Success, Faithfulness, or Fruitfulness?
Early on in Tim Keller’s seminal work on church planting called “Center Church,” he tackles one of the most considered questions in church planting today. Namely, “How are we going to measure how we are doing?”
It’s a good question. How do we know when we have succeeded? How do we know when the mission is accomplished? Do we ever really “arrive” in church planting? Is success even the goal we should be striving for?
Keller points out that many do strive for success. We often measure how things are going based on attendance, the health of the budget, and the popularity of the planter/pastor. Many strive for faster, bigger, & greater.
In fact, the most common question among a gathering of church planters is often,
“So, how many are you guys running now?”
It sounds like a question related more to aerobic exercise than worship attendance.
Maybe it’s because we don’t know what to say or ask. Maybe it’s because we require some way to measure health, and numbers are our default setting.
Of course numbers are not bad.
They can be good. Numbers can be a good indication of how things are going. But they can’t be the ONLY measure for how things are going. The reason is because not every number is created equal. Just because we are filling a worship service doesn’t mean we have actually planted a church. What if the majority of our congregation is actually churched people? We may have numbers but have we reached lost people?
Many church planting experts prefer to measure the vitality of a plant not based on success but rather by faithfulness. After all, Noah’s main occupation wasn’t boat building but preaching. One hundred & twenty years of preaching only produced 7 converts.
And they were all immediate family at that!
But was Noah faithful to God? You bet he was!
Planters are encouraged to be a faithful witness, presence, preacher, and shepherd leaving the results to God. As long as we are faithful God will take care of the rest.
But just as numbers can be a smokescreen for health, faithfulness can be an excuse for a lack of movement.
Maybe we aren’t reaching as many people as we thought we would. Maybe we aren’t having the impact in our city that we wish we had. Maybe our attendance has actually taken a step backward. What do we do then? Some wave the banner of faithfulness and stay the course. But could a lack of movement & numbers be revealing a lack of vitality? Furthermore, staying the course may only result in more of the same. Alan Hirsch is famous for saying, “We are currently positioned to achieve the results we are currently achieving.”
How then should we measure? If success can be potentially deceiving & faithfulness can be enabling then what is the best metric for how things are going?
Keller puts forth the idea of fruitfulness.
One can be fruitful in church planting and still be few in number. One can also be fruitful in church planting and be many in number. Fruitfulness is the middle ground between being successful and faithful. It keeps us in balance, measuring what’s most important.
It protects us from being solely outcomes oriented. But it also releases us from continuing a fruitless work in the name of faithfulness. Some plants are fruitful and others are not. Every plant & the context in which it finds itself will have to consider how to measure fruitfulness. Many factors are in play here. But until we measure fruitfulness over both success and faithfulness, we will continue to err in both directions.
The best way to ensure fruitfulness in church planting is not just by starting a worship service but by intentionally making disciples. Jesus’ command to make disciples is what we are really after. Evangelism that results in disciples that results in churches is the blueprint for fruitfulness.
A great illustration of this is what Vance Pitman recently said at a breakout session at the ABSC’s annual Evangelism & Church Health Conference. It was actually a question he posed. “When was the last time we were required to report or measure how many people we sent out last year?” A church that measures not only how many people they are gathering but also how many people they are sending is a church that is measuring fruitfulness. And fruitfulness is really what we are all longing to see.