The numbers game

Charles Bridges was one of those precocious talents, a ridiculously gifted young man whose infamously excellent The Christian Ministry was written when he was about twelve, or something like that.

In the course of the book, Bridges deals with the matter of ministerial success, and he does so with the kind of balance and insight rarely found among believers in the modern West, many of whom have adopted a commercial model of gauging gospel progress - in essence, turnover and income. In some circles we are drifting back toward a more Finneyesque habit of announcing conversions, baptisms, additions to membership, and the underlying assumption seems often to be that the higher those numbers are, the further above criticism a man becomes. Indeed, some are just so unimaginably 'fruitful' that really the only people who can speak to them on a level are those who attain to a similar profile. The great and unassailable defence raised against some criticisms is that God is evidently at work. After all, look at the numbers.

Bridges - though we may have some minor differences of opinion with him - has some light to shed on the matter. He does not allow us to retreat into the frankly rather sterile notion that fruitlessness is in itself a mark of faithfulness, as if small churches are by definition pure and healthy. Rather, he asserts with commendable vigour that the gospel ministry is inherently fruitful, assuring those who are faithful that - as those who work under a divine commission - we enjoy a divine warrant of success. Neither does our author allow us to rest satisfied with low attainments in the matter, or to become careless about a lack of genuine fruitfulness: a lack of gospel success ought to be a matter of profound concern, not casual shoulder-sloping.

But where Bridges particularly helps us is in identifying the nature of gospel fruit and the character of ministerial success. If I might borrow a tentative analogy from the dark art of textual criticism, Bridges counsels us that fruit must not only be counted but weighed, evaluated not just quantitatively but also qualitatively. It is at once a richer, fuller and more satisfying assessment, enabling us to consider whether or not we, or others, are really as fruitful as we might be, ought to be, or claim to be. Bridges says:
In marking the specific character of this warranted success, we may observe that visible success is various. There are some that plant - others that water (1Cor 3.6); some that lay the foundation - others that build upon it (1Cor 3.10). Some are designed for immediate - some for ulterior, work. Yet all have their testimony and acceptance in the Lord's own time and way. Success is not limited to the work of conversion [St. Paul longed to impart to his Roman and Thessalonian Churches spiritual establishment and consolation. Rom. 1.11-12; 1Thes 3.10]. Where therefore the Ministry fails to convert, we may still be assured, that it convinces, reproves, exhorts, enlightens, or consoles, some one in some measure at all times. It never "returns to God void," when delivered in the simplicity of faith; nor will it, under the most unpromising circumstances, fail of accomplishing his unchangeable purpose.
But we must remember also, that present success is not always visible. Apparent must not be the measure of the real result. There is often an under-current of piety, which cannot be brought to the surface. There may be solid work advancing under ground, without any sensible excitement (see Mk 4.26; Lk 17.24); as we observe the seed that produces the heaviest grain, lies the longest in the earth. We are not always the best judges of the results of our Ministry. Mr. Scott thus encourages a clergyman from his own Ministerial experience: 'My prevalent opinion is, that you are useful, but do not see the effect. Even at Ravenstone, I remember complaining in a New Year's Sermon, that for a whole twelvemonth I had seen no fruit of my preaching; yet it appeared within the course of the next twelvemonth, that not less than ten or twelve had been brought to "consider their ways" during that discouraging year; besides others, I trust, that I did not know of' [Scott's Life, p.387.]. The sick and death-bed often gladden our heart with the manifestation of the hidden fruit of our work. And though something is graciously brought out for our encouragement, yet much more probably is concealed to exercise our diligence, and from a wise and tender regard to our besetting temptations. Indeed who of us may not detect the principle of self mingling itself alike with depression and exultation, greatly needing our Master's rebuke for our more valuable effectiveness? Under all our trials therefore, we must be careful, that no present apparent failure weaken our assurance of the ultimate success of faithful and diligent perseverance.

