By Mike Willis
How does one measure success in preaching the word of God? Frequently, the primary criterion used to measure success is the numerical growth of the church. Where churches are baptizing a considerable number of people, those who are preaching the gospel are viewed as Successful; where few or no baptisms are occurring, some begin to imply that something must be wrong with the preacher, the elders, or the church in general.
Numerical Response Is Not A Good Measuring Stick
Although I do not intend to excuse laziness or failures of another nature on the part of Christians in cases where no baptisms are occurring on a regular basis, I want to remind our readers that numerical growth is not always an accurate measurement of whether or not one is being successful in preaching the gospel. A number of biblical examples will demonstrate that this is so.
When God sent Ezekiel to Israel, He knew that Israel would not obey His word. Israel was “a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiff-hearted” (Ezek. 2:3-4). Although Ezekiel preached and labored faithfully, he had very few converts. If he was measured by the stick of numerical growth, he was a failure. Nevertheless, God considered him to be a faithful prophet, one whom I sincerely expect to see in heaven.
In a similar fashion, one might consider Noah. Noah was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5) who labored more than a century in calling the wicked men of his day to repentance. When the flood came, only eight souls entered the ark. That is not much numerical response to a -century of preaching! If Noah is measured by the stick of numerical growth, he was a failure. Nevertheless, the Bible honors him as a man of faith whose example we should follow (Heb. 11:7).
The Attitudes Of Men
The success of the preaching of the gospel depends upon the hearts of men. Inasmuch as men have free will, they can accept or reject the divine revelation of God. Even Jesus Himself was not always successful in converting mien. You will recall that the rich young ruler, for example, rejected the Savior’s teachings and went away sorrowful (Lk. 18:18-24).
If we should conclude that we are living in an age in which men’s hearts are hardened toward the gospel, entangled in the cesspool of sin, and obstinate toward God, we should expect that numerical growth would be minimal. On the other hand, if we were to conclude that men generally are “hungering and thirsting after righteousness,” we should expect that the harvest will be more abundant.
At any rate, we need to realize that few baptisms is not necessarily a reflection upon our own faithfulness to God I As preachers, we must be careful not to castigate and berate the saints because we are baptizing so few. Those who are faithful need to be encouraged to remain that way-not condemned and ridiculed because the world will not obey the gospel.
Some Other Measuring Sticks
Inasmuch as I have suggested that numerical growth is not a good measuring stick for whether or not we are successful in preaching the gospel, let me suggest some better criteria to use.
1. Has the whole counsel of God been proclaimed? Paul was free from the blood of all men because, he said, “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). There are churches which are growing numerically which are not successful in teaching the word of God. They have sought to water down the gospel so that it might be more palatable to the world. They dare not imply that there is only one church or that divorce and remarriage for reasons other than fornication are sinful; other messages which might “offend” the general public are reserved for Bible classes or not taught at all. They glory in the number of responses they are getting to the invitation but are still failures in their preaching.
2. Have we been “instant in season and out of season”? Paul commanded Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). When we seek to measure whether or not we are successful in our work of preaching, we need to be sure that we have used every opportunity which God has opened to us to teach. Have we been willing to go — even when it was not convenient to go? Have we worked with the contacts we have? Have we sought to teach them both publicly and from house to house?
3. Have we spoken the truth in love? The growing child of God is expected to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). This obligates us to be careful to learn how to teach, as well as what to teach (Col. 4:6). Everything which is unnecessarily offensive needs to be removed from my preaching so that, if one is offended, he will be offended by the message rather than the messenger. Sometimes Christians are so caustic and hateful in what they say that men are alienated by their manner of presentation. There is no place in the pulpit or home Bible study period for arrogance, bitterness, wrath, clamor, strife, and such like things. If we have spoken the truth in love, this is one mark of successful preaching.
4. Have we confronted and opposedfalse teaching? Those who teach the gospel have the obligation to stop the mouths of false teachers (Tit. 1:11; 1 Tim. 1-3). In the minds of some brethren, the work of confronting and opposing false teachers is below their dignity. That work is to be reserved for those brethren who are “guardians of the truth” and “keepers of the orthodoxy,” whom they hold in contempt. They continue their work in peaceful, pleasant pulpits, preaching a positive gospel, and leave such unplesantries to others. Frankly, I have never understood Oat I had any choice in whether or not to oppose false teaching, wherever and whenever I was confronted by it. That is a part of my work as a preacher. Hence, resisting false teaching is another criterion for successful preaching.
These are certainly not all of the measuring sticks which we should use in determining whether or not we have been faithful in proclaiming the gospel . Others could be cited by those more experienced and knowledgeable than I. However, these should serve to warn us that the measuring stick of numerical growth is inadequate.
Perhaps this will warn us concerning the danger of berating ourselves because men have not obeyed the gospel. Our responsibility is to plant and water, leaving the increase in God’s hands (1 Cor. 3:6). When we have done an effective job of planting and watering, we have done a good work in preaching.
The yardstick of numerical growth, therefore, more nearly measures the hearts of the audience than it does the effectiveness of the gospel preacher. Though this article is not designed to comfort those who are “bench-warmers” and “pew sitters,” maybe it can encourage those who are faithfully proclaiming God’s word to a world which is engrossed in materialism and worldliness to keep persevering.
In closing, another word needs to be added. Men do not have the same abilities. Some are more effective exhorters, than others; some are better-Aniters than others; some know more about family life, others about doctrinal issues, others about personal work, etc. We must be careful not to criticize and minimize another’s work because he is more effective in one area than we are. We complement each other’s workst Each of us will convert some whom the other may never reach. Those who are experienced exhorters need to encourage those who can effectively discuss doctrinal issues with precision; those who are better students of the word need to encourage those who are bettei experienced in converting others and encouraging saints to be faithful. There is no room in the kingdom of God for petty jealousy and rivalry.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 12, pp. 354, 373
June 20, 1985