What does successful church look like?

Success in the church business is hard to assess. It is not a function of numbers, of quantity of programming, or even energy and creativity of institutional life. Church success is much more nebulous than any of the measurable quantifiables by which we are accustomed to measuring success.

Perhaps we might take Paul’s list from Galatians 5:22,23 as a measure of our community life. Is our communal life characterized by:

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and inner strength?

But there is a danger in focusing on Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” as the criterion for measuring success. We do not get to fruit by focusing on the fruit. We do not grow in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and inner strength” by working at producing these qualities. We grow in the “fruit of the Spirit” by focusing on the Source of the fruit.

Church exists to support all people in opening to a deepened awareness of our connection to that invisible reality we call God. Heart-opening is the goal of church life. As we become more deeply conscious of the presence of Love, our lives will conform more fully to that Love that is our true nature.

Despite all appearances to the contrary throughout the tragic and flawed history of the Christian church, love is the Christian definition of God:

God is love. (I John 4:8)

When Jesus was asked what is the first guiding principle for a truly human life, he answered,

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. (Matthew 22:37,38)

Church succeeds when it puts the first thing first.

We succeed in church when our life together encourages us to open to more deeply to the presence and power of Love.

Love is the starting point, the goal, the purpose, and the motivation for church life. Anything that does not start from and lead towards love, is not a success.

We will be more likely to open to this power of Love when we remember that love is a process not a product. It matters less what we do than how we do what we do. Church exists to call us to focus on the how before the what. Love is the how of church life.

The process of Love is seldom tidy or predictable and can never be reduced to formulas or simple guidelines.

There are no rules or regulations which can dictate in every situation precisely what love will look like. But, love always bears fruit. Love always manifests in relationship. Love takes form in the messy, confusing, unpredictable world of our interactions with one another and with all of creation.

When Jesus described love as the fundamental reality of a truly human life he did not stop with love for God, but made it clear that authentic love is always embodied in communal life:

You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Matthew 22:39)

Love is never static. Love is the dynamic power of life. Love is the force that brought all creation into existence. It is the dynamism that is stronger than death and that never ends.

If we are going to live together in love, we need to put aside our own agendas, needs, wants, and demands. We need to focus on being attentive to the uniqueness of the present moment and sensitive to the particular way in which Love is manifesting in the situation in which we find ourselves.

We succeed at the business of being church when our life together enables our hearts to open and soften.

The church’s unique calling is to say we human beings were created by Love; we exist for love. We find our meaning in love and fulfill our destiny as beings created in the image of Love to the degree that we trust in the presence of love and support all people in following where Love leads.

When we open to Love, our life together will be naturally and spontaneously characterized by

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and inner strength.

That is a “successful” church.