Ask Steve: The Definition of a Successful Church

Not a Chance


Currently Reading:

Not a Chance: God, Science, and the Revolt against Reason

by R.C. Sproul w/ Keith Mathison

Category: Apologetics

2014 edition, Baker Books




Question: Steve, how would you describe a successful church? What characteristics mark a successful church?

Answer: When people think of what marks a “successful” church, many things come to mind. A church with huge attendance. A church that distributes salaries and benefits to over a dozen staff members. A church that excels in getting decisions for Christ. A church represented in a radio show or library of books that he has written. A church with celebrity pastors.

Although some of these ideas are pleasant for churches to experience (and might even indicate God’s blessing on that local body), these do not capture what it means to be successful. What is successful to man might not necessary be successful to God, and vice versa. That is why it is important to measure the success of a church according to the standards of Scripture, and not according to the ways of the world. What we do before God is always more important and eternally beneficial than what we do before man.

First, a successful church faithfully teaches the word of God. A church is called to do many things, but its first and foremost task must be to house accurate and applicable Bible teaching, whether during Sunday service, special events, or weekday Bible studies. A good church has a pastor who invests ample time in studying God’s word and exposits it to the public. Paul instructed young Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-2 of the importance of faithfully teaching God’s word to his congregation: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” Why? Because “the time will come when they [the congregants] will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires…” (2 Tim 4:3). Sound preaching is necessary to the spiritual health of the local church. Good teaching leads to salvation and sanctification; bad teaching leads to false conversion and worldly living. God has appointed pastors to be the spokesman of the church. They are the prophets who warn of sin, judgment, and the need to reconcile with a holy God. They are teachers who lead believers in the way of godliness and righteousness. This is the most impressionable way that a church shepherds the flock – the public proclamation of the word of God.

Second, a successful church holds fast to the faith and defends it amidst attacks. It is no secret that there are multitudes of attacks against the Christian faith today, and was so during the time of the Apostles. Skeptics and vile opponents attempt to discredit the teachings and historical observations of the Old and the New Testament, and many professing believers introduce questionable, if not destruction, heresies into the church. That is why Jude exhorted church leaders to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed…” (Jude 3-4). The spirit of the antichrist has worked since the beginning of time to sway people away from the truth, even sending teachers who masquerade as Christians into the church to promote a type of Christianity that has no power to save or to sanctify (1 Jn 4:1-6; Rev 2:20). This is why church leaders must be on guard to defend the truth. Sadly, many churches have made a shipwreck of themselves by compromising with the spirit of the world, accepting the legitimacy of abortion, homosexuality, Catholic and Muslim ecumenism, evolution, atheistic psychology, theological liberalism, and licentiousness. Churches who go this course are not successful pastors in God’s eyes, but are disobedient to His word (Lk 6:46) often times become apostate (Rev 2).

Third, a successful church is great at helping as many in the church as possible to apply the principles of Scripture in their lives. The church must be committed to discipleship. It teaches Christians, both young and seasoned, to pray, read Scripture devotionally, grow in holiness, participate in the ordinances with a clear conscience, give of their resources sacrificially, foster attitudes of faith, hope, and love, serving in church, and, of course, participate in evangelism. The church does what it can in its power and wisdom to “present every man complete in Christ” (Col 1:28). As admirable as these goals are, a church is truly successful when they not only disciple, but create disciplemakers. This means they are committed to raising up new, effective leaders who become missionaries, church planters, Bible study leaders, evangelists, and future elders/ pastors who go out into the world and replicates everything that Scripture commands regarding the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). The goal of all pastors, and Christian leaders, is to disciple Christians with the hopes that they will become disciplemakers themselves. This is how the church successfully perpetuates the faith down through the generations, and creates more laborers for a huge labor field (Matt 9:37-38).

Last but not least, a successful church is passionate about evangelism. Jesus calls for the church to “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mk 16:15) and to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Paul even instructed a young pastor Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5) as part of his ministry call. In a sense, one can say that all of the Christian’s training is meant to prepare him to be an ambassador for Christ. If a Christian never evangelizes, then his education and growth in the faith never becomes useful in this life. This is why churches must be committed to evangelism, since it is one of the reasons why it exists. A church that practices evangelism through various programs, and trains its laypeople to practice it in their everyday lives, is a church that has much power. It is truly successful because it actively carries out the mission and will of God.

There is much more that can be said about what defines a successful church, but these four factors are what every church should highly consider when doing ministry. There are churches that have low financial resources, meet on rented property, have moderate attendance, and receive persecution and oppression from an unbelieving society. Despite these seeming failures, the church is a success before God if it lives the word faithfully, preaches the word faithfully, defends the word faithfully, and duplicates the word faithfully. What truly counts is the church’s commitment to the Scriptural principles that define a church. When it is all said and done, what counts is Jesus declaring to laborers of the church, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21).


Recommended Resource: Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

  • Daniel

    steve, your writing is getting better and better! enjoyed reading this.

    btw, have you heard of beautiful gate church in los feliz? thought it’s a church you might’ve been interested in.