Defining Success

How would you define success? A friend asked me this question the other day, and after pausing for a moment, I gave an answer with which I’m now only half-satisfied. 

I started by think of the way the world normally measures “success”.  Worldly measures of success are generally related to finances or security. For a follower of Jesus, those can’t be the ultimate measures of success, but we shouldn’t avoid them all together – even in the church, worldly measures may still be necessary factors to consider. For example, Upper Room will have to become financially self-sustainable by 2014 to be “successful” in our goal of establishing a new congregation in Squirrel Hill.  But that example begs the question of why plant a new church? And why in Squirrel Hill?  In order to call new people to participation in the mission of Jesus, joining Christ in the work of reconciling, healing, and transforming the world.  The ultimate goal is not the establishment of a church, but the transformation of lives according to the mission of God.

So, I think I’d define success as life-transformation.  The reason I’m only half-satisfied with the answer I gave my friend is that it described inward-focused transformation.  I’ve been reading a lot of eastern Christian monks recently for whom success would be articulated in terms like “dispassion”, “theosis” or “divinization”.  So, I articulated success as “becoming more like Jesus.”  The problem is, I didn’t articulate the whole of what that means.  It’s more than just “becoming the best me I can be” – despite the popularity of that teaching.  It’s also more than just cultivating personal disciplines of prayer and breaking sinful habits.  If success for a Christian is being conformed to the image of Christ, then success means going to the cross. Success is death to self.  It’s not measured by upward-mobility, but by downward-mobility, service, and giving.  True success isn’t just self-transformation, it’s inward transformation that leads to world-transformation

And yet, transformation of the self is still necessary to effect world-transformation: I can’t join Jesus in opposing systems of injustice and strongholds of evil if I refuse to repent of my complicity with such systems. Personal transformation is necessary for world-transformation to take place.  That requires confession, repentance, and the help of a community of other Jesus-followers.  But those practices are not ends in themselves.  They shape us through our own reconciliation with God to become ministers of reconciliation in the whole world: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).

So, measures of success are both inward and outward – reconciliation in one’s own life and participating in the ministry of reconciliation in others lives.  Applied to the situation of a church, successful participation in the mission of God results in transformation of lives both within and outside the church.  And because transformation can’t always be quantified, we can measure success by stories of transformation, both inward and outward.  The narrative of a person’s life reveals the trajectory of transformation and includes the failures, mistakes and wounds, as well as the times of healing and restoration.  

Whenever my life and ministry come to an end, I pray that whatever success (if any) is attributed to me would be reflected in stories of transformation, both in my own life and in the lives of others.  And I pray that those stories would ultimately reflect a life lived as Christ’s ambassador, letting transformation in my own life lead to greater participation the ministry of reconciliation.

1 comment
  1. Dan Thayer said:

    Chris, thanks for these helpful thoughts. I think this is a good challenge of the world’s results-focused definition of success.

    I would challenge you to make your definition even less results-focused. Goals can only be the goals of the one who has the ability to accomplish the result. Who accomplishes inward transformation? Who accomplishes world transformation? In both cases, the answer is God, not us. Therefore, I don’t think these are appropriate goals for ourselves. We can’t define success in this way. Instead, I would define success solely in terms of obedience to God.

    I do not think I am merely arguing semantics here. There are some people whose lives are continuous struggle, who always seem to be thwarted, who never see the world transformed
    as the fruit of their work. Yet, if they were obedient to God, that is a successful life. Others may continually seek God, yet never reach great heights spiritually. Is that not success as well?

    Perhaps I am making too much of this. What do you think?

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