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“Does your neighbor play guitar? Or have a really big stereo?”

I asked our host, Eric, the question over supper. It was the third evening in a row I had heard the steady hum of amplified music reverberating through the night air. In North America, I would have imagined the source to be a group of teenagers grinding out their favorite tunes in a garage. (I was in such a group once. What we lacked in skill we made up for in volume.) But in Nicaragua it is not teenagers who make the racket. It’s the grown-ups. “It’s the churches,” my host explained, tugging at his goatee. “We’ve got five of them in this neighborhood. They like to play their music loud. And they have services six nights a week.”

As a North American, my first impulse was to be impressed. (My second was to be a little nervous that folks back home would get wind of how hard Nicaraguan pastors work!) I once read that in the average North American congregation, leaders should expect no more than two time slots a week from even their most dedicated congregants. But here, in Nicaragua, they’re at church every night of the week! What commitment! What dedication! How spiritual! How holy! Clearly, we North Americans have much to learn from these people!

My missionary host sees the practice of nightly worship a bit differently. In fact, when speaking of it, he couldn’t help but shake his head and sigh. (“Six. Nights. A week.”) Eric explained that many Nicaraguans come to church every day because they believe that God is there–and only there. (In fact, in some congregations there is even a curtain near the podium that represents the curtain in the Jewish Temple–marking the space as the “Holy of Holies”.) Everything outside of church–work, education, politics, family life–is not only “unholy” and “unspiritual.” It is “worldly” and “wicked.” He then declared: “It’s when you get them having church only three or four nights a week–that’s when you know you are making progress!”

Eric’s comments got me thinking about progress–and success–in the church. (And about the importance of biblical worldview–but more on that another day!) How do we mark “success” in the church? As another writer put it, how do we know we are “counting what counts” and “measuring what matters”? Reggie McNeal has observed that our default in the North American church has been to equate “success” with participation in church programs and activities. (Look how big our Sunday School programs are! See how many Bible studies these people are involved in! We must be doing it right!) But what if this misses the point entirely? What if churches–like airports–are not supposed to be our final destination? What if the chief marker of our success was not how many people we took in, but how many we sent out? What if, like our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, what we we really need is not more “church”, but less?

What do you think?

  • What does it mean for your church to be “successful”?
  • What should we be measuring if we are “measuring what matters”??
  • If your church is like an airport, where do you succeed and where do you struggle? How do you do at bringing people in–and sending them out? How can you tell when they have been hanging around too long inside?
  • How do you balance your need for time “in” church with God’s call for you to go “out” of church?

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