How do you define “success?” When you imagine your own personal success does that translate into how you imagine the success of institutions you care about? How do we know, for example, if a church is “successful?” It might be that you would think a successful church is a church with many members and full pews on Sunday, or a church without financial concerns, or a church with a large youth group. Size and security may seem good factors to describe success, but if we look at the Gospels, we will find that success is defined in a different way.
In John’s Gospel, the disciple named Thomas wants to see Jesus and put his hands in the holes made in the body of Jesus by the soldiers of Rome. For Thomas, the marks of faith are wounds. These are not the usual marks associated with success. They are the wounds delivered by a system that killed a man who it could not contain, a man who represented a world view so unlike theirs that he was a threat.
How do we know if the church of Jesus Christ is “succesful”? By what rubrics will we define that? How will we recognize our wounds as marks of a faithful people?
The United Church of Christ has a banner many churches hang over their doorways or in front of their buildings. It says:
BE THE CHURCH—Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.
None of these ways of “Being the Church” are the usual markers for success. They may or may not be predictive of a filled sanctuary or an abundant pledge drive, but they do reflect the way in which Jesus was himself faithful to the world he served and still serves.
We could ask our churches: “How do you get to be a successful and faithful church?” Answer: “Do what Jesus did.” If you are lucky, you will bear the marks of a faithful life. And people will come for miles to see that what you have done is true and those marks are real. Jesus would probably tell us to stop worrying about the future, just “be the church” he might say. “Be the church, so that you might have life in my name.”