Chasing Success in Ministry

Adoniram Judson was part of the first group of missionaries to leave North America. They sailed for India in 1812 and Adoniram and his wife Ann planted their lives in Burma. Years later, after the death of his wife and daughter Maria and a long imprisonment at the hands of the Burmese, Adoniram re-evaluated his motives for ministry. On the surface, leaving the comfort and companionship of New England for the harsh conditions of Burma seemed a humble and God-glorifying act. Yet, upon closer inspection, Adoniram found his motives for such a selfless ministry were not as selfless as they appeared. Courtney Anderson relates Adoniram’s struggle in his book To the Golden Shore:

He began to suspect that his real motive for becoming a missionary had not been genuine humility or self-abnegation but ambition – ambition to be the first American foreign missionary; the first missionary to Burma; the first translator of the Bible into Burmese: first in his own eyes and in the eyes of men… He had always known that his forwardness, self-pride and desire to stand out were serious flaws in his nature… They made his entire missionary career up to now a kind of monstrous hypocrisy, a method of securing prominence and praise without admitting it to himself. He had deluded himself. But he had not deluded God.

The story of Adoniram Judson’s ministry to the Burmese is full of personal sacrifice. Yet he had to wrestle with whether those sacrifices were ultimately for God or himself. Most of us will not have to experience what Adoniram did to discover our true motives for ministry. We may not have to watch our children die, bury our spouse, and spend a year and a half in a death prison to figure out why we do ministry. But why we do ministry is just as important as what we do.

My first paid ministry position was at a traditional church in the city. I was entering seminary and needed a job; they needed a part-time student minister. I accepted and quickly discovered the youth ministry was struggling. They had taken more adults than students to camp and had less than twelve active students. I had grown up in a youth group of over two hundred. I had spent four years in an active and exciting campus ministry. This struggling group was not what I had envisioned. The student ministry “industry” told me success was a huge youth group that featured amped-up events and generated more decisions for Christ than the day of Pentecost. I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into making my youth group into that image because I wanted more than anything to be successful. Instead of building a “successful” youth ministry, I successfully made myself frustrated, disappointed, and burnt-out.

Like Adoniram, my desire to be successful had outpaced my desire to know Christ. My joy and self-worth were tied to how well my Bible studies went, how many came to my event, and how many compliments I received. When my ministry was successful I would feel great; when it was struggling I would become despondent. Meanwhile, the internet reminded me at over 100 kb per second of all the successful ministries doing amazing things. Christian books, conferences, and blogs continued to assure me a new strategy, habit, or tool would reverse my failures. But they never did.

The idol of success is powerful. It can cause us to give sacrificially to ministry in ways that appear selfless but earn us our selfish rewards. It can lead us to stampede over family and health in the rush to be significant. It can even bring us to our knees to pray for God to advance His kingdom – that ours might advance with it. Success in the hearts of God’s people builds buildings, expands budgets, delivers masterful sermons, invests in poor communities, avoids moral failures, and spreads the gospel. All good things – and all things we can do ultimately for ourselves and not out of love for God.

How do we kill success in our hearts and truly live for Christ? I don’t have it all figured out, but I have two ideas.

First, we must change our definition of success.  In Isaiah 6, God asks the question, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah famously responds, “Here am I, send me!” What kind of ministry did God send Isaiah to? The rest of the passage reads:

Go, and say to this people: “’Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste…”

Success for Isaiah meant no one would listen to his preaching until the land was destroyed. Jeremiah’s ministry was much the same as was Ezekiel’s. Even after the resurrection, Jesus only had 120 committed followers. Success is defined by God. He calls us to be faithful and fruitful wherever He places us. Success may be laboring for decades in a foreign land and only winning a handful of converts. It may be faithfully discipling twelve teenagers to love Jesus. God doesn’t care about our ministry being featured in Outreach magazines; He cares that we are faithful and fruitful.

Second, we must remember who we are. We were dead in our sins and enemies of God. He loved us and died for us so we could be adopted into His family.  Our joy and self-worth should be tied to God’s infinite love and acceptance of us; not to the success of our ministries. He loves us just as much when our message falls flat and our event fails to draw a crowd as He does if we preach like Spurgeon and plan the greatest evangelistic revival since the Second Great Awakening. We minister not to win the prize of success but because we have the greatest prize – the unconditional love of God through our Savior Jesus Christ.

After an extended stay in the jungle, Adoniram Judson came to terms with his struggle for success. Did it ever truly leave him? We don’t know. But we do know he was content to minister to the Burmese and translate the Scriptures into their language. Have I conquered my idol of success? No. But I have found greater joy in the ministries God has given me and in the love He has shown me. Let us strive to find our joy in Christ and not the changing winds of success.


(image credit)