Defining Success in Today’s Church

Defining success in today’s church is not as easy as it seems. What makes a church successful? Growing attendance? More baptisms? A bigger budget? It is true. Those are things we have celebrated in the past. Back in the 1990s I pastored a church that fit that description. We were a small, county-seat First Baptist Church that experienced growth in all three areas. And I was a hot commodity on church growth conference programs across our state. Members of that church remember those days as the last time they were “successful.” I am not really sure that we were.

Defining success for today’s church is essential. In my work as a consultant I interact with churches who are struggling to understand the target. Many of them do not understand why they can not seem to replicate the “success” of their past. And that is part of the problem.

Defining Success in Today’s Church…

Requires releasing our idealized vision of the past. One common theme I hear from church leaders is the desire to return to the success of the past. In one church a member of the leadership team remembered when they had a large Thursday morning Bible study led by the pastor. “Why can’t we do that again?” she asked. In another church, several members reminisced about the days when a large youth choir led the Sunday evening worship service. The success of your church today can not be defined by the success of your church in the past.

Defining Success in Today’s Church…

Does not include comparison with other churches. In a recent Revitalize & Replant Podcast, Thom Rainer identified unrealistic expectations as one of the six common frustrations of church leaders. I can attest to that reality. Chasing the First Church of What’s Happening Now is like going down a rabbit hole. It is a never-ending and unproductive adventure. Yet, that is how many church members define success. “We want to be like Such-and-Such Church.” Or my favorite way of expressing the same idea, “Why can’t we be like Such-and-Such Church?” The success of your church today can not be defined by the success of another church.

Defining Success in Today’s Church…

Moves beyond having successful programs. In some ways this understanding of success is closely related to the previous two. We defined success in the past by the perceived success of our programs. In my denominational tribe we celebrated churches that had Sunday School, Discipleship Training, graded choirs and other music groups, Brotherhood (men’s ministry) and WMU (women’s ministry that was focused on missions). These programs kept our calendars full and our people busy. And many church members continue to define success by that standard. Especially when they see other churches who appear to have continued success with this model. As one man recently said, “I don’t understand. I drive by other churches and see their parking lots full on Sunday nights. Why can’t we do that?” The success of your church today can not be defined by the success of church programs.

Defining Success in Today’s Church…

Requires a new metric. I need to say this. I love the local church. And I realize that sometimes it may sound like I am overly critical of the local church. I don’t intend to be. But so many of our churches are stuck and struggling. Too many of them are spiraling towards death. I love the local church. Especially the established local church. And that’s why I want to do everything I can to equip and encourage established churches to experience revival and revitalization by God’s grace and for his glory.

In his book, Reclaiming Glory, Mark Clifton writes, “The only metric that matters can’t be measured entirely from within your church walls. Jesus gives us this metric in the Great Commission. Our job is to make disciples who make disciples.” He goes on to write, “Making disciples who make disciples must lead to a transformed neighborhood around the church. While this kind of metric frees us from an over reliance on numbers, it also raises the bar significantly as far as discipleship. Instead of attendance, let’s think of decreased crime in the neighborhood, improved schools, and an increase in intact families” (pp. 112-113).

Let me be clear. We are not advocating social ministry for the sake of social ministry. The church is not a glorified civic organization. We are advocating a gospel focused ministry to people in the community. We are talking about discipling existing church members so that they can be the hands and feet of Jesus. So that they can disciple their neighbors.

Defining Success in Today’s Church…

A picture of success. While this is a story still in progress, I can already see God working. Julie started attending Hope Church a few months ago. The pastor had been leading the church towards revitalization for about a year when Julie first showed up. He had been discipling the small number of existing members. Helping them to understand what it means to be disciples who makes disciples.

Julie used to live in the community. Then she left the area for a while. No one really knew where she went. Her only contact with the church had been through her children whom she dropped them off at church when they were young. The children were now grown and moved away from the community. But Julie was back. And she was coming to church. Not dropping off her kids. She was coming to church. She had bought a little trailer and had parked it on a vacant lot not far from the church. I would like to think that she parked it there to be near the church. But that was not the case. She parked it there because the space was available and it was close to a lot of illegal drug activity.

Julie was coming to church on Sunday and doing drugs every other day of the week. But she was coming to church. One day she reached out to some church members for help. She wanted to get clean. She was ready to go into rehab. But she had no one to help. Her children were gone. Her existing relationships revolved around other addicts. So she reached out to the members of Hope Church for help. Then she reached out to the pastor.

And the church responded. They recognized that God had brought her to their doorstep. She thought she moved to the community to be near drugs. God placed across the street from a church that was willing to do the hard and messy work of real discipleship. A church willing to be the neighbor Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Defining Success in Today’s Church…

What will you do? Hope Church will likely never top the list of fasting growing churches in their state. But the members of Hope Church are committed to loving their neighbors. Join me in praying for them and for Julie. And join me in praying for all of the other Julies in their community… And in yours.


Rob Paul is a church revitalization strategist with over three decades of experience serving established Southern Baptist churches in pastoral ministry. He has a passion for encouraging and equipping established churches to experience revival and revitalization by God’s grace and for His glory. To find out more about Rob Paul Ministries or to financially support the work of church revitalization, visit