C. Kavin Rowe: Christian success

A locked door

Success follows the pattern of Christ. Christ-shaped leaders include, rather than deny, the reality of failure and death.

Ah, success. Who doesn’t want it?

In leaders, the desire to succeed seems to be nothing less than hard-wired. Of course, some success brings with it unwanted complications -- increasing busyness, for example -- but by and large, the choice between succeeding and failing is not one that leaders have to think hard about.

St. Paul, for example, saw setback after setback but was indomitable in his quest to put Christian roots down throughout the Mediterranean world.

“I press on,” he once said, “to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14 NIV).

Part of Paul’s drive to succeed in his mission was his personality. As he reminds us more than once, he was zealous well before his embrace of Jesus as the Christ. Such zealousness continued in his Christian mission -- it was part of Paul’s character that God continued to use.

But a more significant aspect of his resolve was his faith in God’s ability to bring life from the dead. He learned this from thinking through the basic dynamic of Jesus’ own life: for Jesus, success was resurrection by God from his death.

Such a view of success is not easily translatable into a formula for Christian leadership in America today.

Type into Google some combination of the words “Christian” and “success,” and dozens of pages of platitudes, drivel and kitsch appear before your eyes. Bible verses, random “uplifting” quotations and promises of admiration and material wealth are all put together in packages that have little or nothing to do with the historic roots of Christian faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Translation was not always necessary.

The early Christian martyrs, for example, knew well that they would have to die to succeed as Christian leaders. Their chief witness was their faithful perseverance in the face of certain demise. They also knew that in the eyes of the world, such success would look much more like failure.

And that is the first lesson of Christian success: it can, on first glance or to the world, look like failure.

Understandably, shutting the doors of a deteriorating church, for example, may not look like success. Yet in Christian logic, helping a dying church to die may be the only way to renewal of faith and vibrancy of life.

Seen in the logic of death-resurrection, closing the doors is not giving up hope. It is acknowledging the reality of death. To give up hope is to say that we know -- above and beyond God’s own knowledge -- that no life can come out of that closing, that death is the final reality.

But to see resurrection is to hope that the closing of the doors will, in some strange, unanticipated -- and perhaps unanticipatable -- way, result in the overall giving of life to God’s people. Resurrection follows death, the early Christian leaders taught the faithful.

There were other ways, too, that success took shape in the early church’s leadership. These were not as obviously connected to imminent death, but they were no less important.

The church realized early on, for example, that the fledgling Christians could not sustain their new faith under the pressure of persecution simply by maintaining strong convictions on an individual basis.

The church saw, rather, that success as Christ would define it could come only by undergirding the various communities throughout the Mediterranean with structure: church leaders (bishops, for example, but also deacons), traveling missionaries that brought news from one community to another, a central locus of authority in Jerusalem that provided both pastoral counsel and doctrinal clarification, and a fully networked series of small churches scattered around the Mediterranean basin.

Such structure provided the way Christian leaders could nourish their new and growing family, strengthen them against both persecution and more routine difficulties, and ultimately, enable them to develop into what became the Christian church writ large.

Much of this work was hidden, behind the scenes, but its effects are evident in the Acts of the Apostles, the Letters of the New Testament, and the life of the early church in the second and third centuries.

Such hiddenness points to the second lesson of Christian success: it is not always dramatic -- it may, in fact, be very slow and painful work -- and many of the key players may not even be visible.

Creating lasting structures, arbitrating disputes, developing networks and the like are not inherently glorious jobs. They may never bring admiration, recognition or material wealth.

Yet such work depends upon a robust vision for the long haul, the ability to grasp what matters most for a community’s identity, and a deep understanding of the most important pressures a community will face and how to resist them -- in short, exactly the kind of patient work that we should expect of leaders who guide their people toward thriving life in the midst of whatever assails them.

Of course, sometimes success is actually dramatic.

In the book of Acts, for example, at Pentecost and beyond, the Holy Spirit is at work in striking and powerful ways, bringing people to repentance and dedication to the resurrected Jesus en masse, forming new communities and creating new avenues of important work.

And that is the third lesson of Christian success: the power of the resurrection can be experienced in the midst of life now.

What sometimes looks like failure can actually be only failure to trust God to work in fresh and new ways and to embrace new directions offered to us now. To move from failure to success in such cases requires only the recognition of God’s unanticipated work in the present and the freedom to follow it.

The Christians in Acts knew that Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t only about the future. They knew it was also about the power of the Holy Spirit in the present.

Closing the doors of the church may lead to life, but it also may be a sign of refusal to see the work of resurrection in our midst. The work of the Holy Spirit is not simply to prune; it is also to grow and to flower. The Holy Spirit works dramatically and visibly, as well as patiently, over the long haul.

The final lesson of Christian success comes from the previous reflection on failure.

In order for Christians to succeed, we need institutions that practice forgiveness, truth telling and repair. Such practices will teach us not only how to fail but also the specifically Christian shape of success.

By engaging in these three practices, institutions can create the patterns that allow us to learn that resurrection can follow death and that success can follow inevitable failure. And by learning the pattern of death-resurrection, we are educated in how Christians understand success.

Success, for Christians, follows the pattern of Christ: we include, rather than deny, the reality of failure and death, but we establish patterns of life that hope in, live out and anticipate resurrection.

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