What does it mean to be successful? It's an important question in any endeavor because how we answer that question will largely determine how we spend our time, energy, and resources. If we are truly committed to success, however we define it, then we will trim out any hindrances that keep us from it and do whatever is necessary to achieve it. The athlete eliminates distractions that might keep him or her from the championship game and trains tirelessly toward the same goal. The business does whatever is necessary to turn a profit. But what about the Church? What does it mean for us to be successful?
In Acts 8:4-8, we find a summary report of Philip's ministry in Samaria. Luke tells us that Philip has the attention of large crowds, that he performs miraculous signs, that unclean spirits are cast out, that the paralyzed and lame are healed, and that there was much rejoicing in the city. Surely, if this described the ministry of our church we would consider it a success.
But later in the same chapter (v.26-40), Luke tells us that Philip was led by an angel of the Lord to leave Samaria. In fact, he commands Philip to go out into the wilderness without any explanation as to the reason why he is to go there. Nevertheless, Philip is obedient and along the way he meets an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke indicates that this Ethiopian was an important man in his own right. He was an important official in the queen's court who was in charge of her treasury. However, with regard to salvation and God's people, he was an outsider. His status as a gentile and as a eunuch would have been barriers to his inclusion in the people of Israel. Furthermore, as an Ethiopian, he is not only a religious outsider but also an outsider in a social and even geographical sense in so far as many ancient writers regarded Ethiopa as being at the end of the known world of the time. In other words, this is about as uncommon of a meeting in as uncommon of a place as Luke could possibly narrate.
In spite of all that, Luke makes it very clear that the Holy Spirit has led Philip to someone who is already urgently seeking God. We are told that he is on his way back home after worshipping in Jerusalem; a daring and costly trip which demonstrates this man's devotion. Furthermore, when Philip comes up to his chariot, he finds the man already reading Isaiah the prophet and he is eager to have someone interpret the meaning of this scripture for him. Upon hearing Philip's explanation, the Ethiopian eunuch is immediately ready to be baptized into the gospel faith Philip proclaims. It is difficult to imagine a quicker or more effortless making of a disciple. This man was ready for someone to proclaim Jesus to him.
What if Philip had remained in Samaria? It would have been reasonable for him to see how successful his ministry was there and to never want to leave; especially not to wander off into the desert where he was sure to encounter fewer potential converts. But Philip wasn't caught up in the success of his ministry. He knew that true success as a disciple wasn't defined by how many people he converted or how many he healed. The success of the disciple and the Church is measured by our level of faithfulness and obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, the Church today too often finds itself unwilling to leave Samaria. We find something that "works", by which we usually mean it will fill our pews for a time, and we stick with it until the next trend comes along, imagining that in doing so we have found success. But as the Church, we are called to make certain that we never put our success ahead of the One who gives it. We are called to see that the Spirit is leading us to meet uncommon people in uncommon places.