With a little time to reflect on my pastoral ministry of eighteen years, I find myself doing constant self-evaluation. I think I am pretty hard on myself, though I cannot accept the common evaluations of many pundits. Theirs seems to be a typical crying of “so many are struggling emotionally in the ministry. . . so many get discouraged and quit.” But I have no such feelings or regrets. The ministry is and has been to me a divine privilege. Most of the problems I have had have been caused, quite frankly, by failing to pray that morning.
I hope that I have learned to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit teaching me through the reading of His Word. We are told in school and Scripture, but somewhere have to learn on our own, that we serve God, not man. I don’t know who of us would say he is serving man, but it is obvious (to ourselves and probably many others) that we are far too concerned about our own image and success even in the ministry! Sadly, many of the pastoral decisions that hurt our congregations are made in order to please our peers or other people whom we want to impress. There is no doubt that our definitions of success have been woefully lacking in Biblical flavor.
George Whitefield once said, “As God can send a nation or people no greater blessing than to give them faithful, sincere, and upright ministers, so the greatest curse that God can possibly send upon a people in this world is to give them over to blind, unregenerate, carnal, lukewarm, and unskillful guides.”1 Though not unregenerate, such a curse ought to be dreaded by every preacher of the gospel and pastor of God’s people. What minister does not want to have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming? (1 John 2:28). And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear? (1 Peter 4:18). I think, therefore, that it is time to judge ourselves, even in ministry, so that we don’t become condemned with the world.
Is my ministry of God or man?
The Apostle Paul wrote, For do I now persuade men, or God? Or, do I seek to please men? For if I pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ (Gal 1:10). In the face of persecution the Apostles answered, We ought to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Few of us ministers could not quote those verses, yet how many of us follow them fervently? There is something about our fallen human nature that causes us to gravitate toward the applause and accolades of other humans whom we can see, rather than toward God whom we cannot see. Many of us are far more concerned with what will be reported about us at the next pastors’ meeting than we are with what our own congregation already knows about us! And there are enough reports of ministers who have led a devious secret life while portraying godliness to their congregation. May the Lord deliver us from it all!
Most ministers, however, are honest and moral men. Ministers often disagree with one another and continue to do what they feel convicted about doing. But we can be satisfied with being upright in our position, correct in our hermeneutics, efficient in our administration, and yet not desire the intimate fellowship with our Lord that would often take us out of the ministerial loop. As a pastor, I have been as susceptible to that as anyone.
The Corinthian church suffered from this kind of human approval ministry. Their love of men’s approval had divided them into factions where they could be controlled by the strongest personalities. Paul wrote, For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face (2 Cor 11:19-20). Imagine, a Christian leader more willing to have another slap him on the face, than to disrupt the status quo! No wonder Paul also warned, For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves; but they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. . . . For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth (2 Cor 10:12, 18). Sadly, this trap is as open and inviting today as at any time in history.
Is my subject the Bible or literature?
With equal enthusiasm as regarding the first question, the minister today would never admit that he spends more time presenting literature about the Bible than he does explaining the Bible. But this is a real danger in this day of information and technology. The need to read books is overwhelming enough, but with the addition of internet research, scores of religious magazines, as well as radio, TV and recorded material, the minister can spend hours a day in religious activity without ever opening his Bible and actually reading it. Pulpit sermons can easily reflect this imbalance. A Gallup poll noted, “Americans revere the Bible — but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”2 We preachers do not always help this situation. Calvin Linton wrote, “Happily, when we weary of the tons of marvelous but irrelevant information that are the pride of our age, we can still turn to the Bible and there come to know the essential things.”3 Oswald Chambers said, “How one wishes that people who read books about the Bible would read the Bible itself!”4
Equally deceptive and even more destructive to the preacher’s ministry is the tendency to follow the best (or often the last) author we have read. It’s as if we trust a certain author so much that whatever he says must be right, or at least more right than I could come up with myself. But who wants to listen to such a preacher? “He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it.”5 The temptation, however, is to continue to give people shovel loads of information, fulfilling the undiscerning ears of today’s listeners.
Is my church for the lost or the saved?
