God calls us to faithfulness, not success—at least as we usually think of success. As we end one year and begin another, how do we evaluate the past and forecast the future? Many will be counting up the number added to the church, praising God for reaching their goals, and feeling most thankful for attaining their financial objectives. As the new year dawns, plans will, no doubt, already have been laid for greater things to come.
How do we relate to numbers? The Bible says much about numbers, to the extent of calling a book by that name. Is success reaching a church's numerical objectives? Is bigger better? If a church does not increase in size each year, is it a failure? What does God call success?
Success and faithfulness can coincide, but frequently they are opposites. Success is usually equated with statistics, with what can be easily measured. It tends to deal more with quantity than with quality. This kind of success can accompany either faithfulness or unfaithfulness. Faithfulness, on the other hand, has more to do with the quality of our relationships; it is being true to principle, putting God first in everything, seeking to do His will.
Often when the church becomes successful it ceases to be faithful. Ancient Israel faced its greatest danger not when it was poor and despised, but when under Solomon it became rich and famous—"successful." We too are tempted to empire-building. Ostensibly we set up our empires to glorify God, but more often they serve to show how successful the human instruments have been. God calls His church to be faithful, not to establish empires.
When God handed out report cards to the seven churches of Revelation, He graded very differently from how we would have rated them based on church growth. Two of the churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, received unqualified A's; two churches, Sardis and Laodicea, received unqualified F's; and the rest ranged in between. The two that received F's were seemingly the successful ones: " 'You have a reputation of being alive.' " " 'You say, "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing" ' " (Rev. 3:1, 17, N.I.V.). In contrast, the "A" churches were characterized as afflicted and poor and having little strength (chaps. 2:9; 3:8, N.I.V.).
God called Gideon into His service with a "congregation" of thirty-two thousand. By the time he was ready to begin his work, that number had been reduced to three hundred—church growth in reverse! God was more interested in faithfulness than in numbers. E. G. White commented thus about this incident: "Success does not depend upon numbers. . . . He [God] is honored not so much by the great numbers as by the character of those who serve Him." —Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 550.
Numbers can be as much a snare to us today as they were to David of old. The Bible records how David sought to number Israel so he could see how successful he had been. When he became king, Israel was poor and weak, at war with the Philistines and other powerful enemies. During his reign Israel became rich and dominated the region. As a result of David's wanting to see how great he was, some seventy thousand of his subjects died (1 Chron. 21:1-14).
God called Noah to faithfulness, not success. With the success the Bible describes him as having, he would not have lasted long as an evangelist today. God called Jonah to faithfulness, and what a difference in the results of his ministry compared with Noah's—a whole city was converted by his evangelistic efforts. If a congregation were looking for someone to conduct a successful evangelistic campaign, Jonah would easily get the nod over Noah. According to our normal definitions, one was a failure, the other a success. Yet in God's sight both were successful, because both were faithful.
Jesus, in His story of the farmer who planned ahead and filled his barns to overflowing, showed that what seemed to be success was actually failure. Today that farmer is known as the rich fool (Luke 12:16-20).
In the parable of the talents, the master commended the servants for their faithfulness, not for their success (Matt. 25:21, 23). In His preaching, Jesus emphasized faithfulness: "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much" (Luke 16:10). The word success does not appear in the King James Version of the New Testament. The synonym prosper appears only three times, while faithful appears some fifty times. Moses, one of the most successful leaders of all time, is remembered not for his great accomplishments, but because he "was faithful in all his house" (Heb. 3:5).
We began by saying, "God calls us to faithfulness, not success," which in a way is misleading. God does want us to be successful, but according to His definition, not ours. We must plant, we must water, but only God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). And the size of that increase is completely in God's hands. In the case of Gideon, it was even a decrease! God judges by what is in the heart; man judges by what is in the hand.
The key question every church, every minister, needs to ask at the beginning of this new year is "How can we be faithful to God this year?" Make this the burden of your church retreats. Make this the substance of every committee and board meeting. May this be the burning refrain at every gathering: "We want to be faithful; show us, Lord, how we can be faithful to You."
If we make faithfulness our priority God will bless, the "Midianites" will be vanquished, His church will grow, His people will be vibrant, His coming will be hastened. Soon we will hear the Master saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord" (Matt. 25:23).—J.D.N.