• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Yes, Faithfulness DOES Include Effectiveness–and MAXIMUM Effectiveness

This post comes in response to people who raise a perennial issue, that of whether Christians should be concerned only with “faithfulness,” while “effectiveness” is seen by such folk to be merely a worldly concern we should set aside.

One friend simply put it that way: “faithfulness” means doing what God says, regardless of considerations of efficacy.

To such good people, and to you, I offer this revised version of a passage in my Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World:

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Some Christians quite firmly maintain that “it is not our job to be effective—that’s God’s business—but to be faithful.” Alas, how convenient it is for certain Christians to fly the flag of faithfulness as their numbers dwindle, their evangelism languishes, and their social ministry remains unwelcomed by others. I grew up in a conservative tradition that reassured itself in this way: “We’re small, and uninfluential, and disparaged by others, but that’s just because we are so true to the gospel.” Nowadays I hear such rationalization also from those on the religious left, who congratulate themselves on their “prophetic faithfulness” even as they effect no change in the world worth mentioning.

Other people, however, are not rationalizing. They’re good people earnestly trying to live in the light of the Gospel. To them I say, I share your fears, but not your response to them.

Yes, they’re right to resist the modern tyranny of the “efficient,” the ruthless rationalization (in another sense) of life per Max Weber or la technique per Jacques Ellul. We must beware especially of short-term and obvious efficiencies that do not in fact conduce to the maximization of shalom in the world, but only to the immediate satisfaction and self-aggrandizement of the actors. In short, we must eschew stupid and selfish “efficiency,” of course. But that doesn’t mean effectiveness doesn’t matter to God.

Hear again this familiar parable:

For [the Kingdom of heaven] is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.”

His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful slave; you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.”

His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful slave; you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 25:14–30)

The definition of faithfulness here is results. It is effectiveness.

The first two slaves double their master’s investment in them. That’s what the master cares about. He does not even inquire as to how they did it.

The third slave does not make any money at all, but rather retains his master’s original investment in him and hands it over upon the master’s return. Indeed, the third slave is the very picture of “integrity” or “faithfulness” without effectiveness. He carefully guards what the master gives him, as many Christians guard their faith, their purity, their witness. And when the master returns, they have not compromised. The original investment is returned in full: It’s all there, intact and complete.

But the master is furious. He did not gift the slave with the talent in order to have it preserved, but to have it multiplied. And he punishes the slave as a total failure, as “worthless” and thus fit only for removal as so much trash.

The great commandments of God all entail performance, accomplishment, effectiveness. Cultivate the earth. Love God and your neighbor. Love each other in the church. And make disciples of all nations.

Notice particularly this last one. If one confines oneself to Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ last words to his disciples, one can be forgiven for understanding the mandate to be simply to “bear witness”—whether anyone listens or not (Luke 24 and Acts 1). But Matthew’s account makes quite clear that the command is to “make disciples,” not merely to drop the gospel at the world’s feet like a brick and then return home, satisfied with another job well done. We must engage the world, stay with the world, keep at the world until the world—or, at least, lots of the world—has joined Jesus’ band.

The full Biblical teaching about faithfulness, therefore, requires both integrity and effectiveness. Indeed, they work together. Keeping integrity in full view will caution us against inappropriate methods of attracting and retaining the world’s attention, against minimizing the scandal of the Cross, against growing churches—or businesses—by any means possible. Keeping effectiveness in equally full view will caution us against the truly deadly sins of self-righteousness, insularity, and sloth.

God is not an aesthete who desires that we live nice little lives according to some divine rulebook or choreography, but a loving lord and parent intent on reclaiming an entire planet via the agents he has equipped and commissioned. In short, he wants to get something accomplished, and as much accomplished as possible.

And so should we.