It is a sign of the times that this question is not answered quickly for the latter. The church is made up of regenerate members who are called “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:13). There are no lost people in the church. They may attend, and they may participate in some token way, but they have no connection to what is going on. We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle (Heb 13:10). The church is a holy priesthood (1 Pet 2:9); it is the house of God (1 Tim 3:15); it is the habitation of God through the Spirit (Eph 2:22); it is the assembly of the saints (Heb 10:25). J.D. Murphy said simply, “You have believers, baptized, joined, and hence, ‘church’.”6
The church meets to do things that lost people can only observe. We baptize; observe the Lord’s Table; pray through the mediation of Christ with the groaning of the Holy Spirit; discipline believers only; and instruct those who have a true desire for the milk of the Word. The local church is not seen as the place of evangelism in the New Testament. Evangelism takes place in the field which is the world. Even at Pentecost, somewhere between Acts 2:1 in the upper room and 2:4, the disciples had gone to the temple steps to preach their message to unbelievers from eighteen different regions. We do find occasionally that unbelievers came to the church services. In 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, Paul explains how the unbeliever may see you worshiping and conclude that this is of God. James 3:1 shows that unbelievers might come in and we are not to show preference for their social status (a current sin in our churches).
It is easy for the minister to want the church to be for the lost people. He wants to preach to lost people; he wants the church to be full of people; he wants to think his people have tried to evangelize their friends and neighbors (an invitation to church is often as bold as Christians get in their witnessing). Don’t get me wrong! Having lost people in the church services is great. It is the best place they can be. But here is where the temptation comes: that is, to change what the church does for what the world does. Then the minister becomes a barterer, begging by hook or crook for those void of any spiritual sense, to be pleased to come, and usually with as little discomfort as possible.
This is where churches talk about “confronting the culture” and really miss the best opportunity to “confront the culture.” Let the lost person come if he will, but let him see what Christians do in church! Let him be convicted of his godless state and be confronted in his soul by the holy life of believers! How more effective can we get? Paul wished for Philemon, that the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus (Phile 4). We need to stop being embarrassed and afraid before a lost world of our own worship, and start being true in spirit before a holy God.
It may be that if churches would return to worship and quit the performances, that true evangelism would again begin to take place. Church historian Bruce Shelley wrote, “Whatever else we may say about the New Testament teaching on the nature and mission of the church, this truth is fundamental: When persons receive Christ as Savior and Lord, they turn their backs on the world (or ”repent”) and they enter a new distinctive community called ‘the church.’ There they are expected to join in the Christian mission and return to that world in service and witness.”7
Is my result divine or human?
In the end, little matters if the results are not of God. I hope there is not this single test question for pastors at the Bema Seat of Christ: “Exactly how many people you ministered to were truly born again?” I know we cannot look into people’s hearts and know what God knows. But should there not be some definite evidence of genuine conversion in those who profess Christ? I once asked my people, “If you walked away from your faith today, what would really change in your life? Or, in other words, how is your life different because you are a Christian?” I would think, for the sake of his own conscience, the minister wants to actually see the work of the Holy Spirit in his “converts” lives.
Today’s minister fights much opposition to this question. We are in the business of human organization and success syndromes. We know how to “build a church.” But testing the results of human methodology is quite different from testing the results of the Holy Spirit’s work. The applause for success from the world’s hands may be totally disconnected from the blessings of God. As Os Guinness has said, “In fact, there is no need for God at all in order to achieve extraordinary measurable success.”8 Faithful pastors of local congregations are being made to feel inferior if they have not attained to certain human expectations and pressures. This can easily cause even God’s pastors to depart from their own faithfulness to the Word and Spirit of God.
The Apostle John, who often reminds us of the requirement of Jesus being lifted up before the whole world, says of those false spirits who gauge their results by the world’s standards, They are of the world, therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them (1 Jn 4:5a). No doubt, speaking to the world’s expectations will bring results. Jesus said, he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth (Jn 3:31). But the beloved disciple reminds us quickly, We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us (1 Jn 4:6a). We cannot get olives from a grape vine, nor can we get sweet water from a bitter fountain (Jas 3:11-12) and we should not pretend that we do.
And so . . . .
The ministry of the gospel and the service of God’s people is a privilege. Paul thanked God that he was counted worthy to be put in the ministry. But only by serving God, not man, can our ministers be faithful, for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief, for that is unprofitable for you (Heb 13:17).
1. George Whitefield, “On The Method Of Grace,” Orations from Homer to McKinley, V, Mayo Hazeltine, ed. (New York: Collier and Son, 1902 ) 1975.
2. Quoted by George Barna, Index Of Leading Spiritual Indicators (Dallas: Word Pub., 1996) 55.
3. Calvin Linton, “Man’s Difficulty, Ignorance or Evil?” Readings in Theology II, Millard Erickson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976) 129.
4.Oswald Chambers, Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1998) 134.
5. C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy (New York: H,B & W, 1955) 199.
6. Quoted by R.V. Clearwaters, The Local Church of the New Testament (Chicago: CBA of A, 1954) 6.
7. Bruce Shelley, The Consumer Church (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1992) 48.
8. Os Guinness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993) 35.