joining the frayJust a couple of verses to start out. First, this comes from the mouth of Abraham's servant, speaking of Abraham, trying to find a wife for Abraham's son, Isaac.
"The LORD has greatly blessed my master, so that he has become rich; and He has given him flocks and herds, and silver and gold, and servants and maids, and camels and donkeys." - Gen. 24:35
This was the mind-set of all ancient cultures, I think. We know that Abraham was a righteous man, and righteous men were rewarded by their gods. In Abraham's case, his god happened to be Yahweh. The same God we as Christians worship, which means this story is more important to us than other ancient stories about people who were blessed by their gods.
In the O.T., the people of Israel thought that their reward for righteous living came in this life, because they didn't have the concrete understanding of the afterlife that Christians have. If one found favor in God's eyes for right living, one would find God's favor in all his earthly pursuits.
"Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets." - Luke 6:22-23
Jesus changes everything. Period. He turns the idea of earthly rewards for righteous living on its head. Notice he isn't saying that we won't receive earthly blessings for right living, but he is saying that we can't count on blessings here on earth to validate right living. He's saying that our true reward comes in heaven.
This might sound a bit scary, but I really do think it's the way the Church is supposed to think about earthly rewards. If I work hard, I can get rewarded for that work. But it's due to the market, having a good product, creating demand, and having supply to meet that demand, that I find a reward. This is true of any business, whether it be blockbuster movies, the NFL, mutual funds, nudie magazines, oil, or post-it-notes.
So if we're going to apply a numbers-based approach to the local church (which is a market-based model), I am going to have to agree with Jake -- we see blessings and success in our churches because we judge success by corporate (or quantitative) growth. While I'm not going to say that God doesn't have anything to do with that, I will say that we won't know if that was a (truly) blessing from God (see: God's favor) until we experience our heavenly reward.
All that to say, God's favor cannot be authenticated by sprockets sold, or local church growth, or waterslides at a summer camps, or U.S. News college rankings, or even cheap Saturn cars, found used when you really needed a car in order to go off to Montana to work for the year. Yes, these are all blessings. But we should never use them to "prove" that we are receving God's favor.