Measuring Success in the Church World: We’ve Gotten it All Wrong

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One of the more difficult and controversial things to do in the church world is to determine what the right measures of success should be.

What is success and how do I measure it?

Is it the number of people attending weekend services?
Is it the number of people getting baptized each year?
Is it the number of Bible studies people are going to?
Is it how much people are giving?
Is it the quality of music?
Is it the eloquence and popularity of the speaking?

I guess, all of these could be and should be a part of measuring whether a church is going in the right direction, yet…

I’ve known churches that were growing in numbers and were unstable, unfocused and unhealthy.
I’ve known churches who were in a season where lots of seeds of hope were being planted, yet not a lot of people had crossed the line of faith, and the question is: Does that make them unsuccessful? “It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.” 1 Corinthians 3:7
I’ve know rich churches, due to being surrounded by a strong economic community, wasting and underutilizing their precious resources.
Music, speaking? If it is an end all rather than a tool to propel people towards justice, mercy and humility, then it is a banging gong and clanging cymbal.

Church growth experts have said, “You measure by attendance.”

Discipleship movements have said, “You measure by Bible knowledge.”

“If having an orthodox theology is enough, satan is saved… Jesus wants more than theology” Tony Campolo

Jesus said, “You are measured by what you did for the least of these.”

American scholar and leadership guru, Warren Bennis wrote, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. “

The main way we measure success at Green Valley Community Church is by answering the question, “Is the vision, that every Christ follower should be using their time, talents and treasures to serve the least of these, being translated into a practical, biblical, active reality?”

And though I love that our attendance is growing and many each year are getting baptized and most are taking the time in small groups to grow deeper in God’s wisdom and our offerings are generous and our music is really good and hopefully our sermons are informational, inspirational and practical, I STILL FEEL LIKE THE GREATEST DIAGNOSTIC TEST FOR A HEALTHY CHURCH IS: Are more and more Christ followers engaging in being a voice to the voiceless, are they, with their passions, giftings, experiences and resources, living out what Isaiah chapter 58 calls the true fast?

This last Saturday, at my church, I was able to see a clear answer to that question when over 300 volunteers showed up to spend an entire day learning how to be better at serving and caring for our community and world.

From children’s workers, homeless activists, car mechanics serving the underprivileged, pastoral partners, transition home organizers, Celebrate Recovery and Landing volunteers, foster care sponsors, teen-age student leaders, food and clothing directors, funeral and grief share supporters, the list goes on and on and I’m leaving out so many…they showed up in masses to learn how to better serve the least of these.

OVER 300 people showed up to learn about the skills of boundaries, listening, praying and healthy crisis intervention. They attended breakout sessions learning about mental health, mandated reporting and what poverty looks like in our nation and world.

We were hoping for 100. We were hoping that if some of our core leaders would show up for the training it would be a success.

When over 300 showed up, my staff and I celebrated two things:

One, in the words of Warren Bennis, the vision to serve the least of these, is clearly more than just words at Green Valley, but it is becoming a reality.

Two, we celebrated that the biblical structure of the church, understanding that we are the body of Christ, and that we all have gifts and passions to live out, is also becoming a reality.

When the whole body is working together offering its time, talents and treasures towards justice and mercy, SUPERNATURAL things happen.

Most of the time, when this isn’t happening, it’s because church leaders are not teaching and modeling Biblical structure.

I have always said, “Leaders who help release people’s passions allow love and hope to go viral. Leaders who try to get all the credit stop that possibility.”

It’s funny, there’s a lot of debate and confusion in the church world these days, about how to measure success, but I am starting to see that the scriptures are very clear:

“Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help…Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the LORD will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.” Isaiah 58:6-9

Would love to hear some of your thoughts.

Twitter: @kenburkey

Muchas Gracias

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“Can you see the holiness in those things you take for granted–a paved road or a washing machine? If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.” Rabbi Harold Kushner

Gratitude is the discipline of being thankful for all the good things we have in life. And for most, the list of blessings is very long.

The problem is, as humans, we tend to focus on the things that are not going well in life.

Will Rogers once said, “The Pilgrims gave thanks for mighty little, for mighty little was all they expected. But now, neither government nor nature can give enough but what we think is too little. If we can’t gather in a new Buick, a new radio, a tuxedo, and some government relief, why, we feel that the world is against us.”

