One of several helpful discussions in the speaker panel at the recent Desiring God Conference for Pastors dealt with implications from Kent Hughes’s pastor-saving message on “Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.” Two possible errors were discussed — taking our identity from how outwardly “successful” our ministries may appear, or never really trying our best for God in his work (but only passively waiting for him to act).
One conclusion of that conversation was that while our faithfulness is the big category for which God is concerned, we are meant to pursue fruitfulness as well — to faithfully pursue fruitfulness. It is, of course, true that God gives the growth, but Paul does plant. Apollos does water.
One key aspect in how we faithfully pursue fruitfulness is what we are hoping for. After last week’s post on Spurgeon, I was asked by someone which of his books I would recommend to begin with if they’ve never read him before. I am tempted to just say, Any of them! But perhaps that’s not a very helpful answer! If you are wrestling with this issue of what our goals in ministry should be, then The Soul Winner would definitely be a good place to start. One of the more personally challenging and instructive incidents of Spurgeon’s life is outlined in that book.
Spurgeon begins by stressing, “You must also believe in the power of that message to save people.” He is, of course, right that the heart of a faithful and fruitful ministry is a trust in the old, old, unchanging gospel message. In an anecdote he uses to explain this lies incredible power to transform our hopes and dreams for the effectiveness of our ministry:
You may have heard the story of one of our first students, who came to me, and said, ‘I have been preaching now for some months, and I do not think I have had a single conversion.’ I said to him, ‘And do you expect that the Lord is going to bless you and save souls every time you open your mouth?’ ‘No, sir,’ he replied.
‘Well, then,’ I said, ‘that is why you do not get souls saved. If you had believed, the Lord would have given the blessing.’ I had caught him very nicely; but many others would have answered me in just the same way as he did.
They tremblingly believe that it is possible, by some strange mysterious method, that once in a hundred sermons God might win a quarter of a soul. They have hardly enough faith to keep them standing upright in their boots; how can they expect God to bless them?
I like to go to the pulpit feeling, ‘This is God’s Word that I am going to deliver in His name; it cannot return to Him void; I have asked His blessing upon it, and He is bound to give it, and His purposes will be answered, whether my message is a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death to those who hear it.’ (Soul Winner)
I am sure that Spurgeon did not intend that story to be just another stick for us to beat ourselves with. But when we are struggling with a season of apparent unfruitfulness, this story arrests us. It urges us to not adjust our expectations to match our experiences.
Perhaps a preacher reading this post will dare to believe that God intends for souls to be saved as he preaches today. Sometimes we have to boldly pursue God for what we are not yet seeing. Isn’t that at the very heart of what it means to have faith?