Most people love to keep score. It doesn’t matter if it’s your favorite team lighting up the scoreboard, tracking the ebb and flow of the political season, or simply watching the numbers roll until it’s your turn at the deli counter. There’s something reassuring about quantifying success, popularity, or even just our place in line. Perhaps more than in any previous society or culture, numbers matter to us.
Sadly, that emphasis on numbers has crept into the church. Today it feeds the worst aspects of evangelicalism’s celebrity culture, as the supposed quality of a pastor’s ministry is measured in book sales, television appearances, and Twitter followers. When popularity is the measuring stick for success in ministry, nothing matters more than the size of the crowd a pastor draws.
And those who have proven their ability to fill seats are seen as ministry gurus, with countless others flocking to their leadership conferences to learn how they, too, can build a ministry empire. It’s why the Willow Creek, Saddleback, and Hillsong models are so influential—too many people in the church equate sheer numbers with ministry success.
That’s not to say that numerical growth doesn’t matter—just that it’s an ineffective measure of spiritual success.
For example, Noah is known for constructing the Ark, but he wasn’t just a boat builder—Scripture describes him as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). And although he preached the truth and warned of God’s judgment for over a century (Genesis 6:3), he never saw one person come to faith and repentance. But does the lack of converts mean that Noah was a failure?
We could ask the same questions regarding many of the Old Testament prophets—Jeremiah experienced decades of almost universal rejection from Israel. Was his ministry worthless?
Even Christ Himself decimated His own large following, driving away the crowds with teaching that was too difficult and shocking (John 6:53–66).
We wouldn’t question the value of the ministries of biblical heroes—much less the Son of God, Himself. But by today’s numerical criteria, they would not be considered successful. In retrospect, maybe they should have put more emphasis on the felt needs of seekers, been more welcoming to sinners, and more well-versed in the trends and fads of their day?
With such an emphasis on numbers, it’s easy to lose sight of why we’re gathering all these people together in the first place—faithful Bible teaching that confronts sin and upholds righteousness is often the first victim of church growth strategies. Frankly, it’s just as easy to forget the One in charge of the numbers in the first place—for all the church’s clever innovations, it’s ultimately God who sovereignly draws and saves His elect (John 6:44).
Put simply, numbers are not an accurate measure of success in ministry. It shouldn’t be a surprise that God’s criterion isn’t the same one we apply to politicians and pop stars.
Instead, we need to evaluate shepherds according to the metrics God values. He demands faithfulness to the gospel (Galatians 1:8–9). He requires that pastors consistently teach the full counsel of God as revealed in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:14–4:5). And He insists that His shepherds lead lives of godly character in conformity to Christ (1 Timothy 3:2–7). Those biblical parameters are the ways we ought to measure success for shepherds, regardless of the size or influence of their churches.
Those qualities in a pastor may not always be immediately apparent to the casual observer. But as John MacArthur points out in his sermon What to Look for in a Pastor, that approach to shepherding produces tangible fruit in the lives of his flock.
You measure a man’s ministry, not by how many people he stuffed in the building, not by how many people he reaches. You measure the effectiveness of a man’s ministry by how Christlike his people are. That’s the only measure. Have they come to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ? And there’s only one tool for this, and it is the Word of God.
The measure of any ministry is the maturity of that congregation.
In the following video, John describes three areas where the fruit of successful ministry is manifest in the lives of both the shepherd and his flock.
If you sit under the care of a godly shepherd who is faithful to God’s Word, embrace the success of that ministry. Don’t hold him accountable for the size—or lack thereof—of your congregation.
The numbers may be an easy way of keeping score, but in the church, they don’t tell you who is running the right race in the right way for the right prize.