Our culture is consumed with having more and I think it has a lot to do with the philosophy that getting just a little bit more will bring us happiness.

QUESTION: “How much will be enough to satisfy our souls and fill our hearts?” How much?

There was a woman who went into a life or death surgery. She wasn’t sure she’d make it through. During the surgery she heard this voice say, “You still have 42 more years to live.”

When she woke up from surgery she called the surgeon over and said, “I’m going to live a long time now so while I’m here I think I’ll have a little extra work.”

She had liposuction, a tummy tuck, a face lift, some injections. She had a friend come by and color her hair. A few days later she was discharged from the hospital.

As she was walking out she was hit by a cab and killed.

She’s standing before God and said, “I thought You said I’d live 42 more years! How come You let that cab hit me?”

God said, “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”

The prodigal son was the story Jesus told about this young runaway boy. He shuns his dad, takes his inheritance and leaves his home with a pocket full of money and has a bar room full of friends.

If CNN had sent a news crew to that bar and asked the young man, “What’s life like? How are you now enjoying this life of rebellion, your plunge into decadence, in this moment?”

At that moment the young man would have said, “It’s the best decision of my life! In this moment my life is filled with pure pleasure.”

It wasn’t until sometime later – we’re not sure how long – the prodigal son’s pleasure ended. He ran out of money and his friends ran out on him. He was homeless, he was unhappy.

Living for pleasure only – pleasure at any price – is like jumping off a tall building. The first 95% of the fall might be sheer thrill but that last 5% is going to get you!

Pleasure is not bad. But even positive pleasure is temporary.

For example, what’s the best meal you’ve ever had? How long until you’re hungry again?

What’s the best night’s sleep you have ever had? How long until you were tired again?

What’s the best kiss you’ve ever had? How long until you needed to be kissed again?

Another thought about gratitude, is that it is hard to be grateful when you are holding on to grudges.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”

Resenting other people’s success, your heritage, your economic status, your hurts and abuses of life will rob you quickly of any type of joy.

Comparing and resentment go hand in hand.

Celebrating your God given uniqueness allows you to be grateful for your irreplaceable gifts and distinct reason you were put here on earth!

Don’t let others determine how extraordinary you are. It’s up to you!

People are far more talented and brilliant than they give themselves credit for.

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind
don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”  

~ Dr. Seuss

Another thought about gratitude, is that to be truly thankful, it must be INCLUSIVE.

Job said, “If we take happiness from God’s hand, must we not take sorrow too?”

Author Henri Nouwen wrote, “To be thankful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only thankful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.”

I call it “Learning to find joy in the TENSION of life.”

We are taught that when we are without challenge and problem-free that then we will finally be happy.

Living in the tension means that we live every day facing and feeling the problems and hurts and challenges of life, while celebrating and thanking God for all the good things that are going on.

Stephen Covey writes, “Fish discover water last. They are so immersed in the element that they are unaware of it. So it is with many people who become so immersed in an abundance of blessings and opportunities that they are unaware of them until they stop, pause, and reflect and allow gratitude to emerge. Sadly, too often it takes the force of circumstance rather than the force of conscience to stir up our gratitude.”

Gratitude: A sunrise, a rainfall, the smile and embrace by someone special, a glass of red wine with your spouse, God’s amazing Grace, the food on your table, the laughter of children, the step you just took, the breath you just breathed, the wind blowing past your face, a celebration with friends.

Tony Campolo tells a story about getting on an elevator in the Empire State Building in New York City, “It was one of those express elevators that goes fifty floors without making a stop. The elevator was filled with briefcase-bearing, somber business men on their way to “heavy” meetings. As I got on the elevator, a feeling of fun ran through me. And, instead of turning and facing the door, as we are all socialized to do, I just stood there facing the people. When the elevator doors closed, I smiled coyly and announced, “We’re going to be traveling together for quite a while, you know.” And then I added, “What do you say we all sing?” The looks were amazing, but they all ended up singing. You should have been there as a dozen or so businessmen threw aside their put-on seriousness and joined me in a ringing rendition of “You Are My Sunshine.” By the time the elevator got to the fiftieth floor we were laughing. Being a Christian on that elevator helped some men, made numb by the affairs of this world, discover a little joy that can happen when we celebrate together.”

