"How do you define success in a church?"

Twice in three days someone has asked me that same question. It's an important question, but one that is not asked often enough. It's not an easy question to answer. However, since I have some ideas about it, and since people have asked me, here's my answer.

But first, we need to rid ourselves of some common assumptions on the matter. For example, full pews do not necessarily mean a healthy, successful church. Nor do full bank accounts. Nor does the absence of conflict within the church.

Then to answer the question we must first determine the fundamental purpose of a church. Our answer should be as simple as possible, and solidly rooted in scripture. I will suggest our central focus is making disciples. It is not worship, which we can surely do better in heaven than on earth. It's not evangelism, if by that we mean getting our friends to come to church. Both of these are good and important things, but not the focus. Disciple making is much more. It's helping people grow into fully committed Jesus-followers who in turn win and disciple others.

Our purpose is not social action or meeting material needs, though making disciples requires paying attention to both of these areas. They are related. But if the social aspects of ministry take precedence, we quickly become a religiously affiliated social services agency. That's not what God has called us together to do. Here's the bottom line: Everything the church does must be to the end of pointing people to Jesus and helping them grow in a relationship with him.

After we understand our basic biblical purpose, another question might be whether a church is living out their stated individual mission and vision. Are they doing - really doing - what they say God has called them to do in their specific location and circumstance? If not, no matter what else they are doing or how they are doing it, they are not a success. They are not being obedient to the vision they say God gave them.

A final question. and it's a biggie, deals with evangelism. Are they winning people to faith in Jesus and intentionally and carefully discipling them into mature Jesus followers? Are there people among them who came to faith as a result of that congregation's efforts at evangelism? In most churches, this is an embarrassing question. They don't win people, or win only a very few.

Large crowds are not on the list. Lots of money isn't either. Lack of conflict in a congregation might mean only that it's already dead. And getting people to attend church is not the same as bringing them to Jesus. Being in a church, someone has said, doesn't make one a Christian any more than being in a garage makes one a car.

So, to wrap this up, here's my "bullet point" evaluation list:

• Are they driven by the biblical mandate to make disciples?

• Are they focused on making disciples according to the vision they claim? In other words, are they consistent with their own words?

• Are they winning people to faith in Jesus and discipling them to maturity in their faith, winning others as they were won?

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