How should a church measure success? Many churches will give lip service to the idea of discipleship and seeing people become more like Jesus, but if you examine where they spend the majority of their time and effort it becomes clear that these are not priorities. For many churches, the primary gauge of success is the number of people attending their Sunday services. They want an exact head count of each and every being on the premises and are quite perturbed if they think the ushers didn’t do their math right and came up a few people short. If attendance is increasing everyone feels quite confident that things are going well, but a drop in attendance will trigger concerns that something is wrong.
I once attended a conference that had as its featured speaker a man who had pastored the largest church in his state. He shared that he once had several hundred people leave his church and it resulted in him having to take a leave of absence due to a nervous breakdown. I appreciated his candor but kept expecting him to confess how foolish and misguided he had been. But he never did; he treated his experience as if it was a natural burden of ministry.
If success is tied to numbers, then we are serving the whim of people. If we serve the whim of people, then we are not serving God.
“If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10)
The Biblical Gauge of Success
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28:18-20)
This passage contains Jesus’ last instructions to the church, given immediately before he ascended back to heaven. It is commonly known as the Great Commission, because in it, Jesus gives very succinct orders about what the church is to engage in after he leaves. Central to the Great Commission is the charge to “make disciples”. The rest of the passage simply elaborates on how to carry out this one responsibility. The word disciple comes from the same root word as discipline, so a disciple is more than just a follower, he is a disciplined follower, one whose life bears evidence of conforming to the teachings of Christ. It’s important to note that Jesus said to “make” disciples. This goes beyond just telling people they ought to be disciples or giving them tips on how to be disciples. It is a process that incorporates the appropriate degree of accountability needed to bring about the desired results, and part of the Great Commission is the imparted authority to carry this out. You obviously can’t make someone a disciple who doesn’t what to be, but the church should be fully engaged in making disciples out of those who sincerely want to follow Christ. Making disciples should be the main focus of the church’s efforts and the primary gauge of its success.
Making Disciples Relies on Teaching
The Great Commission says the church should be “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. In this context, teaching is much more than just sharing ideas. It is teaching with an expectation of obedience. Again, there must be a level of accountability incorporated into the process so that people are molded into disciplined followers of Christ. Teaching is not just one of many activities that the church can pick and choose from but is presented by Jesus as the fundamental element for making disciples.
The early church measured success not based on how many people showed up for a meeting but on how the word of God was spreading and being obeyed.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7 NIV)
But the word of God continued to increase and spread. (Acts 12:24 NIV)
In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power. (Acts 19:20 NIV)
Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you; (2 Thess 3:1 NAS)
Making disciplined followers of Christ is the goal of the Great Commission, and teaching the word of God with an expectation of obedience is the primary means.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17 NKJV)
What an amazing endorsement for the broad-reaching, life-changing power of the scriptures! Look at what this passage says the scriptures can accomplished in someone’s life.
Doctrine – what we know and believe about God comes from the scriptures. This becomes the foundation of our faith.
Correction – there is an authority to bring needed correction to people’s lives on the basis of the scriptures.
Righteousness – the scriptures train people how to live in right relationship with God.
Completeness – the scriptures move believers towards God’s goal of being fully developed, becoming mature.
Thoroughly equipped – believers having everything they need to accomplish the work of God.
It seems that every church out there will tell you how much they value the Bible, but values are revealed in what we do, not in what we say. Most churches today give little time and effort to ensuring that their people are thoroughly grounded in God’s word. Instead, most of their efforts go into making sure people are strongly connected to their church. The evidence suggests that they value building their church more than making disciples.
Distinguishing Between Disciples and the Crowd
The Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1-9) is commonly regarded as one of the more important parables in the Bible. When discussing this parable with his disciples, Jesus ask them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mark 4:13 NIV). In brief, the parable says that a farmer went out to sow seed and the seed fell on four different types of soil, with four different results. Jesus explained that the seed was the message of the kingdom and the soil was different types of people. The message was only effective in the fourth category of people. Jesus referred to them as “good soil” because they received the word and produced a crop. The parable itself has valuable insight, but what Jesus says and does immediately after telling the parable demonstrates an application of truth that we would be wise to follow.
