Point of Reference
by Fred Price
From the very beginning, Christians have been tempted to confuse – or even substitute – success for faith. Whether enduring persecution, subduing “infidels”, acquiring an education or climbing the corporate ladder – and especially in the political arena – we often become obsessed with improving our circumstances. And what could possibly be wrong with that? Certainly faith can and should impact all areas of our lives, defining what success really entails; but are we guaranteed success because of our faith? Some would have us believe so, but I see no such guarantee scripturally; at least not on the level and of the kind many preach today.
A prime example of the confusion surrounding the meaning of success can be found in Jesus’ ministry, even among His own disciples. I’m thinking in particular of Jesus’ altercation with Peter, a man of great potential and obvious flaws. Who, almost immediately after delivering a stirring confession of faith concerning his Lord, blundered into an equally disturbing exchange with him. To be fair, most of us would have been perplexed as well by Jesus’ apparent contradictory statements, first accepting Peter’s declaration of His being the Christ – the long-awaited Messiah of Israel – and His almost immediate prediction of death. Hardly an indicator of success for anyone.
Peter, taking Jesus aside, proceeded to chasten and correct Him back into the more accepted image of a formidable political, religious, moral force; and was decisively slapped down. Jesus unequivocally reminding Peter who was really in control by associating his activities with Satan’s. Explaining His cutting remarks to Peter by saying, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Further describing all that must be left behind in any pursuit of genuine ministry and attempts at holiness. (See Mark 8:27-38 & 10:29,30 – with the disturbing inclusion of persecution as a “benefit” to be shared with Him.)
Jesus was setting a standard of faith and faithfulness as pre-eminent values for the kingdom of God; which disappointed some who were indeed seeking political power, financial well-being and personal influence, which were never listed as requirements or benefits of participation in His ministry. In fact, for Him and many of His early followers in particular, it meant financial ruin, political isolation, social ostracism and even death.
Yet even in many churches today, the attempt to win and disciple souls “successfully” for Christ gets confused almost exclusively with numbers; there being a compulsion to study the demographics of an area they plan to evangelize and devise ministries and worship “experiences” that meet the needs of their target audiences. Which is not necessarily all bad. But whatever happened to “targeting” the lost of the whole community – old and young, rich or poor, educated and uneducated. An unintended result of focusing on specific age groups of people with similar interests and abilities is that we actually limit who we reach out to and interact with. Even as the Bible’s ultimate example of a well-rounded church seems to be a multigenerational, diversely experienced one; in the process addressing a wide range of issues in a proven manner while daring to dream big and try new things. (Experience tempering youth, excited energy re-inspiring the more mature. See Titus 2)
Another problem with being overly concerned with “relevance” is that we often then restrict ourselves to doing what’s acceptable to the “world”, our focus becoming compatibility as opposed to being peculiar (Exodus 19:5; 1 Peter 2:9; Titus 2:14 – KJ), or radically different. Being relevant to our society has some value, being pertinent to it has even more. For if we so disguise ourselves in the trappings of the world that in the end there is little difference, then we have misunderstood the true intent of the gospel no less than Peter. The problem often being in defining relevance, each person often having his own definition; usually aligning with his own particular preferences. And in trying to project an image of the church that is open to interpretation and that seeks accommodation rather than giving a clear call to righteousness; we create confusion, division and even anger in our message and ministry. Which can demean and, at times, destroy the unity that is imperative for the church to be effective to anyone.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned of the sometimes unintended result of unrestrained idealism in his classic book, “Life Together.” “He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”1 There is nothing wrong with considering the demographics of an area you propose to serve, but we must be honest with the results and not try to force people into being something we prefer. Change is inevitable and ministry is all about people changing (2 Corinthians 5:11) but being truly relevant means understanding the experiences, needs and mind-sets of everybody in the area (or church) you feel led to serve in, not just a select few. Remembering first and foremost that we aren’t here to dictate, even in the name of all that’s holy, but to serve in the name of the Holy One.
In the end, the church’s function is not so much to appear powerful, glorious or successful by anyone’s standard but God’s; and His definition of success resides in faithfulness. Not to a style of preaching or worship but to God’s word, which demands that we forgo personal desires – and even needs – for the advancement of the gospel into the lives of our fellowmen. Loving Him and one another in such a way as to see beyond the quirks and shortcomings of others – which we all possess – in an attempt to grow individually and corporately into something more than we are now. Christians, followers of Christ, imitators of His way.
1Quote taken from Mark Galli’s book, “Jesus Mean and Wild”, Baker Publishing
"'Christ in You...'" from
What Will We Do?Read Article »
Fred Price - married (49 years), father of two grown children, grandfather of six.
Fred retired earlier this year after 42 years as a factory worker. He has always had a heart for young people and the challenges they face today. Over the years Fred has taught Discipleship Groups for High School and college students.
Receive the newest devotional each week in your inbox by joining the "Point of Reference" subscription list. Enter your email address below, click "Go!" and we will send you a confirmation email. Follow the instructions in the email to confirm your addition to this list.