Faithfulness Not Success

I met a new pastor recently. I had visited his church a few times but snuck out the back after the service without introducing myself. As his church is in Huntington Beach and I am occasionally asked by patients for a local church recommendation I thought it would be good to meet with him. I reached out to him via email and offered to buy him lunch. We met a week later when our schedules lined up.

He seems to be a genuinely nice man. In his sermons and through out the lunch conversation he came across as someone who does not seek the limelight, someone who is content serving God in whatever place God leads him. He is a faithful and consistent Bible teacher whose sermons are relevant and instructive. For some reason his church has not grown in numbers over the years. His church is small (fewer than 50 members attend most Sundays) but he didn’t complain at all about the lack of growth or his relative anonymity. 

I visited the church again a few weeks ago. The music leader was talented and passionate, the people were friendly and the sermon was again biblically sound. Attendance was sparse yet the leaders gave their all. It was a good service.

A few days later I met another pastor for lunch. He had just returned from a week with musicians who were pioneers in contemporary music in the 1970’s. Some of the men had been “stars” in the Christian music scene. They had performed in all 50 states and in over 50 countries. For a period of time people everywhere were singing their songs. Thousands were coming to their concerts. They were "somebody" for a while, until their fame faded.

Some of these formerly famous artists have struggled mightily over the years. They were so focused on their music, so convinced of their calling and gifts, that they failed to develop other marketable talents and skills. They toil now in obscurity, writing songs and recording music for which there appears to be little demand. They press on, hoping that someday they will again have an impact. Discouragement is for some an ever present compassion.

I have pondered the relative circumstances of the small church pastor and the musicians for the last several days. They are both gifted, passionate and committed. They both love God and want to be used by him, yet they all currently labor in anonymity. The difference is that the pastor is content and some of the musicians aren’t. The pastor does not seek the praise and attention of others while many musicians long for it. The pastor trusts that God is at work, the musicians struggle with the idea that God’s work does not involve earthly success or greater recognition.

It seems to me that most of us are more like the musician than the pastor. Western churches mirror western culture. We live in a world that measures success by numbers and advancement. We look forward to bigger, brighter and better things. The idea that diminishing popularity might be God’s plan, that we might be called to lives of relative anonymity, is inconsistent with our understanding of God’s blessing. The thought that our time of influence may be brief does not resonate. We act as if planning for a life outside of ministry or taking the time to develop additional skill sets is a manifestation of a lack a faith.

We forget the lesson of John the Baptist. Jesus referred to him as the greatest man who had lived up to that time yet he had a ministry that lasted for less than a year. This did not seem to bother him. When someone came to him bemoaning the fact that people were migrating to Jesus and leaving John behind his answer was profound, “He must increase but I must decrease.” John seemed to understand that his life would be measured not by his sustained popularity but according to his ongoing faithfulness.

The pastor seems to have embraced this truth.

I am working on it.