The effectiveness myth

At last fall’s study conference, speaker George Hunsberger noted that the gospel is a story that chooses us and is primarily about weakness.

It caused me to reflect on the old tension between faithfulness and effectiveness. I sense our “mythology,” or guiding narrative, tends to lean towards effectiveness and away from faithfulness.

Effectiveness isn’t wrong. Peter calls for it (2 Peter 1). But we can go wrong if we define effectiveness ourselves, rather than allowing God to define it.

Common definitions

One typical way we define effectiveness is by using numbers. We struggle to attract large numbers of Christians from other congregations and call it church growth, simply because we know we’re losing almost as many people the other direction. But that begs the question: Should we emphasize faithful living rather than the ambiguous idea of numerical effectiveness?

We also define effectiveness by money. We live in a wealthy milieu and often attribute spiritual or ecclesial effectiveness to our success in raising funds or receiving financial miracles. But millions of Christians have different prayers and answers to prayer where funding isn’t so readily available. Is there a more universal, kingdom-oriented definition of effectiveness that isn’t connected to money?

Using these definitions, we’re often ready to give up elements of faithfulness in order to be “effective.” For example, we’ve hidden the “Mennonite” in our church names to remove a barrier for people coming to Christ and the local church – a valid desire. Does that mean we hide our commitment to peacemaking, too? The peace position is fundamental to following Christ, yet this tenet of our confession is one of the first things to go in order to make the gospel more palatable for seekers and people who transfer to our churches.

How do we assess whether we’re sacrificing key elements of faithfulness in order to achieve effectiveness? It depends on our vision of effectiveness and what we believe the gospel and kingdom are about.
This challenge touches on our trust in God’s purposes. Do we accept our place in church history and God’s kingdom? Do we deliberately entrust results to him, as we cast vision and do the work he has called us to?

Being effective through weakness

Most importantly, do we understand slavery? To be a slave to Christ means abject submission to what he wants to do with us (Romans 6). As Christians, we believe setbacks and persecutions, difficulties and trials are the seeds of effectiveness on God’s terms.

To recall Hunsberger, weakness and shame are characteristic of Christ and his church. We’re called to exhibit the same cruciform character as Christ in order to be faithful (Philippians 2).

When we identify our vision of effectiveness, can we incorporate weakness, loss, and shame? When things don’t go our way, can we find the courage to submit to God and say, “Thy will be done”? Is there even a way to allow for this in our ministry plans?

Hunsberger also challenged: “Culture, church, and gospel must engage in missionary dialogue…talkingwith, not to people.” If that’s true, our evangelism approach will have to place more emphasis on faithfulness to kingdom living – patience, persistence, longsuffering – than on the apparently more “effective” crusader approaches. How will we do that?

We begin with love – really learning to love other Christians and our fellow Canadians. We invest time. Time isn’t efficient, but it’s critical in allowing relationships to develop. Time gives us a chance to be observed, evaluated, and seen authentically. We can then adhere faithfully to confessional ideals such as discipleship, pacifism, and community because we have time to discern needs, explain, and invite – and allow the gospel story to choose our friends.

I wish I had more answers about what effectiveness looks like, but I have only an increasing number of questions. I suspect, however, in God’s way of doing things, that’s OK. It pushes me to trust him more; to fall on my knees more diligently and fervently; to appeal to him to fulfill the mission he has in mind for me and for us as a denomination. I can then entrust the outcomes – gratifying or disappointing as they may be – into his “good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).

David Wiebe is executive director of the Canadian conference and lives in Winnipeg

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