“He who has ears, let him hear.” The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:” ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matt 13:9-11, 13-16 NIV)
He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables”. (Mark 4:11 NIV)
In these verses Jesus shares a depth of spiritual insight that should not be ignored. He makes an acute distinction between disciples and the crowd and responds very differently to the two groups.
Jesus finished addressing the crowd with, “He who has ears, let him hear”, then he walked away. Effectively he was saying, either you get this or you don’t. He was the Christ, the living Word, the Son of God come to reveal the Father, yet he knew he could not make them hear what they didn’t want to hear. When his disciples asked why he spoke to the crowd in parables, he explained that the secrets of the kingdom had not been given to them; that they were “on the outside”, “they do not see”, “they do not hear or understand”. He took it a step further saying, they will be “ever hearing but never understanding, ever seeing but never perceiving”. He made it clear that the problem was not just a lack of understanding, but an inability to understand. He also clarified that this condition was a result of their own choosing; “they have closed their eyes”. They couldn’t see because they didn’t want to see.
In contrast, Jesus told his disciples, “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you”, and “blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear”. They weren’t disciples because they could see, they could see because they were disciples. Jesus understood how radically different disciples were from the crowd. After telling the Parable of the Sower, Jesus’ then modeled the parable, the truths of the parable were demonstrated through Jesus’ actions. He explained the parable to the disciples because he viewed them as “good soil” that would understand and produce fruit as a result of the word he was sowing in them. He did not explain the parable to the crowd because he viewed them as soil that would not produce fruit.
Jesus Didn’t Play the Numbers Game
Please don’t think I’m implying that Jesus didn’t care about the crowd and therefore neither should we. When Jesus declares that the crowd is “on the outside”, he is not saying they are not wanted or welcome. The scriptures say that when “he saw the crowds he had compassion on them”. Jesus came to earth to give his life as a ransom so that all men might know him and be brought back into right relationship with God for all eternity. With all his heart Jesus desires to see every person leave their place in the crowd and take their place among his disciples; to quit living on the outside and start living on the inside. But his sentiment does not override his discernment. He knows that treating them as if they are disciples will not make them disciples. This is a decision that every individual must make and it involves a deep level of commitment and surrender. Jesus is always inviting people to leave the crowd and become his disciple but his invitation doesn’t come as an enticement but as a challenge.
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27 NIV)
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35 NIV)
Jesus never charmed or wooed the crowd, instead he consistently challenged them, putting in front of them the choices they must make in order to follow him. He was always looking for disciples but the way he emphasized the requirements made it clear he wasn’t playing the numbers game.
Many churches today operate in sharp contrast to the way Jesus operated. They place a major emphasis on drawing as many people as possible while spending a minimal amount of time and effort doing the work that makes disciples. The majority of their resources are poured into a two hour Sunday morning event where they attempt to minister to a mixed gathering of believers and unbelievers. But is it realistic to expect to accomplish meaningful, life-changing ministry to both of these groups at the same time? On one hand, you have some disciples who are able to understand the secrets of the kingdom of God; they want to be taught and equipped and challenged, so they can mature, produce fruit, and accomplish the work of God. On the other hand, you have the crowd with calloused hearts; they are unable to see, hear, or understand. The Sunday morning service is a resource-hungry event that produces very little fruit in terms of bringing people to Christ or disciplining those who want to follow Christ.
There is a common assumption that if someone shows up at a church service it means they are open and genuinely hungry for a relationship with God. This leads to the conclusion that these people are the highest priority and the service should be structured mainly to reach them. This thinking may be well intentioned but it’s still misguided. Jesus had people go to great lengths, sometimes walking long distances to remote areas to gather around him; yet he discerned that the majority of them “had closed their eyes” because they did not really want to see. Treating the Sunday morning service as an evangelistic opportunity results in few actual conversions, while ensuring very little ministry takes place that impacts those who are disciples. By trying to minister to both at the same time, you fail both. The best way for the church to reach the lost is to pour itself into making disciples. If people are being molded into disciplined followers of Christ they will take Jesus and his gospel out into their world in a powerful and effective manner.
Making disciples should be the main focus of the church’s efforts and the primary gauge of its success.