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Is It Better to Be Faithful or Effective in Ministry?

This post comes in response to people who raise a perennial issue, that of whether Christians should be concerned only with “faithfulness,” while “effectiveness” is seen by such folk to be merely a worldly concern we should set aside.

One friend simply put it that way: “faithfulness” means doing what God says, regardless of considerations of efficacy.

To such good people, and to you, I offer this revised version of a passage in my Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World:

Some Christians quite firmly maintain that “it is not our job to be effective—that’s God’s business—but to be faithful.” Alas, how convenient it is for certain Christians to fly the flag of faithfulness as their numbers dwindle, their evangelism languishes, and their social ministry remains unwelcomed by others. I grew up in a conservative tradition that reassured itself in this way: “We’re small and uninfluential and disparaged by others, but that’s just because we are so true to the gospel.” Nowadays, I hear such rationalization also from those on the religious left, who congratulate themselves on their “prophetic faithfulness” even as they effect no change in the world worth mentioning.

Other people, however, are not rationalizing. They’re good people earnestly trying to live in the light of the Gospel. To them I say I share your fears, but not your response to them.

Yes, they’re right to resist the modern tyranny of the “efficient,” the ruthless rationalization (in another sense) of life per Max Weber or la technique per Jacques Ellul. We must beware especially of short-term and obvious efficiencies that do not in fact conduce to the maximization of shalom in the world, but only to the immediate satisfaction and self-aggrandizement of the actors. In short, we must eschew stupid and selfish “efficiency,” of course. But that doesn’t mean effectiveness doesn’t matter to God.

Hear again this familiar parable: