In the modern world, measurements matter. Newspapers and magazines offer infographics. Congress passes legislation mandating measurable results. And Christians are no strangers to the modern tendency to provide a chart or graph, a documented data set, to demonstrate effectiveness (or lack thereof) in ministry or in life.
Data, in and of itself, can be used for great good. It can help us identify areas of need. It can help us recognize ineffective programs. It can help us provide feedback for ineffective workers. Jesus himself refers to data as a way to measure results. In the parable of the sower, for instance, he says, “But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” Similarly, in Jesus’ parable of the ten minas, the master commends the servants who have doubled their money.
It seems simple. Successful ministry is kind of like successful business. The profit multiplies. But I suspect most Christians know that “success” isn’t always that easy to measure. Jesus himself lost followers on the heels of “hard teachings.” The church went through seasons of persecution when numbers dwindled.
I think of the pastor of our church in a small rural Connecticut town. She is a gifted leader, teacher, and pastor. Although her presence has provided the church with stability, given the cultural climate of New England these days, its no surprise that growth is slow-going at best in our congregation. It’s not hard to imagine her being more “successful” in a town more culturally open to Christianity. I for one am incredibly grateful that she has decided to follow God’s call to this town. “Success” might not be the right word for the work she does. Faithfulness fits it well.
This questions of “success” and faithfulness comes up in other realms of life as well. With the recent news about Christians buying their way onto the bestseller lists, Christian authors have come under scrutiny, and it is hard to argue that manipulating the industry constitutes faithfulness, even if it does translate into a successful book launch.
As an author and a mother, I have two “jobs” where measuring success doesn’t come easy. My “success” as a mom can’t be quantified by the number of times I brush my kids’ hair or the number of times they say please or even by the grades they get or their athletic accomplishments. All I can do is try to serve them faithfully and trust God with the results. Similarly, as a writer, I suppose I could set my sights on writing a bestseller, but I'm pretty sure to do so would be to ignore God's call. The bestseller list isn’t my goal. My goal is to write books that will last in a world of instant gratification. To communicate deep truth and beauty in a world of surface images and distractions.
Ultimately, to measure faithfulness, I don’t think Amazon rankings or Google Analytics or the New York Times bestseller list is very helpful (though certainly some authors high in the rankings and on the Times list have been faithful). Rather, I need to ask whether these books and blog posts have borne fruit. I won’t always know the answer to that question, but I took it as a gift from God this week to hear of one mom telling me she read Small Talk and felt freed up to have messy, chaotic family devotions rather than never attempting a time of family prayer at all because of thinking it needed to be perfectly controlled. I think of the church that wrote this week to say all their small groups will be reading Small Talk together this spring. I think of the young woman with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome who read A Good and Perfect Gift in one sitting and then reached out.
I am not a successful writer. I hope and pray I am a faithful one most of the time. I hope and pray I am writing in response to God’s Spirit, and that this work bears fruit.
I am not a successful mother either, but I am a mother who knows the grace of God and tries to receive that for myself and give it to my kids. Again, I hope and pray that living in response to God’s Spirit will bear fruit in my children’s lives.
Whether in church ministry, writing, parenting, teaching, or any number of other professions, God is not calling us to succeed. God is not calling parents to produce perfect children. God is not calling pastors to double the size of their churches. God is not calling us to the bestseller list. But God is calling us to listen to his call and to respond, faithfully. And then to trust that his calling on our lives will indeed bear fruit.