you after another month of nary a toe touching the waters of the baptistery. (But were you faithful?) And a few prayers, too, that reach beyond the rigors of ministry. A prayer for you who stand in the smoking ruins of a marriage and you who couldn’t woo the prodigal home. (But were you faithful?) Because your faithfulness was—and is—success.

Brian Lowery is the former managing editor of PreachingToday.com. He writes at www.brianloweryonline.com/.

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