Over at the UCCtruths.com discussion board (registration required), an interesting conversation got started when someone wrote, "Christians know that anything God is behind succeeds and anything He is not behind will not succeed."
Dr. Theodore Trost, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and a former United Church of Christ Conference Minister, offered a thought provoking response:
From a Christian point of view, "success" rhymes with "crucifix." The juxtaposition of these two words should give pause to anyone who advances "worldly" standards to judge the merits of enterprises undertaken in the name of Christ. We have other means of evaluation, it seems to me. The simple formula you adopt is dangerous to my mind. Take Jim Jones, for example. On his ride to fame he had all the signs of "success." He received numerous humanitarian awards, was featured in Time magazine as an important leader in the Christian community, and was "ordained" by the Disciples of Christ denomination as a minister of Word and Sacrament. He was a genius when it came to church growth. He even convinced over a thousand members of his congregation to relocate to South America and start a new kind of community...What I appreciate from Dr. Trost's remarks is that what appears on the surface to be "success" may not, over time, prove to be actual God ordained success. Every time I read of a high profile minister who tumbles down from his lofty position into the scandal of immorality, I can't help but wonder about their (so-called) accomplishments. Too often, Christians have bought into the world's version of success.
By the standard you advocate, the growth of the Vineyard Churches, the Southern Baptists, and the Cathedral of Hope, among others, are defacto proof that God is with those groups, enabling them to "succeed." ...
At closer range, the simple faith you affirm above would not be welcome news to my many friends who have undergone divorce. Did God trick them into a marriage that subsequently did not succeed because God was not really behind it?
Still, success is not a dirty word--it's something Christians should strive to see in their personal and public life. The fruit of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5:16-26, implies successful Christian living. Jesus said his kingdom is like a mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32; Matthew 13:31-32)--it starts small and grows big. Acts 9:31, 16:5, and 19:20 report that the early church grew in numbers. Revelation 7:9 says that in the end, people from every nation and tribe and language are worshipping at God's throne--indicating that Jesus' Great Commission was fulfilled. Signs of God's blessing with Old Testament characters Joseph and Daniel was seen by success in their work. The number of Christians in China today, compared to 100 years ago, testifies to the success of God's Spirit.
It's important to "add" that true Christian success can also appear to our eyes as failure. Missionaries who labors for years in places like the Middle East, with few conversions, are still successful, though their numbers would suggest otherwise. So too the rural pastor who proclaims the Word and offers the Sacraments to only a dozen each week. Or, the stay at home mother who disciples her three kids. The prophet Isaiah had a pretty successful ministry, even though God told him Israel wouldn't listen to his preaching.
In the end, if we will strive to walk with God, He'll definitely use us. But how much and to what degree--that is solely up to the Lord.
What we are called to be is faithful.
And that, in a word, is success.