By Dan Hyun
When some Christians talk about “secular,” I’ve noticed they’re often referring to things like the arts or aspects of cultural expression.
However, something that’s often “secular” among followers of Christ is how we define and measure success. If we’re not mindful, our notions of what constitutes success can be established more by the wisdom of our age than the wisdom of God.
A question I often ask myself: If I swapped the measures of success for a non-Christian start-up with those of our churches, would there be a discernible difference?
Where the world may understand success primarily through the lens of the bottom line, pastors should be mindful that the Kingdom we belong to isn’t just about producing results.
I want to be very clear: I’m not saying results don’t matter. I’m not suggesting measurable goals and numbers aren’t necessary. I believe it’s appropriate to use some system of metrics in being accountable in the stewardship of God’s resources.
Numbers matter because those numbers represent people.
Anything we can do to provide even one more opportunity for one more person to experience the life-saving good news of our Savior is very much worth our careful attention and excellence.
What I want to suggest, though, is that as we desire to impact more people for Jesus, our understanding of success is radically countercultural and counterintuitive in our day.
And so what should we be focused on? Here it is: Success is measured by who and what comes behind us.
This doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate the real fruit God may bring forth now. But what keeps us moving and grinding is knowing we’re working for something still to come in those who come behind us ready to grab the baton of faith.
Success is believing that as great as the things are we see before us, they’re bricks we’re laying in a foundation for others to do even greater things.
This is how Scripture describes faithful living: “These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
In God’s economy, success can be those pastors who faithfully toil for the harvest, even if they’re not the ones who ultimately get credit for bringing it in.
This view of success is a means of God’s kind mercy to us.
We’re all witness to our society’s narcissistic culture and the rotten fruit it’s producing. It’s bad enough in the world, but how much more tragic when this same narcissism marks too many of our pastors and leaders?
My heart aches at every story of another pastor falling for various reasons. And many of them would be those we’d consider “successful.”
One means of God’s sanctification for pastors is when we understand that success is investing in those who come behind us. Investing in others is beautiful because it expands the kingdom of God through the multiplication of ministry beyond what we can do ourselves.
Like every beautiful thing, it requires death.
This is the principle of life we see in John 12:24: “Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
When we invest in those coming behind us, it’s an invitation to die to ourselves—every moment we’re giving, every gift of knowledge we’re sharing, and every dollar of generosity we’re gifting.
It’s all joy when done for the Lord and others, yet this kind of success also involves sacrifice.
Sacrificing for those to come
When I think of sacrifice, my father—who passed two years ago—immediately comes to my mind. As an immigrant to America, he worked long and exhausting hours doing grueling factory work.
Similar to many immigrants who leave their homeland for what’s often a challenging life, there’s usually a common rationale: They do it for their kids. Their success is providing the next generation with an opportunity to succeed.
I’m sure few in this world would have viewed him as successful as he didn’t really accomplish anything very noteworthy. But he’s incredibly successful because his sacrificial legacy is continuing through me and others, which extends far beyond anything with his name on it.
In the same way, pastors are successful in God’s kingdom. Though we may not often seem successful by the world’s standards, we can find joy in knowing God sees us as successful by faithfully giving ourselves to what and who comes behind us.
It’s the very way our Savior gave His own life so that others could live.
DAN HYUN (@villagedanhyun) is the husband to Judie, father of two precious girls, and lead pastor of The Village Church in Baltimore, Maryland.