The last in a three-part series on measurable growth in the church—and whether it matters.
God does care about numbers. That much is clear from the book of the Acts—and makes sense considering that each number represents a person receiving grace, being regenerated in Christ. At the same time, some of the numbers that bring us elation (and even pride) receive more attention than they merit. Attendance, while necessary as we strive to bring people under the ministry of the church, is by no means a sign of grace received and applied—and therefore cannot be a driving goal in our ministry.
So what numbers should drive our ministry? When should numbers show up in our reports of God’s work in and through our ministry as a sign that (1) we have been faithful gardeners and (2) he has graciously provided the harvest?
This is an essential question to ask. Too many ministers today shudder to measure growth. This is especially true of those from my generation, those just postmodern enough to be skeptical of everything quantifiable as somehow less than genuine. But God expects and has promised growth, including growth in ministry—because his kingdom will continue to grow until Christ returns to bring it to consummation.
Make no mistake: God will judge those he gave as leaders of the church according to the quality of their work. Some will labor tirelessly but purposelessly. As a result, their ministry will bear no eternal fruit. To use Paul’s analogy, they build the edifice of the church with wood, hay, and stubble—elements that will be consumed in the final judgment (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Paul makes clear that the “building” under construction is the congregation (verse 9), so this implies that some will minister for years to a completely unregenerate congregation, none of whom will be saved (even if the pastor is). Others, contrarily, will build with gold, silver, and costly stones, seeing the Spirit empower their ministry to bring about genuine, eternal life transformation.
I want to strive with all of my being to belong to the latter category. If that means evaluating my ministry routinely, even quantifying the growth I hope to see, then I will certainly do so.
At the end of time, I hope to hear one response to my years of service in God’s kingdom: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Of course, these oft-repeated words have a context, and one that bears examination. In this parable Jesus commends faithful service to the master (25:14-30)—unquestionably Christ, who is coming again at some unknown, imminent date. In the light of his coming, we must work diligently, using the resources and gifts he has given us in his service. As the Greek word talent now covers a variety of “secular” skills in the English language, we might be tempted to read this as glorifying any sort of work. This is not quite the point. After all, the parable has a literary context. It begins abruptly with the word “Again,” suggesting an indissoluble link with the preceding parable. That parable begins, “At that time the kingdom of heaven…” (verse 1). These are kingdom parables; the king who is coming is Christ. We use the talents he gives us to build for his kingdom to glorify the King.
I commend the recent edition of the NIV for translating “talent” as “bag of gold.” This better conveys the meaning of the passage, especially considering our unbiblical definition of talent. The bags of gold represent all that God has given us to use for his service: talents, yes, but also the Spirit, the Word, prayer, fellowship and community, etc. The question, then, is have we used all that God has given us to build for his kingdom? Some do, but others do not (verses 24-25).
I fear that many of us have missed the frightening implication of this parable: while some will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” others will hear, “You wicked, lazy servant!” (verse 26). I fear that many of us assume that just because we labor, we will hear the treasured accolade; in fact, this parable teaches that we will only hear Christ voice his approval if we labor well. The very fact that Jesus says some work well implies that one may work poorly—else the judgment would be comically immaterial.
So how do we distinguish between the faithful, effective service of which God approves and inadequate, ineffective service?
In truth, different ministries will have to measure growth differently. A church-planting pastor in a completely unbelieving mission field may not see numerical growth. He may have to measure growth in other ways—especially his faithfulness to complete the “input variables” he has discerned God calling him to. As he faithfully proclaims the gospel, he may have to trust that God is changing the soil and climate even when he cannot yet see new growth on the vine. But he can still measure his service: Do an increasing number of people understand the basic message of the gospel even if they reject it? Does the community know his love for them, demonstrated in tangible ways? Are key members of the community softening in their response to his ministry, potentially opening up the mission field exponentially?
A pastor ministering in a typical church, however, would expect to see greater measurable growth. Because the climate and soil are already conducive to growth, he would expect to see dynamic change in his congregation and outside the church’s walls. Is the church growing or dwindling in number? If there is growth, is it ongoing conversion growth or merely transfer growth? Are an increasing number of people going through a rigorous discipleship course with demonstrable change in their lives? Once discipled, are those same people multiplying the work by discipling others?
The specific questions may have changed, but the fundamental measurement remains the same. Is the ministry growing deep and wide under your leadership? Both depth and width are necessary for a healthy organism. A tree with deep roots will necessarily grow increasingly wide. A tree spreading wide needs increasingly deep roots to sustain the growth; without deep roots, it will soon see the outer branches turn dry, withered, and dead. (From the agricultural analogy we discern an important spiritual truth: depth precedes width. Churches that seek width before depth will produce dry and withered pseudo-disciples.)
Without measurable goals, it can be difficult to answer the “growth question” honestly. The tendency to deceive ourselves—especially with concepts as important and nebulous as ministry and spiritual growth—is simply too strong. Paul’s warning for all believers applies to ministry evaluation too: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12:3). Measurable goals help us judge ourselves soberly, to adjust our ministry to make it as effective and powerful as possible, so that on the final day we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”
“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).