Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Review of Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome - Part 1

The first part of Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome (hereafter Liberating) is a candid account of the difficulty the Hughes' (particularly Kent) encountered after about ten years of full-time ministry. I, for one, could empathise with many of the plethora of emotions which he articulates. He tells of one particular conversation with Barbara, where, coming face to face with a shrinking congregation and unmet expectations, he concludes that ‘God has called me do to something he hasn’t given me the gifts to accomplish. Therefore God is not good’. While many of us (maybe at this young stage in our ministries) might squirm a little at such direct speech, it doesn’t take a great imagination to see how a minister could get to that point.

In response to his heartfelt confession, Barbara identified that the real issue was a definition of what success in ministry actually is. Kent felt a failure, but what was he measuring himself against? In a helpful manner, they reflect on what they had been told (explicitly and implicitly) with regard to how to be successful. This advice and instruction had been focused on marketing, sociology (essentially the homogeneous unit principle), stewardship (a giving church is a growing church), godliness and preaching. Do these things, and your church will grow. In summation they realised that they had equated success with increased numbers. They had, it seemed, bought into the idea that ‘if you do this (marketing, good preaching, etc.) your church will grow in numbers’. There was a causal relationship present – one which God has never promised.

This is an incredibly helpful and refreshingly honest chapter. I’m struck by how a similar approach has been seen in conservative exegesis of texts such as Daniel 1 – Daniel’s faithfulness, godliness, etc. is used by God for his success – he is better looking, smarter, has spiritual insight, is highly favoured by the king, etc. The application – if you’re good to God, God will be good to you – and (here’s the error) – God being good to you involves what the world sees as success. We’ll come back to this later on in the book, but the fundamental error, to use Luther’s language, is an understanding of God’s work in the world as theologia gloriae rather than theologia crucis.

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