Two years ago, my husband and I walked through the painful process of dissolving a church.

I remember the last service in vivid detail: where families were sitting for worship, what music was playing, and the demeanor of my husband, the lead pastor. He was sitting in the second row, shoulders slumped, head lowered, feeling the weight of the congregation’s unmet expectations. The church replant we had been a part of for five years was over.

Though we had striven to be faithful, a closed church was the result.

God Gives Growth

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul stresses that growth is determined by God alone. The congregation was dividing over which leader must be better, in light of the success granted to each. So Paul wrote:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Cor. 3:5–7)

Paul encourages the congregation to recognize their unity. He and Apollos serve; God alone grows. How we steward our ministries—our obedience in carrying out all God has called us to—is what we’re accountable for. Not the results.

When God didn’t reward our faithfulness at the church like I thought he should, my anger and despondency revealed a skewed view of ministry success. My identity wasn’t in God’s love for me, but in what I could do for him. My flesh demanded growth that could be seen and measured by others.

In allowing failure, God reminded me he cares most about what he’s always cared most about: my heart.

Fragrant Sacrifice

God cares about our growth in dependence on him, even when our ministry attempts fall flat. He desires for us to grow in Christlikeness. He delights in our day-to-day obedience that nobody sees, and he accepts our faithful labors as a fragrant sacrifice.

Because of Christ’s perfect life and sacrifice, we can know our acceptance with God never changes based on what we have to offer him. All our efforts without Christ’s covering are nothing but filthy rags anyway (Isa. 64:6). In ministry we plant and water, trusting God who determines the results. We know our crown isn’t in successes tangibly seen, but in how we finish the race marked out before us. So we limp through our failures, one step of obedience at a time.

He Looks Within

Elisabeth Elliot once wrote, “Obedience is our responsibility. The result of our obedience is up to God.”

When the Lord in his goodness withholds fruit—even when we have been obedient in our service—we can know this is for his glory and our good. More than productivity, God cares about pruning, refining, and growing inner fruit that reflects his Son.

Our flesh and the eyes of men may delight in what others can see and measure in ministry, but God looks within. This is why our crown achievement, aim, and identity must be Jesus, not apparent success. Obedience and faithful stewardship is what God asks of us. The results are his.