When I Recalibrated My Definition of Church Success

Jeff Shipman

God seems to be much more interested in His kingdom than our individual empires.

I grew up in a small little Baptist church in North Carolina called Gamble Hill Baptist (which, now as I look back seems comical and ironic for such a staunch, conservative, evangelical tribe.)  I loved being able to stretch out on the wooden pew for my Sunday naps, drink Kool-Aid from a Styrofoam cup during snack time, and try to earn perfect attendance pins for Sunday School.  In fact, all of my life was spent in small churches and I never seemed to mind the lack of production value or high energy programming of today’s modern church.

That blissful ignorance experienced some turbulence at the age of 32 when I accepted this strange call to plant a new church (is this even legal?) We started with 13 bewildered people in my quaint living room, with a big dream of reaching people for Jesus by somehow “finally doing church right” (insert sarcastic rolling of the eyes.)

There was just one small problem, through my many years of attending church, seminary, Christian leadership conferences, etc., I never had anyone sit down and outline what it meant to have a “successful” church.  Thus, as a young and aspiring leader, I was left with only my intuitive abilities to define the illusive goal of ministry success.  My keen observation and cognitive skills kicked into gear:  Who gets to speak at the conferences?  Who writes the books?  Who is everyone talking about?

These are the types of questions that rattled around in my head for an answer.  Ultimately, I determined that to be successful is to be big, cool (tattoos and skinny jeans were a good start), and it seemed to help if you were angry about something.  From the outside it appeared that the secret sauce for success went something like this:  more people, more money, happy people. I know that no one would have said this out loud (at least I hope not), but it seemed to be the only measurement that made sense to a young leader looking to find their way and do their best for God (after all I was walking away from a promising career in corporate banking).

Finally, after some of my own internal consternation and some external coaching, I was forced to press back into Scripture to recalibrate my cultural definition of church success.  Now, 15 years on the other side of that journey, I offer the following observations:

  1. God wants His grace and glory to saturate cities all around the world.  God is about his glory and wants to express it through extending grace to every man, woman, and child in the geographies where we live.  He is a glorious God on mission to saturate this world with the presence and rule of his son Jesus Christ (Eph 1:22-23).
  2. There is only one church in a given city.  God seems to be much more interested in His kingdom than our individual empires.  God is determinedly growing His church (Matt 16:18).  Thus, our job is to simply maintain the unity already provided by the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:3) so that the unified church of John 17 gives tangible expression to the empty grave (Jn 17:21).  We are truly companions instead of competitors in this call to saturate the earth with His glory through His gospel.
  3. God’s prescribed method for his mission is multiplication.  From the call in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28) to the NT call to multiply disciples (Mt 28:19-20), God’s preferred means of saturation is multiplication.  This presses our churches to be focused on making disciples.  We cannot be satisfied with mere addition (although admittedly it beats subtraction and division!).  For gospel saturation to take place we must be ruthlessly committed to multiplying disciples, gospel communities, churches, networks, etc.

It has been (and continues to be) difficult to override a default mode of protecting vs. releasing; collecting vs. mobilizing; competing vs. collaborating.  However, I’m encouraged by what we’ve been able to observe as Christ Together, as the Holy Spirit is blowing the winds of missional revival across the U.S. church so that she might realign with displaying His glory through gospel saturation. May we be part of the generation that recaptures the missio dei and sets the trajectory for the North American expression of the bride of Christ until He returns and culminates His saturation project.


Jeff Shipman planted Columbia Crossroads Church in the fall of 2000. During that time, they’ve helped to plant close to 30 churches with a passion to saturate their geographies with grace and truth. Currently, he still serves as teaching pastor at Crossroads and also serves as the National Catalyst for the Christ Together network. CT exists to unify the Church to consistently demonstrate and communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to every man, woman, and child in America. He is married to a brown-eyed Kentucky girl named Allison and they have 3 children: Cade, Grayson, and Hope.