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Defanging the serpent called success (5 signs of being bitten)

What is success for a church, ministry, or Christian leader? What does it take for a church or ministry to become great? What are the keys to a successful ministry?

The desire to be successful drives both Christian leaders and churches. Although this is a normal and proper desire, the desire for perceived rather than true success may be the real driving force. Trading true success for the perception of success is the most deadly poison of the evil serpent of success.

What one uses to measure success will become the measure of that person and his or her work. If one measures success by accomplishments, then he or she will be driven to achieve; by money or material things, he or she will be driven to acquire and accumulate. On the other hand, if one defines success by obedience to the principles and purposes of God, that person will be driven to please and glorify God.

Today's definition of success for the church may be more closely tied to the world's meaning than God's. Although we talk about success in spiritual terms of reaching the lost and advancing God's kingdom, we may feel successful and are perceived so only when we appear so.

Success in the church tends to be measured in terms of buildings, bodies, and budgets----a big church with numerous programs, large crowds, strong missions programs, big offerings, and multiple services. We believe a leader is successful when he has built a strong ministry and has significant influence. In reality, none of this may be true success.

Success by God's standards generally is the opposite of what we tend to think. Jesus was not perceived as successful. He did not establish an earthly throne or build a massive kingdom. He was murdered at age 33 with only 11 men in His leadership team and a handful of followers.

We gain a more complete understanding of God's definition of success from Jesus as He prayed, "I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world" (John 17:4,6, NIV). He viewed success in terms of bringing glory to His Father and completing the mission assigned to Him. A church's or Christian leader's success is built on the same two pillars----living that exemplifies and glorifies God and accomplishes His mission for one's life.

The evil serpent of success can bite even the most spiritually fervent leader, leaving him poisoned by its venom. Christian leaders find the lure to succeed in the serpent's spiritually cloaked, yet worldly definition of success. Enticed by the desire to be significant and influential, leaders and churches are subtly overcome by the poisonous lure of false success. Driven to produce and succeed tempts the leader to accomplish in the flesh what truly can be accomplished only in the Spirit.

At first one is cautious of the serpent's dangers. Starting with a pure desire to honor God through faithfulness, honesty, and obedience, we soon discover that these virtues are not valued and that influence and significance come more from certain relationships, appearances, and accomplishments. We find ourselves turning from the narrow path onto the grassy shoulder to find success. And we do. We accomplish. We produce. We see growth and effectiveness in life and ministry. Subtly----so subtly----it happens. The sense of significance we feel from accomplishment becomes an even more deadly poison as we receive recognition and awards from peers. Soon we are fighting our way through the ever-challenging, never-ending jungle, searching for more success. Bitten by the serpent of success, we are numb to the dangers of this jungle and unaware that none who stays here truly lives or succeeds.

However, this is only one of the clandestine perils of the serpent. For those who resist the lure to produce or simply don't produce anything that is recognized as success, the serpent stalks surreptitiously to bite and inject the poison of apathy or jealousy. This too is a certain deadly bite. For some, watching as another's accomplishments are recognized and rewarded causes them to become jealous and bitter or leads to apathy and slothfulness. The serpent's bite is imperceptible, but the poison spreads as one denies or represses the devilish thoughts of jealousy or rationalizes the seemingly innocuous thoughts of apathy, which is frequently nothing more than a passive expression of anger and resentment.

If this is not enough, the crafty serpent laces his poison with truth. Ideas presented as principles of true success are only myths made palatable. They sound so right but are so wrong, so destructive. The Christian leader must be wise and discerning to avoid this snare of the serpent.

Consider two of the serpent's poisonous myths:

Myth: Charismatic, visionary leadership is essential to success.

Reality: Charismatic visionary leadership is not required to build a successful ministry. Frequently, we have the mistaken idea that to be successful as a leader one must have a charismatic personality or possess some charismatic gift. This is wrong and can lead to hero worship and cultism. True charisma is really the result of character and effective leadership, not the other way around.

The serpent's venomous bite can create a sense of failure or hopelessness in the leader who isn't or doesn't feel charismatic or visionary. This leads one to believe that he can't succeed. A sense of hopelessness and futility builds. Frustration leads to discouragement, which ultimately leads to despair.

