Success Looks Different for Christians

A few months ago, my niece called to interview me for her third-grade school project. The topic of the interview was, “How has COVID impacted the Church?” One of her follow up questions included how the Church could thrive when many churches across the country (and world) have had to close their doors.

I confess that my first thoughts were about membership and money and how close-to-normal churches are operating. Were the churches being negatively impacted regarding attendance (physical or online)? Were members continuing to tithe? But quickly I realized that as the world measures the impact of COVID by these metrics, the Church and Christians have a different set of standards.

And “normal” during a crisis is not what the Church should be striving for.

Instead of talking to my niece about the negatives of church operations during the past few months, we discussed the opportunities the Church has had to shine and be what God created her to be – a rescue for a fallen world. In other words, the Church has had the glaring opportunity to BE THE CHURCH. We talked about how the Church and Christians do their best work during crises… they always have.

Self-preservation and growth measured on a spreadsheet isn’t the name of the game – reaching a hurting world with the message of Jesus Christ, however, is the Name (above all Names) of the game.

We as Christians have to answer questions that become most apparent in a crisis: What have we been saved for? What have we been saved to do? Should Christians make an idol out of comfort and seek to avoid the dangers of this fallen world? Those who have gone before us have paved the way and we tell their “success stories” to this day. They show us how to thrive in a thwarted world.

Jesus’s disciples lost an appetite for the comfortable life. They each faced horrific deaths (except John who was thrown into boiling oil and survived) because they refused to let truth depart from their lips. They would not lie to protect themselves from a world that wanted to hush The Way, The Truth and the Life – and the price was steep: Peter was crucified upside down; James was beheaded; Andrew was crucified upside down on an X-shaped cross; Phillip was crucified; Bartholomew was skinned alive and beheaded; Matthew is reported to have been burned to death; Thomas was impaled by a spear; James Alpheus was stoned and clubbed to death; Simon was sawed or axed to death; Jude (Thaddeus) was sawed or axed to death. And the Church was born on the shoulders of these men. Success.

Polycarp was the first martyr in post-New Testament history. Polycarp converted many from Gnosticism and was a leader among the new group called Christians. When, in his eighties, he heard Roman officials were hunting him, he remained in his home, rebuffing his friends’ pleas to flee. He was finally persuaded to move to a small estate outside of town where he had a vision that he was to be burned alive. When officials found Polycarp, he went willingly, saying, “God’s will be done.”  Soldiers grabbed him and took him to the stake. They began to try to nail him to the stake, but Polycarp stopped them saying there was no need to nail him: “Leave me as I am. For He who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” As his flesh was consumed, a chronicler of this martyrdom concluded, it was “not as burning flesh but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.” Success.

William Wilberforce was from a wealthy family, educated at the most prestigious schools and used his family’s connections to get into politics, winning a seat in the British Parliament in 1780. In 1786, Wilberforce had a spiritual rebirth and began examining his life and the world around him. He became obsessed with the issue of slavery and committed to its abolition. Wilberforce worked tirelessly, and nearly alone, to abolish the English slave trade. Wilberforce introduced bills only to see them defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. When it was clear that he would not give up this fight, pro-slavery forces targeted and vilified him. His anti-slavery efforts finally bore fruit in 1807 and the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire (it would be absolutely abolished in 1833, just three days before Wilberforce’s death). Wilberforce didn’t fight for himself or even his own family members, but for his co-image-bearers who didn’t have an audience with Parliament. Success.

Harriet Tubman was born in 1820 into slavery in Maryland. She escaped to freedom in Pennsylvania in 1949. Freedom, she had it. Instead of being content with all she thought she ever wanted, she made 19 risky return trips to the South to usher other slaves to freedom. Leading so many to freedom earned her the nickname “Moses.” As Tubman led the slaves north, she said she would only go where God’s voice led her. She parlayed her own freedom into dangerous freedom missions for others, using her life to radically change countless others. Success.

Corrie ten Boom and her Christian family hid Jews in their house in Amsterdam during WWII. The Ten Booms could have gone about their lives and remained safe from the Gestapo, but instead they made the decision to help God’s people. Essentially, the Ten Booms knowingly put a target on their own backs by helping Jews. When their family was found out, the Ten Booms joined Jews in the concentration camp. Not willing to learn the lesson the Nazis were teaching, Corrie and her sister, Betsie, read the Bible aloud to their fellow captives. Betsie and their father died in the concentration camp, and the Nazis intended death for Corrie, too. Corrie was accidently released from the concentration camp and went on to tell the world her family’s story of service. Success.

Then there’s the woman I met last week who is spending her time and energy housing young, pregnant women in South Dallas who are at risk of being homeless. An intelligent, shrewd, wise woman, her talents could take her anywhere she fancied. But she fancies helping young girls and women who are in dire circumstances and have nowhere else to go. Not only does she house and feed these women, but she helps them continue their education, take parenting classes and job training classes. She has forged relationships with several area churches that provide funds, volunteers, meals and supplies – daily. Her goal is to break generational strongholds and give these women a chance to make their lives (and their babies’ lives) better. Success.

It can seem like the people in the stories above are scarce… they’re not. No one has enough days on this earth to chronicle the goodness that’s been done out of obedience to God. The saints summarized above had different gifts and used them in different ways to bring Kingdom graces to this thwarted world. But one thing these “successful” people have in common is that they knew/know very little of the comfortable life. They are mission-minded, living on assignment from the One Who sent them. And He gives no small assignments.

Life on earth is as bad as it gets for a Christian. So often, my mind believes that thriving is avoiding all things distasteful. But, as each saint above reminds me, wrestling with distasteful things on earth yields the sweetest fruit. And they remind me that thriving looks a lot like servant leadership and laying one’s life down for another.

Which sounds a lot like Someone Else I know.  

Dear Lord, we love You. Thank You for giving us a holy definition of success while we walk this earth. May we serve You and live on assignment all of our days. Please get our attention when we start to take on the world’s definition of success; don’t let us settle for such a paltry existence. May we serve You with the life You’ve given us. Amen.

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