What does it take to be a successful church? Is there is a minimum number that must be achieved in attendance or membership? Is there a certain quality that must be found in our worship and our preaching? Is it the size of our missions budget or the percentage of our total receipts that is given to missions?
Questions like these press upon us as we examine our corporate life as the church. We recognize the ever-present temptation to evaluate our congregations by worldly standards. We must, however, use biblical standards. Only as our churches conform to the Lord’s plan and purpose for the church can we expect His word of commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Succeeding as a church should be central to our concerns, for it is central to God’s concerns. The Bible ends with a vision of the church clothed with the glory of God (Rev. 21:11, 23). Where the Bible ends should tell us a great deal concerning what it is all about. The great ascription of praise in Ephesians 3:20–21 gives us perhaps the Bible’s most concise statement of the purpose of God, and it highlights for us the great purpose of the church: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Glory in the church — that is what makes a church successful. Only “in Christ Jesus” is this possible. What are the elements that make for His glory in the church? They are the same as those that make for the glory of God. These are the holy attributes of God. Moses begged for a revelation of God’s glory (Ex. 33:18). God granted this request, making all His goodness to pass before Moses as the name of the Lord was proclaimed (v. 19). In this revelation, God enumerated His attributes:
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exod. 34:6–7)
God’s glory is the sum total of His attributes.
Here, then, is the measuring rod of the successful church. Is there to be found in our church a revelation of the glory of God? Do we manifest the character of our God in our worship, our service, our fellowship, our pastoral care, our outreach? Much as we are inclined to judge our success by empirically measurable goals, the important considerations have little to do with numbers. Indeed, it is encouraging to know that it takes very few to qualify.
Matthew 18 records that once the disciples came to Jesus and asked Him about greatness in the kingdom. They were principally asking about individual greatness, but as our Lord responded, we see that individual greatness and church greatness are all the same in the kingdom. Jesus placed a little child before the disciples and told them that they must humble themselves as this child in order to be great in the kingdom of heaven. He said they must receive the child “in My name.” Going on, He warned against causing such little ones to stumble. Jesus told them that His church would be like a good shepherd going in search of lost sheep (vv. 12–14), because it is not the will of the Father that even one of His little ones should perish. Then He outlined just how the lost sheep are to be sought: first by individual appeal, then by one or two others, finally by the church itself (vv. 15–20). When lost sheep continue in their rebellion after many patient, persistent appeals, they are at last put out from the church, for the Lord’s forgiveness is not endless toleration of sin. His glory is not everlasting indulgence. His character of mercy and steadfast love includes His justice, for He will by no means clear the guilty. Yet to those who do seek forgiveness, the Lord forgives seventy times seven, and so must we (vv. 21–35).
Notice how this chapter demonstrates the outworking of the character of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 34. There is mercy, steadfast love, and forgiveness of sin. Also, there is no clearance of the guilty, for those who persistently refuse the church’s appeals are finally cut off as a warning that the same will be true at the last day if repentance is not forthcoming. But for those who do repent, there is grace abounding to the chief of sinners, even seventy times seven. This is the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Even two or three gathered in His name and empowered by His presence can accomplish this. Such Christlikeness is what makes for a successful church.