Symptoms of success are also frequently mistaken. They are at best but doubtful signs - if our people crowd to hear the word (see Mt 3.5) - if they love our persons (Gal 4.14-16) - admire our discourses (Ez 33.32) - and are brought to a general confession of sinfulness (Mt 3.6-7), or to a temporary interest in our message (Jn 5.35). Nor must we on the other hand too hastily conclude upon their apparent want of diligence in the means of grace, or of interest in our parochial system. Family hindrances or outward crosses may restrain the improvement of Christian privileges. The want of tact, the influence of retired habits, or the necessary demands of the domestic sphere, may impede communications with our plans; so that often "the kingdom of God," may be established in real "power," yet with little of outward "observation." The complaint of inefficiency may therefore sometimes be unwarranted, as the disappointment of a too sanguine mind; as the failure of efforts, calculated upon in our own wisdom, and attempted in our own strength; or the blast of expectations, indulged without due consideration of a Scriptural basis, or of individual or local difficulties.

Adverting also to subordinate benefits - "Our manifestation of the truth, commends itself to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2Cor 4.2). Here is a Christian standard of morals opposed to the principles of the world. Here is a Divine rule taking cognizance of the heart, charging guilt upon numberless items that before had passed as harmless, and thus laying the foundation for more evangelical conviction. Here is therefore the restraint and counteraction of much positive evil, and a large infusion of wholesome moral obligation, throughout the mass. Besides - as regards the Gospel - the constant dwelling on the Saviour's name and work familiarizes him with our people, as a refuge, a friend in trouble. It is no small advantage in the storm to know where to seek for safe anchorage; and who can tell how many have found such a refuge in distress from the recollections of the Gospel hitherto neglected, but now applied with sovereign power to their hearts?

More directly also - Ministerial success must be viewed, as extending beyond present appearances. The seed may lie under the clods till we lie there, and then spring up. Of the prophets of old "that saying was true; One soweth, and another reapeth;" they sowed the seed, and the Apostles reaped the harvest. As our Lord reminded them - "Other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours." And is it no ground of comfort, that our work may be the seed-time of a future harvest? Or, should we neglect to sow, because we may not reap the harvest? Shall we not share the joy of the harvest, even though we be not the immediate reapers of the field (see Jn 4.36-38)? Is it not sufficient encouragement to "cast our bread upon the waters," that "we shall find it after many days?" "In the morning" (as the wise man exhorts us,) "sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand; for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that; or whether they both shall be alike good" (Ecc 11.1, 6).

It has been admirably observed on this subject - 'In order to prevent perpetual disappointment, we must learn to extend our views. To seek for the real harvest produced by spiritual labours only in their immediate and visible results, would be not less absurd, than to take our measure of infinite space from that limited prospect, which the mortal eye can reach; or to estimate the never-ending ages of eternity by a transitory moment of present time - It often happens, that God withholds his blessing for a time, in order that, when the net is cast in "on the right side," it may be clearly seen, that "the multitude of fishes" inclosed are of the Lord's giving; lest men should attribute their success to a wrong cause, and should "sacrifice unto their own net, and burn incense unto their own drag." We may add to this the recollection of the extensive results from "the day of small things." Only two souls appear as the immediate fruit of the vision of "the man of Macedonia;" but how fruitful was the ultimate harvest in the flourishing Churches of that district (see Acts 16 with the letters to the Philippians and Thessalonians)! Our plain and cheering duty is therefore to go forward - to scatter the seed - to believe and wait.

Yet must there be expectancy as well as patience. The warrant of success is assured - not only as regards an outward reformation - but a spiritual change of progressive and universal influence. The fruit of Ministerial labour is not indeed always visible in its symptoms, nor immediate in its results, nor proportioned to the culture. Faith and patience will be exercised - sometimes severely so. But after a pains-taking, weeping seed-time, we shall bring our sheaves with rejoicing, and lay them upon the altar of God, "that the offering up of them might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost" (Ps 126.5-6; Rom 15.16). Meanwhile we must beware of saying - "Let him make speed, and hasten his work that we may see it" (Is 5.19). The measure and the time are with the Lord. We must let him alone with his own work. Ours is the care of service - His is the care of success. "The Lord of the harvest" must determine, when, and what, and where the harvest shall be.
The Christian Ministry (Banner of Truth), 73-76.

So let us be careful about assuming too much, judging too quickly, concluding too readily, and despairing too rapidly. As with so much else, "the day will declare it" (1Cor 3.13). As the series of posts on pastoral character will hopefully draw out, and as Thabiti Anyabwile's warnings make clear, the obsession with immediate and visible 'success' (and all its attendant temptations) is not wise either for the undershepherds or for the sheep. Character and faithfulness are the primary concerns, and the foundation for any success that really matters.