I'm incredibly thankful to Bob Hyatt, who has recently stimulated my thinking and forced me to (re)think my understanding of "success" in church planting (read Bob's article, Why YOU Should Plant a Church, and some of my initial reactions to it here).
I think that all of us would agree that attempting to quantify "success" in the context of church planting is often like trying to nail jello to the wall. And, though he is speaking of writing about the Christian life-- not church planting, Eugene Peterson states the difficulties of the issue quite well in his new book, "Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation In Spiritual Theology".
Writing about the Christian life is like trying to paint a picture of a bird in flight. The very nature of a subject in which everything is always in motion and the context is constantly changing-- rhythms of wings, sun-tinted feathers, drift of clouds (and much more)-- precludes precision (Christ Plays, xi).
Though the task of defining "success" is difficult (and a precise definition is clearly impossible), I believe it is a worthy endeavor. In fact, I believe that every church planter needs to develop some working definition of "success", however amorphous it may be, before they set out to plant a church. This definition that may well change multiple times (and should), but it shouldn't be ignored. Without any sort of evaluative measures to ask the simple question, "How are we doing?", I believe communities in any stage of development are in trouble.
I hope to devote several posts to sketch out my best approximations of what I believe "success" looks like. Here, I only want to lay out some preliminary questions that I think will serve as aides to get us to a proper definition of "success".
1. Should our definition of "success" include more than simply being "in the game"? That is, is it necessary at the outset to outline measures for evaluating whether we are accomplishing our task well, or poorly?
2. How can we work to formulate a definition of "success" such that it can be constantly applied to our efforts? That is, what parameters can we set within the definition so that "success" isn't a one time question-- the answer to which is determined by "making it" at the end?
3. Given #1 above, what components of "success" are necessary to create a definition of "success" so that the answer to the question, "Are we being successful" can be answered "NO", but we don't have to pack everything up and consider ourselves failures? That is, in the flow of constant evaluation, is it not possible to define "success" in such a way that we answer the question different ways different days, and adjust our efforts accordingly?
4. Are there secular aspects of "success" that we need to root out of our thinking so as to generate a more faithful definition of "success"? If so, what are they?
5. Are there aspects of "success" as the Biblical narrative defines them that we have ignored? If so, what are they?
6. Should our definition of "success" provide room for successful failures? That is, can a church plant be a "success", and only last three months?