Faithfulness or fruitfulness: when your ministry isn’t a success

I’m in a Bible study group of women who are preparing to enter full time ministry alongside their husbands. The other day one of them shared genuinely and openly one of her fears about entering ministry. “I just don’t want us to be in a ministry that doesn’t grow, or goes backwards,” she confessed. “What, then, would be the point of all this sacrifice and preparation?”. There were many nods of agreement around the room. 

Perhaps you know this feeling too. Maybe you’ve been involved in planning an evangelistic event at church, and hardly anyone shows up. Perhaps you’ve slaved away leading a Bible study, but it seems most other members find an excuse not to be there every second week. You might’ve spent hours cutting out pairs of elephants for your Sunday school craft only for half the kids not to show, and the rest run amok and rip off the trunks. Maybe you’ve spent hours writing an online article that no one shares and only your blog editor ‘likes’ (ouch!). Or, even more devastatingly, maybe someone you’ve been seeking to encourage in their faith gives it all up and walks away. 

What do we do when our ministry endeavours flounder and fail, and when we don’t see the fruit of our hard work? Where is God in it? How are we to deal with our lack of ‘success’?

It might come as no surprise to note that we can be tempted to fall into all sorts of wrong thinking, and even sin, when our focus is on whether our ministry is successful. It’s easy to look at a thriving ministry being run by someone else and conclude that this means God approves of that person, and not of us. We can tend to equate growth, numbers and popularity with God’s favour. Or possibly we might focus so much on the ends, rather than the means, that pragmatism becomes king. We let principles, and even obedience, slip for the sake of results. 

Sometimes the worm of jealousy wriggles into our feelings towards those who seem successful and so petty resentment sets in. We can fall into despair and self-pity that what we are doing is not working, thereby taking all the responsibility for results onto ourselves. Or we can become bitter and angry at those we are seeking to serve, internally berating them for not appreciating us and our efforts enough. We can even turn our accusations on God: “I’ve given up so much for you” we think, “I’ve worked so hard and you refuse to help me.” We can even start to doubt God is good and harden our hearts to him.

Often in these times our problem is our determination of what success in ministry is. We take the world’s measures of success and apply them to the Kingdom of God. We can forget to put on the lens of the gospel when we view what is happening as we serve. What is the point of our service, and our efforts? We need to be reminded again of what we have been called to. Why are we serving in the first place?

We serve in ministry because wehave been served. It was Jesus who came, not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). It is because we love him who by his grace has adopted us as his children, that we will obey his command to serve like he served. Our goal is to be faithful and obedient to the God who has saved us. We want to hear him say, on that last day, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23). We serve others because in doing so we are serving the God who loves us and who we love. Success in our ministry is not the results, it’s us loving God and seeking to be obedient and faithful to him. 

The Old Testament prophets often faithfully spoke God’s words with very little ‘success’, while the people flocked to false prophets who had a more palatable message. Gaining a hearing had very little to do with the truth of their message or their commitment to it. Even Jesus himself, while drawing crowds, drew opposition from those who would eventually kill him. And all those crowds, and even his closest followers, would disown him at his darkest hour. Jesus forewarns us that serving others by calling them to obey God is not going to be a popular path. In Matthew 7:14 we are told that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” We are reminded by Jesus that “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18). We know we’ve been told that in this world we will have trouble, yet somehow, we still delude ourselves that we won’t and are surprised when it comes upon us.

We need to keep in mind that it is not ‘success’ or results that is our main responsibility. Yes, of course we want to see people come to Christ and cross over into eternal life. And of course, we desire to see people grow in maturity and see the church built up. Part of faithful obedience may involve being wise and strategic in taking every opportunity to see that happen. But these results themselves are not the measure of our success. God’s measure is our faithfulness, not what that faithfulness might lead to. We are called to be faithful and obedient to his word, and the results are up to him. This gives us such an immense freedom from the weight we often carry of making things a ‘success’. We need to remember the only one who we seek to please is God himself. 

You might not have anyone show up to your event, or your Bible study, and your Sunday school class might turn all ‘Lord of The Flies’ this week. Maybe no one will read your blog post and perhaps the church you are a minister at will shrink and close. But don’t judge your success by your results, and you don’t need to fear the ‘failure’ of a ministry. Examine yourself for faithful obedience before your God and rejoice that he is working in ways you may not ever know or see this side of glory. Your labour is not wasted if it is done in faithful obedience to the Lord. Pray he will strengthen your faithfulness to persevere in serving, knowing you do it because of how deeply you have been loved and served by him.