The Morning After

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(Above: Freshwater Springfield, Lead Pastor JT Patton)

A few years ago, my lead pastor and I were attending a meeting of Missouri Baptist church leaders (which was strange because I really wasn’t one at the time), and I heard a man say something that has stuck with me ever since.  While discussing how we measure the success of our local churches, he said, “We’ve got to change the scorecard.”

In a world where stats, spreadsheets, and hard data are expected to tell the entire story, this brother was implying that to declare churches successful or unsuccessful solely based on the numbers of bodies in seats, offering totals, or (dare I say it) even baptism numbers might be a grievous error.

And he was right.

His thought resonated with the entire group, all of whom expressed similar sentiments that a ministry’s success cannot always be calculated with stats.  To use a sports analogy, God’s work among his people isn’t calculated as simply as an NFL quarterback rating.

To be clear, numbers aren’t irrelevant.  When people are leaving a body in droves, when nobody over the age of 5 has been baptized in over ten years, or when God’s people do not feel compelled to financially support the work of the church, it would behoove us to investigate.

However, not all that glitters is gold.  A church’s stats do not always indicate health;  Even the most unhealthy, spiritually dead churches can have all-star stats.

Thus, our church has attempted to be vigilant in guarding against overvaluing (or totally devaluing) numbers.  We have tried, instead, to focus primarily on what God is doing in and amongst  the lives of our people.  Especially in our community groups, we seek to keep a finger on the pulse of questions such as the following: Are we seeing people form deep and meaningful bonds with other believers? Are our people developing a hunger for prayer and the reading of God’s word? Are our people actively working to advance the gospel in our community?  Are our people developing a deep and abiding love for Jesus? The answers to such questions rarely translate well to a spreadsheet.

We’ve attempted to have what you might call a more “organic” scorecard, but admittedly, we live in a world that loves to reduce things down to a number.  We love to sort, rank, classify, and assess, even when what we’re assessing doesn’t lend itself to simple calculation. Despite our best efforts, I know our church often feels temptation to long for good numbers because, as we all know, impressive stats make good headlines.

That brings me to this: today my church is in a prime position to erroneously give in and start reading its own press clippings.

Our church, a four-year-old church plant (initiated by Second Baptist in Springfield, MO) realized an ambitious dream yesterday.  We were planted with a vision to be a church that plants churches.  Our lead pastor, Joshua, has been relentless in keeping this at the forefront of our church’s efforts, and yesterday we saw the vision become a reality.  Our young church had already been a part of planting several churches overseas, but until yesterday, the elusive goal of planting stateside churches was yet to come to full fruition.

Sunday morning, Freshwater Church officially launched two new church plants, one in Springfield and one in Jefferson City.  Astoundingly, both launches were packed houses. This isn’t normal.  New church plants often feel fortunate if they have 100 members after a few years; Jeff City had around 75 in attendance Sunday, and our Springfield plant was around 150 in attendance on its first official day.

This is somewhat mind-boggling; we’ve planted two stateside churches and over ten worldwide within four years of our launch!

But this is precisely why we need to be extra vigilant. We must be on our guard lest we internalize this as our own success.

Melissa Gilbert gave a TED Talk a few years back after what she calls the “freakish success” of her book, Eat, Pray, Love, which later became a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts.  In this talk, she details her method of dealing with the pressure and stress she felt (and continues to experience) in the wake of her unexpected, unparalleled success with Eat, Pray, Love.  Gilbert and I would clearly have pronounced differences in discussions of spirituality, but in this speech, she touched on something important for evangelical churches who are or may find themselves in a position like the one Freshwater finds itself this morning.

After garnering worldwide acclaim for the first time, Gilbert felt all but crushed under the weight of expectation.  How would she top the last book?  How COULD she top it?  What if she failed next time?  What if she never ascended to that same height again?  What if she, as are too many talented writers, was destined to finish out her days remembered merely as a literary one-hit wonder? As Gilbert admits, those are the kinds of maddening, soul-crushing questions that can lead a person to “start drinking gin at nine in the morning.”

The only good solution she could come up with was to detach herself from the success of her work. Rather than accepting herself as the source of her own accomplishment, she chooses to believe that her improbable success came to her from a source outside of herself, so if her future work is not a massive success, that is not her fault unless she fails to show up for her end of the task by faithfully continuing to labor.

So what does this have to do with the church?  As Gilbert suggests about her work as a successful author, I believe there is a great danger for us as a church if we are to internalize God’s work in planting these two new local church bodies as our own accomplishments, stat-padding belt notches that give us occasion to pat our own backs and celebrate an enhanced church resume.

This is dangerous for numerous reasons, first and foremost the occasion it gives for undue narcissism and pride.  As it says in the book of James, God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.  Certainly it is unwise to wander into a place where God would oppose us as a church!  However, by celebrating this as something we, not God, orchestrated, I think there is something much more insidious to fear, and that is the crushing weight of the flawed scorecard such a belief would inadvertently create.  I ABSOLUTELY believe God has much work to do through Freshwater for many years to come…but what if that’s my vision and not his?  What if God doesn’t use us to plant another church?  What if God used Freshwater to accomplish his purposes and ordained that our time as a local expression of his worldwide body of faith was over?  What if, like Moses, we’ve been brought up to the mountain to look over the promised land and then…well…die off?

If all that has been accomplished has been the work of our own hands, then these possibilities are things we should fear (and fight). If all that has been done came by our own efforts, we should live in incessant worry that our church, a statistical juggernaut today, might be a benchwarmer tomorrow.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the temptation to own recent success as our own calls to mind what I consider the most troubling passage in the whole Bible, Matthew 7:22-23.  In this passage, Jesus details the sad fate of those who, at the judgment all men will face, claim justification earned by great works they have done in Jesus’ name.  Jesus’ reply, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness,” reveals the spiritual deficiency within their own hearts; at the end of all things, their claim to justification was their works, not those of Christ.  Church, at the end of all things, it will not be enough to claim justification by having helped plant two churches, two-hundred churches, or two-thousand churches because those numbers, no matter how impressive, won’t measure up.  The only claim to justification that will measure up to God’s standard is the all-sufficient work of Jesus Christ on the cross. In the end, the only statistic that will matter is found in 2 Corinthians 5:14 when Paul says that “one died for all.”

When this becomes our lens and we honestly view God’s great works as indeed his and not ours, then we will need not fear and fret over future potential for success or failure; freed from the crushing weight of a cruel and unforgiving scorecard, we will be able to find rest simply by faithfully showing up and doing our part, daily glorifying God and advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thus, on this morning after, when the rush of Sunday morning has, to some extent, worn off, and the anticipatory adrenaline of launching two new churches subsides, I pray that we’ll remember to humbly thank and praise God not that he has been involved in our work, but that in his grace, he has invited us, a diverse patchwork of ragamuffins, to be a part of his.

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(Above: Freshwater Jefferson City, Lead Pastor Joshua Hartley)

*All content is property of the writer.  Please feel free to share posts so long as content is not altered, misrepresented, or used for profit. 

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