In a recent post, I wrestled with a quote from Dallas Willard that pointed to how easy it is to measure the effectiveness of ministry by the reactions that people have, rather than by trying to discern whether God delights in our work.

Since writing the post I have felt like I pointed to a legitimate concern, but failed to risk offering any thoughts about how to actually measure effective ministry. In response to the initial post, John Meunier wrote:

This is a huge theological issue, Kevin. All the forces in the world are lined up in favor of doing things to win the approval and praise of other people. I’m not sure how we help shelter pastors and churches from those forces and help them discern where they diverge from God’s purposes. But it is necessary.

Over the past few days, John’s comment has rattled around in my head. And I think the issue is broader than just whether a pastor primarily seeks to delight God or the folks in the pews with her sermon. For all who call themselves Christians, it is easier to seek the approval of others than God. Moreover, it is hard to measure whether God approves of our efforts. It is hard. But, as John said, “it is necessary.”

While, I suspect that faithful vibrant faith communities do typical grow, I am not convinced that growth is a guarantee of faithfulness and a seal of God’s approval. If growth in attendance were all that mattered, one of the most important aspects of church planting would be asking people what it would take for them to come to church for one hour a week, and then doing whatever that was. To push this to the point of the obviously ridiculous, you could grow a church by paying people to come for one hour a week. But no matter how large the church, a “congregation” of people who attend only because they are paid are employees, not Christians! And the growth of this “church” would not be a sign of a faithful or vibrant Christian community.

So if attendance is not enough, how do you measure faithful ministry?

Here are my initial (and very much continuing to develop) thoughts:

My first thought is that it isn’t easy, but I think I would know it when I see it.

Our lives, the churches we worship in, serve, and try to lead are all different. There are many things that they have in common. But, individual churches are more like snowflakes than cut-out cookies. So, it is difficult for me to describe in advance what faithfulness looks like. And yet, I still feel like it is readily recognizable.

Here is the most concrete thought I have had as I have thought about this post: church leaders who want to be faithful to God had better be people who rely on the means of grace. I know this sounds obvious. And yet, how many pastors really rely on prayer, searching the scriptures, communion, fasting, or Christian conferencing (searching conversation with fellow Christians) when making “real” decisions in ministry? If you are a pastor, think about a major decision you have recently made. How did you go about making the decision? What role did the means of grace play in actually making the decision? Were they of central importance, or peripheral – even nonexistent?

If John is right that, “All the forces in the world are lined up in favor of doing things to win the approval and praise of other people”, my guess is that the antidote is practicing the means of grace. I would go so far as to put it this way: If someone does not consistently practice the disciplines of prayer, searching the scriptures, communion, fasting, and Christian conferencing, we should expect their ministry to be realigned towards meeting the felt needs of the people in the pews, or to succumbing to the pressures of the world. On the other hand, I also think we should expect that someone who cultivates these Christian practices will become more sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and able to make wise decisions as unexpected situations inevitably arise.

I admit this is basic. But is this where we are living? Are you practicing the means of grace? Are you seeking God and God’s will for your life? Am I? Perhaps this suggests a bit different call to action. Lord, help us seek and find you!