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.


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Don’t Hate On the Tiger Mom

Amy Chua, Yale Law professor and mother of two, published her controversial and highly criticized memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in 2011. It chronicles her journey of parenting daughters the Chinese way on American soil. Rather than allowing children to become self-indulgent, underachieving drains on society (her perception of Western children), Chinese parenting aims for the child’s highest success in every endeavor at all costs for the glory of the family.  Chapter one opens with bullet points of things Chinese children are never allowed to do, including: attend sleepovers, watch TV, choose their own extracurricular activities or get any grade less than an A.

Since their toddler days, daughters Sophia and Lulu followed rigorous routines to pave their way to elite futures, academically and musically. Instruments dominated non-school, non-homework hours. Chua cashed in some of her pension funds to buy Lulu one of the finest violins in the world. On every vacation, the first order of business was securing the hotel lounge piano for practice. These practices were frequently punctuated with harsh remarks from Chua such as: “If you don’t get this perfect, I am going to burn your stuffed animals!” and “Oh my god, you are just getting worse and worse.” This intensity drove both daughters and Chua to shouting matches, public embarrassment and icy distance. Chua admits that being hated is part of being a Chinese parent but is ultimately worth it.

Did her method succeed? Both daughters are music prodigies, straight-A students and fluent in Mandarin. Such accomplishments might convince any parent of this strategy. One might expect her book to end victoriously with a ten step plan to copy her success. Instead, these five lonely sentences end her story:

“Given that life is so short and so fragile, surely each of us should be trying to get the most out of every breath, every fleeting moment. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest? We all have to die, but which way does that cut? In any case, I’ve just told [my husband] that I want to get another dog.”1

After accomplishing world-class results parenting her daughters, Chua is left pondering what it means to fully live in light of life’s certain end. Sure, her daughters have every success any parent could hope for, but in the quiet corners of her mind she is left wanting.

It’s easy to criticize her. We American Christian parents would never demand so much from our kids in such demeaning ways. We also want the best for our children but express it differently. Rather than berate them, we praise them endlessly. Instead of hyper-scheduling their days and months, we let them decide what they want to do and divide up taxiing duties with neighborhood moms. When it’s time to prepare for tests, think about college, compete or behave, we make deals and offer incentives (video games or cars), hoping for the best outcome. Children might forgo family dinners, church activities and even homework along the way; as long as they are well-behaved, moderately successful, attend church on occasion and are above all happy, we’ve done a good job – right? If so, why does parenting leave many Christians asking the same questions as Chua?

Both parenting strategies are problematic and lacking. One idolizes the family’s success; the other idolizes the child’s individual success. Neither strategy employs life-giving methods for God-glorifying ends. Neither strategy points parent nor child to Christ.

Because purpose and identity are found in Jesus, Christians do not have to subscribe to the world’s parenting methods. Tedd Tripp observes:

“You want your child to live for the glory of God. You want your child to realize that life worth living is life lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Your methods must show submission to the same Lord.”2 (emphasis mine)

It should not surprise us that “good church kids” grow up with similar habits, goals, worldviews and issues as non-church goers. God is often an add-on in Christian households rather than the focal point. While most Christian parents would affirm the quote above, their practices oppose it. Jaws drop at Amy Chua’s behavior, but are children served any better when they are affirmed as privileged, moral centers of their own universe?

Scripture consistently teaches that only God can quench the thirst of every soul, parents and children included. The Psalmist declares, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore (16:11).” In John 10:10 Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” All satisfaction, joy and purpose are found in Him, not in raising phenomenal kids or being phenomenal kids. As parents, we are responsible for organizing the lives of our children to reflect the gospel as the center of life. To do anything else teaches them the world’s offerings are better than our Savior.

Academic prestige and financial success are deceitful dreams to pass on, as are high self-esteem and extracurricular happiness. When Jesus is the goal of parenting, we are free not to demand our children bring home good grades; we are free to say no when they covet the newest, most expensive clothes. If children misbehave in public or lose another competition, we are not devastated. When they come home crying because they’ve been bullied, there is no retaliation or pumping them up about how great they are.  When a friend’s child is smarter, more popular and better looking, we thank God for the eternal, not temporal, work He is accomplishing in our children for the kingdom. God’s word is robust enough for the task and more satisfying than the world’s answer to child-rearing.

Short cuts don’t exist in raising children who worship Jesus with the whole of their being. This counter-cultural approach to parenting will cost enormous amounts of time, peer approval, affection from your children and many tears. The pay-off is a home structured around the worship of an eternal King, turning out generations who live for Him and not worldly success.

The violin and good grades will get a child far, but will they satisfy? Birthday parties and good manners are fine things, but can they sustain faith in Christ?  As Chua observes, we all die…will getting another dog fill the void until that day and in the days that follow?


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  1. Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, pg. 229.
  2. Tripp, Tedd. Shepherding a Child’s Heart, pg. 71.