Today’s episode zeroes in on pastoral leadership, but it’s relevant for every Christian. How can a pastor revitalize a church from the pulpit? The question comes from Cory, an elder. “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for the podcast. This is admittedly a very broad leadership question, and very open-ended. But if you were looking to refresh a church’s vision, and really set forth a compelling trajectory to inspire a whole local church forward in its work, what would you focus on? What would you preach on? How would you do it?”
First, let me clarify that I don’t see this question relating to any particular season in the church, but relating to virtually every season in the church. I never thought, and I don’t think now, that we should think of seasons where a church doesn’t need a refreshment of its vision, a picture of a compelling trajectory, a strong inspiration of the whole church moving forward together. So, I’m going to adjust the question in my mind, and would encourage Cory to do the same.
What Our Churches Need Most
What the church needs every Sunday — every Sunday — is fresh vision, compelling direction, deep and strong inspiration. If things are going to go well in the church, and if it’s going to grow, this is going to be necessary. This is true whether things are going well or going hard. If things are going well in the church — if it’s growing, if people are coming under conviction of sin, and repenting, and being saved, and being transformed into humble, godly mothers and fathers and children and single people and citizens and employees, and if missions are advancing, and the budget is being met — what the church needs is the same thing in those moments that it needs when people are languishing and discouraged, and growth is not happening, and no one is getting saved.
I never — in all my ministry, I don’t think — took for granted that a moment of spiritual prosperity would last another week. It’s just not the way people are. It’s not the way institutions are. Our spiritual buckets can leak out in a week or be knocked over in a moment. Everything is fragile from a human standpoint. If God withdraws his sustaining hand for one week, everyone will feel like things are falling apart. Everyone will be discouraged. Sin will take root.
“Week in and week out, stretch the mental and emotional capacities of your people with the greatness of God.”
So, when I answer the question about refreshing a church’s vision, and setting a compelling trajectory, and inspiring everyone for the work ahead, I’m answering the question, “What is preaching?” What do you do when you preach? And my approach to vision and trajectory and inspiration was and is this: Week in and week out, stretch the mental and emotional capacities of your people with the greatness of God, and the unsearchable riches of Christ, and the grandeur of the work of salvation, and the immeasurable glory of our eternal future at God’s right hand with pleasures forevermore. That’s my strategy.
Vision That Lasts
For example, back in the late eighties and nineties, we were turning the ship of our church in the area of global missions from a focus that was diffuse toward a greater emphasis on unreached peoples and the concrete finishing of the Great Commission to get the gospel to all the peoples of the world. And I was doing a lot of speaking at missions conferences and to a lot of pastors. And they would ask me, “How do you get a church fired up for global missions, for evangelizing the whole world, for unreached peoples?”
And it became clear to me pretty soon that my answer had to be this: You create vision and trajectory and inspiration for missions by not preaching about missions, but about God, who happens to own the world, run the world, and have a plan for the world that cannot fail. Like, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
In other words, it seemed hopeless to me, and still does, to try to create a glorious vision for global missions on the back of a puny vision of God. And I would generalize that and say that’s the problem in most programmatic churches. They desperately want to mobilize people with a vision for something, like evangelism, small groups, justice issues, godly parenting, vibrant worship, and on and on. And these trajectories, these visions, are pursued prematurely.
Whatever energy a pastor with a personality can stir up, it won’t last. It just won’t last if it doesn’t rest on a great, ever-growing vision of God — the greatness of God, the beauty of God, the worth of God, the wonder of God, the power and wisdom and justice and wrath and grace and patience and goodness and sovereignty of God. And this vision must be clarified every week, brightened in the eyes of our people every week.
All the Way Up
And if you ask, “So, Piper, you think we should preach on the doctrine of God every Sunday?” Well, actually, here’s the way I would say it: No, preach on everything that is in the Bible — every imaginable, practical, nitty-gritty problem of your people. But every Sunday, trace this issue down to its deepest root and up into its highest branches. Preach about televisions and tennis shoes and sore throats and tattoos and football concussions and public schools and private schools and gluttony and laziness and workaholism and on and on and on. Christ relates to everything — absolutely everything. He’s Lord of the universe. He’s Lord of everything in your life. Whether you eat pizza or drink Diet Coke, “do all to the glory of God.” That’s an actual quote from 1 Corinthians 10:31.
“If God withdraws his sustaining hand for one week, everyone will feel like things are falling apart.”
But when you take up these ordinary daily things, take them all the way up. Here’s the problem: Pastors take those issues up, but they don’t take them anywhere. They just become moralistic and practical, and they don’t take them up, up, and become uniquely God-centered all the way up into God. Make people see the greatness of God. If you’re going to talk about tattoos or $300 tennis shoes or overeating, bring these things and bring your people up into a whole new world, a vision about how to live and how to think and how to feel — everything in relation to the greatness and the glory in the grandeur of God.
“Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 145:3) — greatly to be known, greatly to be loved, greatly to be served, greatly to be desired and enjoyed. And that’s true all the time. All the time in every relationship, in every issue, in every sermon. Nobody comes into the world with this experience. It is a miracle, a gift of the Holy Spirit. And one of the ways, the great ways, of wakening people to the greatness of God and the greatness of his praise is preaching. And oh, I love this because God’s called me to it.
So, that’s my approach: take up every issue, every vision, every trajectory, and take it all the way up into the greatness of God every week.