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Faculty Reflections

The Shape of Success

Who doesn’t want success? For many leaders, it is the yardstick of their career, and no one wants to be measured and deemed a failure. Yet a genuine understanding of Christian success is often obscured by the appalling formulas for Christian leadership in America today -- Bible verses, “uplifting” quotations, and promises of material wealth are packaged together in ways that have little or nothing to do with the historic roots of Christian faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Reading the New Testament, however, should teach Christians that success at its deepest is God’s ability to bring life from death.

The early Christian martyrs knew that to succeed as Christians leaders they would have to die. Their chief witness was not their cultural popularity or riches but their faithful perseverance in the face of certain demise. They also knew that in the eyes of the world such success would look much more like failure.

That is the first lesson of Christian success: it can look like failure. Shutting the doors of a deteriorating church, for example, may not appear as success. Yet, in Christian logic, helping a dying church to die may be the way to the renewal of faith and vibrancy of life. Seen through the lens of death-resurrection, closing the doors is not giving up hope; rather, it is hope that the death of that church will in some strange, unanticipated way result in the overall giving of life to God’s people. Resurrection follows death, the early Christian leaders taught the faithful.

Success took shape in other ways, too, among the leadership of the early church. The leaders realized that fledgling Christians could not sustain their new faith under the pressure of persecution simply by individually maintaining strong convictions. The various communities throughout the Mediterranean needed structure: church leaders (bishops and also deacons), traveling missionaries that brought news from one community to another, a central locus of authority in Jerusalem that provided both pastoral counsel and doctrinal clarification, and a networked series of house churches. Such structure provided the way Christian leaders could nourish their new and growing family, strengthen them against both persecution and more routine difficulties, and ultimately enable them to develop into what became known as the Christian church. Much of this work was behind the scenes, but its effects are evident in the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of the New Testament, and the life of the early church in the second and third centuries.

This vast amount of work behind the scenes points to the second lesson of Christian success: it is not always dramatic—it may, in fact, be very slow and long-suffering work—and many of the key players may not even be visible. Creating structures that outlast personalities, arbitrating disputes, and developing networks are not inherently glorious jobs. They may never bring admiration, recognition, or material wealth. Faithfulness in this work requires a robust vision for the long haul, the ability to grasp what matters most for a community’s identity, and an understanding of the most important pressures a community will face and how to resist themÑin short, exactly the kind of patient work that we should expect of leaders who guide people toward thriving life in the midst of whatever assails them.

Of course, sometimes success is actually dramatic. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit worked in powerful ways, bringing people to repentance and dedication to the resurrected Jesus, forming new communities, and creating new avenues of important work. And that is the third lesson of Christian success: the power of the resurrection can be experienced in the midst of life now. To move from failure to success requires the recognition of God’s unanticipated work in the present and the freedom to follow it. The Holy Spirit works dramatically and visibly as well as patiently over the long haul.

Christian reflection on success should help us to avoid two perennial dangers in using the language of success: first, that we think of it as the opposite of failure; second, that we reduce the complexity of success to only one or two models. Attending to the New Testament should teach us that success incorporates profound failure—Jesus was killed before he was resurrected—and that our models of success need to be rich enough to encompass the range from quiet, unseen success to dramatic, visible success.