What Does Success Mean, Anyway?

Jul 22, 2019

How do you know if you and your church are “successful”? And what does success mean anyway?

Bridges Church is a 11.5 year old Stadia church plant in Winston-Salem, NC and for the first 4 years we grew by 10% per year. I thought we were being successful based solely on the metric of attendance.

Then, we hit a wall. First, we had to cut staff way back after our initial outside support ran out. Have you ever had to tell your wife, “Hey, we need you to do the same work in Children’s Ministry but we can’t pay you like you have been even though you raised your salary over 3 years?” I have. We had to cut our Worship Leader from full time to ½ time. It was hard. Then the theater we were renting raised our payment by 300%. So we moved sites, lost our worship leader and saw the church decline in attendance over a period of 5 years. That may sound familiar to some of you. It may be your own story.

We needed to do something.

Bridges is my first church, a second “calling” after being a high school teacher for years. In teaching, you have clear benchmarks and assessments to show if the students are successful in learning. But how does that work in a church?

How do you measure success as a church? Did our story say, “We are failing?”

I remember going to a seminar and hearing something that changed my perspective and my life. It went like this: “I will build my church; you make disciples – Jesus.”

It has changed everything we are focusing on as a church.

Are we making disciples? If we are, then we are being “successful” because we are being obedient to Jesus and his Great Commission. If not, then everything we are doing is sideways energy. Attendance is not the goal; disciple making is.

So how do we know if we are making disciples? Is it the number of people in small groups? The number leading small groups? The number of people in what we call D/Groups – disciple-making groups? Is it in how many “generations” of disciple makers who make disciples we have seen? And, how do we know if they are actually making disciples of Jesus?

How do you know?

We chose to find out by using the REVEAL study, a survey that came out of the research done by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins during their ministry at Willow Creek. The REVEAL Study focuses on discovering the heart and actions of the people of the church, finding out where they are on a continuum from Exploring Christ, to Growing in Christ, to Close to Christ, to Christ-Centered.

Instead of looking the church and how it is doing as an organization, the survey assesses the people of the church and where they are in their relationship with Christ – in other words, if they are really following Jesus and if so, how deeply and fully. It looks at their hearts.

So we joined the other 2,500 or so other churches who have taken the survey over the years.  REVEAL’s goal for us was to have 50% of our people 18 and over participate in the survey; in the end, 70% of our people participated, which was a win in itself.  It took two weeks to administer the online, anonymous survey, and we got daily updates on the number of people who had taken it. The results were available the day after the survey closed. There is a lot of information packed into our results but here are some highlights.

  • Our Spiritual Vitality Index (SVI) Score, which is a gauge that measures the spiritual maturity of a congregation and the discipleship effectiveness of its church, was a 75 – which is in the top 50% of all churches and was approaching the top 25% of all churches. While there is room to grow still, this was very encouraging. It gives us something to shoot even higher for.
  • The results of our survey put us in the “Vibrant Church” category, the highest of the 8 categories they have identified. A vibrant church is one whose “… faith is strong and mature but still growing, and the people love the church.” Only 8% of the churches who take this survey fall into this category. Overall, the results point to a very healthy church.

This was a very encouraging surprise to me. After reading the books RISE and MOVE by Cally Parkinson and thinking about our church based on what I read, I was expecting anything from Troubled to Average to Introverted, but was extremely humbled to find that we were in the Vibrant category. We were actually making disciples and people’s hearts were moving in the right direction. We are not a large church and certainly not perfect, but we were heading in the right direction. That was a huge encouragement to all of us.

But there is still a lot of of work to be done. In a follow up ZOOM meeting, Cally Parkinson of the REVEAL Team had some very encouraging things to say about the results and what she felt was happening at Bridges Church. She was able to give some great insight and direction for what we should do next. Big things include taking our D/Groups deeper into our church and discipling more and more people, assessing the “strong spiritual capital” that has built up in the church, putting together a “Living it Campaign” where the church can put their faith into action, and finally, developing a stronger focus on evangelism through things like an outreach focused sermon series, training in having spiritual conversations with non-believers, and creating relational evangelism reminders – simple things like a daily PUSH notifications to remind people to pray for the nonbelievers in their sphere of influence.

Over the next few weeks, our church leaders will be going through the results to develop strategies and plans based on what we have learned, and then over the next year we will be implementing some new initiatives and interventions to help us grow even better at reaching our community and making disciples who make disciples. Next year, in the spring of 2020, we will resurvey the congregation to see which of the new interventions are working and how effective they have been. The results from this survey will give us direction for the next few years.

Jesus is building His church. Our job is to make disciples.  The real question isn’t, “Are we successful?” but, “How are we doing at making disciples of Jesus?”

Patrick Norris is the Lead Pastor at Bridges Church. He has been on staff with the church in this role since helping to launch the church in September of 2007. After growing up in Morehead City, NC and graduating from UNC – Chapel Hill (class of ’85) he moved to California and lived there for 19 years. There he met and married Stacey in 1990, and they have 2 sons, Ethan and MIcah who love the Tarheel state.

Through all of this, God was calling him into ministry and in 2000 he went back to school to get his MDiv. at Golden Gate Baptist Seminary in Brea, CA. Following graduation, the family followed God’s call to serve in NC.

Patrick loves hiking and reading, but his favorite activity is hanging out with his family.  He is passionate about helping Bridges be an authentic place where it’s safe to explore what it means to follow Jesus.

Patrick Norris

Lead Pastor, Bridges Church (Winston-Salem, NC)