We are so prone to measuring ministry success by numbers. We are desperate for tangible proof that our efforts are worthwhile and it’s surely no more easily seen than in numerical growth.
But we all know that it’s possible to attract a huge congregation by preaching a false gospel. Prosperity preaching megachurches abound. No Bible believing Christian would honestly look at the numbers in such churches and consider the vast congregation a sign of ministry success. Likewise, there are churches that pull in large numbers simply by diverting from the gospel and adding a spiritual dimension to the prevailing zeitgeist. Such churches are rotten to the core and packed to the rafters with those being comforted and affirmed all the way to Hell. Such large congregations cannot genuinely be considered a measure of ministry success. Those who depart from the gospel of Jesus Christ have already failed in their ministry.
In fact, if numbers and positive response are the measures of ministry success, a fair number of those in the Bible failed in their ministry. For example:
Isaiah was commissioned by God as a prophet and immediately told next to nobody would listen to him:
9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,[c]
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)
Jeremiah preached for 40 years to no avail. He was told, at the beginning of his ministry, he would preach and would get no response:
So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. (Jeremiah 6:7)
Then, of course, there is the numerical failure of Jesus himself:
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:66f)
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. 37Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
40“He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.”
41Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. (John 12:36-43)
If vast numbers of followers and positive response are the measure of ministry success, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jesus were all ministry failures. That is to say nothing of Moses – who faced open rebellion – or Obadiah, whose only piece of writing we have almost certainly never made it to the very people he was warning. Elijah was not exactly well received, hiding for his life and coming to a point of depression such that he asked God to kill him because he believed himself to be the only faithful one left (he wasn’t, but it did rather show a measure of his numerical success).
All of that is to say, unless you think yourself more successful in ministry than Jesus, perhaps we need to stop judging ministry success by numbers and response.