On the other hand, the visionary or charismatic person can appear successful without being disciplined or spiritual. He is poisoned with self-confidence and pride.

The greatest leaders throughout Scripture were not necessarily those who were charismatic and visionary. For example, Moses stuttered and probably would not be considered charismatic or visionary by today's standard. This is not to say that a charismatic, visionary leader can't be successful but, rather, that it isn't necessary to be charismatic or visionary to be a successful leader.

Myth: Power and influence make one successful.

Reality: Power and influence are not necessarily indicators of success. Great emphasis is placed upon gaining influence today to be more effective as a leader. We are told that to be a great leader one must increase his influence. This all sounds so right because it appeals to our sense of purpose and desire to accomplish something significant. But the desire to be influential, even to be effective in ministry, may lead to using people and acquiring things for personal gain. Leaders who are inflicted with this virulent lie are likely to manipulate people and situations to accomplish what they feel is important.

There are two ways to gain influence: (1) A person can seize control through power, personality, position, or pressure, or (2) gain influence the way Jesus did----He earned it by being a servant who genuinely loved and cared for people.

King Saul started out striving to honor God but ended up turning on David, his loyal friend. The seduction of influence and power leads down a trail where even best friends are betrayed. When a person feels influence and power are slipping through his fingers, like a wild animal caught in a corner, he will fight to preserve his power, position, and prestige.

Have you been unsuspectingly bitten
by the serpent called success?

King David was. Here are five signs from David's life that indicate one has been bitten by the serpent of success:

1. Not maintaining the disciplines we still demand of those we serve. "At the time when kings go off to war," David stayed home (2 Samuel 11:1, NIV).

2. Believing that others owe us whatever use we can make of them. Bathsheba and her husband became objects for David's personal use (2 Samuel 11:2,3).

3. Trying to fix things up rather than make things right. David manipulated circumstances without moral conscience rather than mending his ways by confessing his sin (2 Samuel 11:6).

4. Closing our minds to any suggestion that we could be out of line. King David did not hear God's rebuke through Uriah's counsel (2 Samuel 11:11).

5. Believing that people in our way are expendable. David took steps to eliminate Uriah when he refused to return home and not participate in the cover-up (2 Samuel 11:14).


This lethal bite starts as an honest desire to honor God but becomes twisted into accomplishing something for personal gain. The moral leader has a sincere motivation to make a positive difference in the lives of those he leads and in the world. He uses courtesy, deference, kindness, and public relations to make a positive difference, but soon the same tactics are used to advance his personal agenda. He becomes adept at working the system. Building relationships with the right people, participating in the right activities, and increasing in knowledge of the system are all rules of the game. Ultimately, the welfare of the followers and the dignity of the cause are not the real concerns. Both are lost in the quest to gain power, control, and influence. The leader's pure motivation is replaced as he is duped into believing that the nobility of the cause grants him the legitimate right to exert his power. In so doing he becomes abusive to the very ones he purports to serve. Although his influence may have increased, he has lost his own soul in the process. Success is built on character, not influence. It is entirely possible for a person to be influential but not successful.

A leader does not begin by choosing to use power abusively. He is bitten by the serpent who poisons the desire to be significant, making it more important than truth and godliness. Calvin Miller makes this point so clear: "The path to abusive power is easily traceable. It begins simply in our need for appreciation. From there the path winds upward to self-esteem, which----when it takes itself too seriously----moves toward arrogance. Arrogance often disparages others and leads to abusive power."1 The serpent's bite is destructive to others and frequently fatal to the one who has been bitten.

We can defang the serpent called success in our own lives, first, by maintaining a consistent, vital relationship with Christ in prayer and the Word. Second, we must maintain an honest, accountable relationship with someone who will encourage and confront us as needed. Third, we should submit ourselves to those in authority and those we serve. Only the true servant leader who follows hard after Christ will be wise and discerning enough to escape the crafty serpent called success.

1Calvin Miller, The Empowered Leader (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 130-134.


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