The life of a pastor or ministry leader is stressful. Many days when I wondered if the expectations of ministry are worth the effort. Often the stress self-induced or predicated on handed down assumptions of ministry success.

The latest book saying my church wasn’t big enough or multiplying fast enough. A conversation at a conference when a pastor convinced me numerical church growth was God’s will. If the church wasn’t growing something was wrong with my leadership.

In the daily grind of making disciples and helping people “mature in Christ,” there’s added pressure in how to evaluate ministry fruit. What do we measure? How do we measure? Is it possible to measure the work of the Spirit and spiritual realities?

Some foundational and ultimate questions arise. Questions not always engaging the deeper realities of the work of the Spirit. How many people attend services on Sunday? How many members do you have? What is your facility like? How’s the budget?

These metrics and questions can be helpful. But, don’t paint a full picture for ministry health and success. We can have hundreds of people coming to a service and not see any evidence of spiritual fruit in the attenders. Jesus attracted many crowds during his earthly ministry. But, the moment he began to talk about “counting the cost” (Lk. 14:28) of being a disciple the crowds thinned. Crowds are not always a good indicator for ministry success.

What if we have a small budget and are not able to pay a pastor or other staff? Is that failure? What if the ministry context is urban, rural, expensive, or transient? How can a church sustain a large budget if they don’t grow to a particular size? Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry homeless, no budget, and little resources. I think things turned out okay.

After fifteen years of ministry in church planting, established church, and student ministry contexts. I’m not satisfied with the typical metrics used in local churches, latest ministry books, and pastor conferences. Tired of getting the same questions asked of me at conferences and denominational functions. If I hear another question about the three B’s (bodies, budgets, and buildings), it will be too soon.

So what are we to do? Do we succumb to the 3 B’s and call it a day? Or, is there another metric we can use for disciple making, church planting, maturing people in Christ, and city renewal?

It all changed for me when a verse I read a hundred times stuck out like a sore thumb.

In the book of Acts, the disciples are scattered from Jerusalem because of persecution. A disciple Philip is doing the work of evangelism in Samaria. He preaches Christ, heals the sick, exercises demons, and people are coming to saving faith. It’s an exciting time in the early church as the gospel spreads from the Jewish epicenter of Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

Caught up in my own enthusiasm for the mission of God spreading to the ends of the earth (even the despised Samaritans according to Jews), I almost missed an important verse that simply read:

“So there was much joy in that city.” – Acts 8:8.

There was a connection forming in my mind between the gospel being preached, people responding to the good news, and “much joy in that city.” Samaria was literally becoming a city of joy because of the power of God in the gospel.

I began to wonder if joy was the metric for ministry success I longed for. If the gospel has the power to make an entire city joyful. If disciples of Jesus are to be joyful people because of the Spirit’s work. Joy had to be a way to measure ministry health and success.

The Bible is dripping with joy for God’s work on display. First, Nehemiah chapter eight gives an example of joy coming to a community. The people of God had lived in exile for seventy years in Babylon and now were returning to Jerusalem. The people were in spiritual and physical disarray and needed renewal. When Nehemiah arranges for Ezra (a priest), to read the Law, the people begin to repent of their sin and worship the Lord. Then we read these words:

“And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” – Nehemiah 8:10

It says, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” It is the joy we have in knowing God through Christ that will sustain us. The people of God were dislocated (spiritually and physically) from their homeland and longed to return. Their identity as God’s people fractured because of sin.

But, Nehemiah wanted to remind them of joy—an everlasting  joy found in knowing their God. This joy would sustain them through every circumstance.

Second, the Psalms teach a consistent connection between joy, salvation, and knowing God. In Psalm 4:7, we read, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.”

When the Psalmist looks at all the good of his life. Grain and wine overflowing in a demonstration of God’s provision and goodness. It didn’t compare to the, “joy in my heart.” A joy that comes from knowing God.

In Psalm 16:11, we get the clearest example of joy being a metric for ministry health, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

The path of joy, lasting joy, is found in the presence of God. If God holds the key of joy, we must go to him to find it.

Third, Jesus gives a clear explanation of his mission for the world. When Jesus is days away from the cross and ready to finish the mission given from the Father he says:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” – John 15:11

Jesus’ entire life and ministry was dedicated to making people joyful in God. He taught, healed, and mentored his disciples to this end. He wanted them, and future disciples, to have “full” joy in him. Jesus designed the universe for his glory and our joy. People will not find lasting joy in their city but only in the city to come. As Hebrews 13:14 says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”

The joy quotient of a city spreads when it is found from an eternal source. Found in the joy-giving God Jesus Christ.

How does this tie back to the joyful city of Samaria in Acts? When disciples, churches, and communities come to grips with the realities of the blood-bought sacrifice of Jesus. When entire cities begin to see the fleeting joys of the best wine, food, and cultural experiences. When these “joys,” are nothing compared to the lasting pleasures found in Christ, everything changes.

So, if joy is a clear and definitive marker of a healthy and maturing disciple of Jesus. It would make sense to use joy as a metric for ministry health. But, how can we measure the joy and happiness of people in the church and our city? Let me use a couple probing questions:

  • Do pastors and ministry leaders operate from the joy of the Lord? Or, are they motivated by power, money, and success?
  • What do people talk about? Do people in the church have enthusiasm about Christ, the gospel, and Kingdom, as they do the latest movie and sporting event? Listen for evidence that Jesus is their greatest joy and treasure.
  • How do people respond in trial and suffering? Is there indication Jesus is their greatest joy even in hardship, loss, and suffering? Are people, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10)?
  • In your gatherings are people making a “joyful noise to the Lord”? Is there evidence of deep joy in Christ? It is hard to fake robust Spirit-wrought singing when people are not filled with the joy of Jesus.
  • What are the idols of the church and culture that are sapping joy? Are there political, denominational, cultural, ethnic, relational, or experiential loyalties trumping loyalty to Jesus? Can you identify where people are looking for happiness and joy in your church and city?

After reading one more book on church growth and getting blasted by a pastor for slow growth in the church. I went to the elders. Opened Acts eight and asked: what if we measured ministry success by joy? How joyful are we in the Lord and where is joy sapped in the congregation?

After a couple nods and puzzled looks, we knew joy had to be one metric for measuring effectiveness.  It won’t be easy to use joy as diagnostic. But, it’s important for the health of maturing disciples. That’s why this matters. Disciples find their joy and strength in the Lord.

I believe that if Jesus is after our joy, he wants our cities to be filled with joy. A joy found solely in Him.

How’s your joy in Jesus?

Ryan J. Pelton is a husband, father of three boys, founder of The Gospel Marinated Life, church planter, writer, speaker, coach, and founding pastor of New City Church. My greatest joy is Christ and family.