When a church is successful at something (anything), how much credit can you give to the church itself for its success? Pick your standard of measurement: Are they successful because of what they’ve strategically done? Because God has blessed them? Or are circumstance and luck a part of the equation?
I recently finished Malcom Gladwell‘s latest book, Outliers, which asks the question: Why do certain individuals succeed at what they do, becoming the best of the best, while others of seemingly equal talent don’t?
In the book, Gladwell challenges the notion that people are exceptionally successful simply because of their natural abilities, or even their hard work. Instead, he argues, individuals most often become successful because of a wide set of opportunities, experiences and luck that the individuals do not create for themselves. In doing so, Gladwell challenges the idea of the "self-made" man.
Which got me thinking about our churches. Is there such a thing as the self-made church? Our quick answer is likely, No, it’s God who determines how big a church gets, how many people its reaching, or the impact its having on its community or the world.
Beyond that, we usually attribute church success to things like the mission, vision and values of the church, its specific strategy or tactics, and its overall health. And while each of these things are no doubt essential components, are they really the only reasons a church is successful?
What about my church’s location? What about how wealthy the members of my church are? What about the year my church was founded, and the attitudes and beliefs of its founding members? What about the big donor who saved my church from early bankruptcy? What about the church on the other side of town that went bankrupt, leaving its members searching for another church? What about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity my church had to buy that perfect piece of property? Is it possible that any one (or combination of) these circumstantial factors had just as much to do with my church’s success as did all of its values, strategy and hard work?
Of course, I think many of us would attribute these factors to God’s hand and direction. But we so rarely talk about these specific, often unseen or unknown factors when discussing why we think a church is doing well.
Why? Are we worried it will feel like less of a "God-thing" if we talk about how good the circumstances surrounding are success are? Or are we obsessed with the idea that the success of a church is repeatable?
I wonder what would happen if someone were to conduct a study about these circumstantial factors of church success. I wonder if our beliefs about church success (again, pick your standard of measurement) would change. Would we be able to look at church A doing "better" than church B and not wonder what needs to be fixed at church B? Would it change how we measure success? Would we train church leaders differently?
I wonder if, in the end, we’d just feel increasingly grateful for the things that contribute to our church’s success that have nothing to do with us.
Maybe the research would make this blog post look silly. Honestly, I don’t know. But how terribly exciting and challenging would it be to see a leader of a church that we think is successful stand up and say: "I’m not actually sure how we got where we are. We’ve got good people and good ideas here, but so do thousands of other churches. Guess we were fortunate …"?