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen

“Emit gratitude as though it was done”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen

Take the time to fill in the blanks:
I am grateful when…__________________________
I am grateful for…____________________________
I struggle with gratitude when…__________________

God in a Box

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Henri Nouwen once said, “We cannot expect God to speak to us in our narrow corridor of thinking. As scripture shows us, He may speak to us through a saint or a sinner. Through a conservative or a liberal. Through a man or a woman – or a young child. Through an old person or a young person. Through an educated or an illiterate person… Through a local person or a foreigner. We have at all times to be ready to listen with an unprejudiced mind and heart.”

I was thinking about my life and how God has spoken to me through so many diverse voices, with differing opinions and backgrounds, yet they have all compelled me closer to the heart of Jesus.

From a liberal sociologist named Tony Campolo, to a conservative preacher named Franklin Graham, my heart has broken for the poor.

From an Irish rock star named Bono, to an agnostic brilliant business man named Bill Gates, my urgency to end extreme poverty has increased.

From an alcoholic priest named Brennan Manning, to a 90 year old saint named Mother Rose, I have been overwhelmed by the gift of Grace.

From an African American, born in the ghetto, named Ricky Bolden, to a 75 year old, rich white man named Doug Coe, I will forever be burdened and invested in the inner city.

From a conservative business man named Jim Copeland to a more liberal mother committed to public health around the world, named Kim Dixon, my life has refocused on the rights of children and women around the world.

From an Albanian Roman Catholic nun named Mother Teresa to a cancer research doctor named Scott Todd, my life is now compelled to show up, look extreme poverty in the face, and defeat it.

I have a very close friend who is gay and whenever I am with him, I leave having a deeper passion to follow Jesus and a more convicted heart to serve the marginalized and forgotten in my community.

The important question for people of faith today is this: Can we see past the surface, the titles, the labels and see the wisdom underneath.

When John the Baptist came to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, he was described as a locus-eating, leather-wearing, adultery-condemning prophet.

When Jesus walked this earth, he was described as a party-going, wine-making, heart-healing, sin-forgiving savior.

John would have been labeled a conservative and Jesus would have been labeled a liberal.

Jesus told the pharisess, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” Instead, you said, “John has a demon and Jesus is a glutton”.

The gospel came looking two different ways, but they could not see it.

WHY? Because the Pharisees had put God in a box.

The strength of FAITH is the diversity of God’s wisdom.

That is why people should travel, so you can see the image and creativity and vastness of God.

The Pharisees are not the only ones who have put God in a box.

I think, in America, we are in that danger today.

In order for our faith to be rich and our hearts to remain soft and pliable, we must continue to be overwhelmed by the vastness of God.

Jesus was not an American, he was not a Californian, he was not a republican or a democrat and he was not a Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal or Baptist.

He was not a member of the NRA, Greenpeace or the local moose lodge.

He did not have a preference of musical worship style, because his worship had to do with spirit and truth.

He was anti-war, anti-revenge, and anti-hate.

He said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesars, and give to God what is God’s!”

He was the creator of the universe and it was his idea to make the stars and the moon and the seas and the mountains.

RED, YELLOW, BROWN, BLACK and WHITE, they are all equally precious in his sight.

Every color, creed and culture is a part of his image.

He loves our enemies and he prays that the terrorist will find salvation like the terrorist Saul who became a champion of Grace.

He loves YOU even when you walk away.

He loves ME even when I choose my own ways.

Jesus is bigger than any of our big ideas and heaven will be a much different place than our middle class, American ideas.

When Peter quotes the Prophet Joel in Acts 2 and says, “All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” He meant ALL!

It is Jesus + nothing!

Not Jesus + politics.
Not Jesus + denomination.
Not Jesus + lifestyle.
Not Jesus + American.

Let us allow Jesus to be bigger than any of our big ideas and run towards his radical, counter-intuitive, compassionate Grace.

May we pray the prayer of Pope Francis:
“And so we ask the risen Jesus, who turns death into life, to change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace.”