Success is the American virtue. Its pursuit is what drives just about every aspect of our society, whether it’s success in school, success in sports, success in dating, success on the career ladder, success in parenting, success in retiring comfortably. I would argue that the American worship of success is what causes American Christians to minimize the importance of Jesus’ most prominent body of teaching, the Sermon on the Mount which has a lot of problematic things to say to people whose number one priority is to be successful. The most problematic section of the Sermon on the Mount to the American ethos is probably the Beatitudes with which Jesus opens the sermon in Matthew 5. There are a wide range of interpretations for the Beatitudes, but one thing that cannot be said about them is that they celebrate success. And that is their most comforting aspect to me. Generally when people are accused of “hating success,” the assumption is that they’re envious of others’ success. The reason I hate success is because I’m a slave to it.
There is a single number I face each week that has a much bigger impact on my self-image than it should: the attendance count at the Saturday night contemporary service that I lead. When I started out two years ago, we averaged about 60 people in worship. Two years later, the average hasn’t changed. It was supposed to change; that’s why they hired me. I suppose it’s good that we haven’t shrunk. But that’s not “success.” By the standards of our capitalist society, failure to grow is failure. What kills me is the number of people who have gone away and haven’t come back. I take it personally because I’m obsessed with this silly superficial measure of “success.” At least half of the people who come to our service now were not there when I started preaching, which is pretty cool I suppose, but it also means that half of the people who used to come are gone now (did I drive them away?). The most painful statistic is the number of first-time visitor bags that we’ve handed out compared to the number of visitors we’ve retained. We’re drawing a ton of first-time visitors (without making a whole lot of effort to do so), and they’re not coming back (well some of them do). But if all the people who were there when I started were still here and all the people who visited stuck around, then our attendance would be somewhere in the mid-hundreds by now. I realize it makes me come across like a shallow person that I lose sleep over that number, but I do.
I enjoy everything about being a pastor except the pressure to be successful. If there is one thing that will make me quit and go into another field like academia, it’s that pressure (and it really might). I love sitting down with people one-on-one to talk about their lives and their questions about God. I love the challenge of wrestling with God’s mysteries and sharing the epiphanies God reveals to me when I preach. I love the entrepreneurial process of spinning out new ministries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But I feel like a failure because those damn numbers won’t go up no matter how many cards I send out to people, no matter how many times I like their facebook photos, no matter how many “I’m not calling to nag about your coming back to church; just to see how you’re doing” phone calls that I make. (And if you’re reading this and you’ve been on my “Why haven’t you been to church” list before, please don’t take it personally or feel like I’m lashing out at you with this post; the last thing I want is for you to feel guilty about my obsession with a stupid number.)
You don’t need to write the encouraging comments that I’ve heard before. I get it. Faithfulness is what’s important, not success, failure is the best way to learn, etc. It’s one thing to know something cognitively in your head; it’s another thing to live out that knowledge in your actions. What I wish I could do is measure what I do according to faithfulness and fruit instead of success. Faithfulness describes whether I am doing what I need to be doing to fulfill my call from God and the responsibilities I have agreed to carry out. Fruit describes the various products of my efforts whether they are lessons, accomplishments, challenges, etc. The fruit is not necessarily a reflection of my effort but the whole mix of circumstances surrounding my work. Ideally I would make constructive decisions based on evaluating the fruit without taking things personally, but this is very hard to do.
In any case, this is where the Beatitudes are such a wonderful place to crash-land: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I am so often poor in spirit and out of ideas and energy. But somehow God uses me anyway. I spend a lot of my time mourning the state of the church, the state of our country, how Christians seem to have become what Jesus came to stop us from being. While I might be sharp-tongued on this blog, in person I’m actually a very meek conflict-avoider who is easily manipulated and pushed around. I’m not very righteous, but I can say that I hunger and thirst for it. I believe in mercy; it’s the cornerstone of my ideology. Whether I practice it in personal relationships is a separate question, but I’m trying to get there. My heart is filled with all kinds of filth and impurity, but God is leading me into practices that purify it so that I can actually see Him. It would be silly to claim that I’m persecuted in any kind of way so I’m not going to go there.
In any case, these verses bless me so much and they always have. I am so glad that we have a God who “chooses the foolish to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27-28). This was going to be a more philosophical post in which I said something intelligent about the gospel’s relationship to worldly success. I’m sorry that it’s come out angsty and personal instead. I really don’t even feel like that much of a failure. I just wish I could take my ego out of the equation and I wish I didn’t feel this tired.