Justin Thacker

Success and the HTB Leadership Conference

I haven’t been able to make it to the HTB Leadership Conference this year but as I scanned the tweets coming in from my friends at the conference I got reflecting on the nature of Christian leadership and its relationship to success. If you peruse the speaker line up for LC14, perhaps the most obvious thing is that almost all of them would be considered “successful” in secular terms. We have Rick and Kay Warren, Mike Pilavachi, Clare Chapman and Bobbie Cheema who between them have founded mega-churches, authored best-selling books, given away huge chunks of money and advised world leaders. Of course, all of this is inevitable. The conference was held at the Royal Albert Hall which I imagine does not come cheaply and as such the organisers, being the financially responsible bods that they are, need to provide speakers who will bring in the masses. Mega-church founder and global strategist will do just that; Brian from Hemel, who you’ve never heard of, and who helps out at junior church, is slightly less likely to command an audience of thousands. It’s also quite likely that a mega-church founder has a certain ability to communicate whereas Brian may not be quite so articulate (apologies to any Brians in Hemel Hempstead who are offended!).

So I don’t remotely blame the organisers for choosing the speakers they have. I’ve organised a few conferences in my time and know the need to bring in the big names to get the punters in. But at the same time, I always have this slight niggle when I see Christian conferences (including the ones I’ve helped organise) parading their speaker list as the Christian equivalent of ‘Top of the Popes’ (awful pun, but I couldn’t think of anything else!) It seems to me that the problem lies in how we define success.

According to the Oxford English dictionary there are two definitions of success:

  1. the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status

This is the one we’re used to and one that is so ably displayed in the line-up of speakers at the HTB conference. However, there is also another definition:

  1. the accomplishment of an aim or purpose

It is this second definition that I find fascinating. For while under the first definition, ‘success’ is measure in public terms – how much money, how many books, how big your church is etc etc – the second cannot be evaluated so easily. Under the second definition, whether or not you or I are successful depends entirely on the aim or purpose that we had. And it is entirely possible that our aim was not a bigger organisation, larger church, or more money – it could have been something entirely different. According to Charles Gutenson, Steve Chalke once said to him, “The Christian life is all about winning by living in ways that look like you are losing.” Given Luther’s theology of the cross, I think Chalke is on to something here. Success in Christian terms is not always visible.

Consider the relative responses to a couple of sermons from the books of Acts. In Acts 2 and Acts 7, Peter and Stephen each preach a sermon. We’re told that both were full of the Holy Spirit, both addressed their talks primarily to Jews, both drew on the OT to talk of Jesus’ messiahship, death and resurrection and both challenged their audiences that they were responsible for Christ’s death. Yet they got staggeringly different results. For Peter, three thousand were converted. For Stephen, a stoning in the street was the outcome. What do we make of this? It would obviously be inappropriate to conclude that perhaps Peter was just the better preacher. It would also be wrong to say that Stephen misjudged his audience. Acts is clear that he was preaching in the power of the Spirit, and therefore preaching just exactly what God wanted him to say. It also seems unlikely that the Spirit was not working equally in the two audiences. For God wants all people to repent and come to a knowledge of him. Therefore, the only possible conclusion we can draw is that Stephen’s audience were harder of heart, they were making a deliberate choice to resist the Spirit’s message to them on that day. But here’s the question: does that mean Stephen was any less successful in his ministry? Have we any justification in saying that Peter was successful and Stephen was not? I do not believe we have. Returning to our definition of ‘success’; it all depends on what their aim or purpose was and if for both of them the ultimate aim was to be obedient to whatever God asked them to do then we must conclude that both Peter and Stephen were successful, for both were obedient to the message they were given.

In Growing Leaders, James Lawrence writes “If we judge success in the Christian world by how many people come to our church or youth group, how many people applaud our preaching, or how many people come to Christ in a given year, we may aim for the wrong thing. It is perfectly possible to have an apparently thriving ministry and actually be doing God’s work in a way that dishonours God.” And Jonathan Ingleby in Beyond Empire tells the following story: “I worked many years ago in a Christian organisation where the leader was willing to throw away already agreed principles of action in the name of survival. ‘What’s the use of our principles?’, he implied, ‘if we end up on the scrap heap?’ Of course, there was a simple answer to that. If you betray your operating principles, you are on the scrap heap already!”

There are huge pressures today in Christian leadership to be seen to perform, to be ‘successful’ in whatever the world happens to consider ‘success’ at this particular time: fame, wealth or social status. Sometimes, we can inadvertently reinforce that message under the commercial pressures we all find ourselves in. I know what that feels like as I’ve just been appointed to a new leadership role at Cliff College where like all leaders in the Bible College sector there are significant pressures to grow the profile of the College and certainly its student numbers.

But the fact remains that at the end of time, I won’t answer to our governing committee, I’ll answer only to God. And given that, my hope is not that I’ll be successful in the eyes of others, but that I’ll be successful in His – whether, metaphorically speaking, that means 3,000 are converted or I get stoned to death! And I have no doubt both the organisers and speakers of LC14 feel the same.


06/05/2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,


  1. As one who often looks at these conferences and has enjoyed them too, I often come away with a feeling of inadequacy. I agree with what you have said, at the end of the day, we may not build a mega church, or even “appear” to be successful (whatever that means), but if were obedient to God that is enough. The problem is that for many of us, our view of success is so skewed, that we forget that God does not require from us what the world does. Maybe it would be fun to have a conference with Brian from Hemel and see what happens.

    Comment by penny | 06/05/2014

  2. Just pondering and considering whether many people actually define aims or purpose. I once attended a conference by professional life coaches – it seemed to me the main task of the professional was to ask people good questions so they could outline their own aims and structure a path of achievement towards their objective…I highlight the point, the first thing to be established was the aim.

    In order to be successful, according to the second definition above, we need an aim – God’s aim. So in order to be successful surely we need to go back further to discernment…prayer…and discipleship.

    I wonder where those feelings of inadequacy originate. It strikes me that, as Christians, many of us fear stating what we believe God is calling us to. We lack confidence and so aims become flexible and fluid – maybe there’s room to be both. But if we constantly fear naming our aim as we walk His path, do we remain uncertain of our success in His tasks?

    Comment by Mel Hartley | 07/05/2014

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