Joshua writes in and asks, “I am the pastor of a small congregation in western North Carolina. It has been very difficult to get people excited about serving the Lord in their local church, and hence, there are only a few committed people serving here. Because of this lack of interest to serve, ministry growth is being stunted. Pastor John, what advice could you give to help people get excited about serving Christ?”
Well, I am really eager to say something helpful if I can about that, because I have seen it done badly and I have seen it done well. And I have tried to do it myself for 33 years as a pastor. I know pastors want their people to love the church, love service, link arms with pastor, and throw themselves in with joy. And when it doesn’t happen it can be really discouraging.
Wrong and Right
I have seen it done badly. My wife and I were in a church — this is probably ten years ago on vacation in a town, and we decided to go to church on Sunday evening — and we went and it was the most berating sermon we had ever heard. This sermon, for thirty minutes, was spanking his people, criticizing his people, complaining to his people, and the issue was Wednesday night attendance.
And when we walked out, my wife, who never criticizes anybody, said to me in the car on the way home, “I don’t think we will go back there.” That is a documentation of how not to do it. It just doesn’t do any good to use the pulpit to spank your people.
“The key to motivating people for ministry is to talk more about God and less about ministry.”
On the other hand, when I was out of love with the church and, like an idiot, wondering if the church had any future in 1968 and 1969, when I was 22 years old, I went to Ray Ortlund Sr.’s church in Pasadena. Sunday after Sunday I watched this man in the pulpit love his God, love his church, and love his ministry, and summon people into his loves. And everything in me fell in love with the church.
Here was a man who so manifestly exulted over the word of God, who so manifestly exulted over the church of God and over the ministry God had called him to. How could you not want that? He was so happy in his ministry and so loved his ministry. Here I am, just all frustrated in my pew, and he is happy in the pulpit. There is a way to fix this, you know? I want what he has.
More About God, Less About Ministry
And so I think the key there to motivating people for ministry — and this is what I tried to do for 33 years with more or less success — is to talk more about God and less about ministry.
When people have asked me, “How do you motivate people for world missions?” I say, “Stop talking about world missions and start talking about a global God.” And I don’t mean just talk about him. I mean love him. I mean exult in him. I mean blow people away with his vision for this world, his absolute promises that this gospel is going to be preached to all the nations, and the glories that are going to happen for this Christ when all the nations stream to him.
People don’t get excited about burdens being laid on their backs. They get excited about a burden-lifter. They get excited about a God infinitely worthy of their allegiance and their worship.
So my counsel is at the beginning of a ministry, and, I suppose, anywhere along the ministry is to put very little emphasis on programs. Put very little emphasis on activities in the church. Don’t come into a church and say, “Okay, we have got these five activities, and I am in here to revitalize those five activities.” That is a crazy way to go about church renewal. Rather, put a huge emphasis on heralding, exulting over the greatness of God, the unsearchable riches of Christ, the glories of our salvation, the wonders of the Bible, and weave into that a life of prayer for your people that God would give them a taste for this glory so that they don’t feel forced.
You want them to have a desire and a longing because God has become something amazing to them, because you really don’t want any other kind of service, do you? You don’t want service because you have scared them into it or twisted their arm into it. You want service that is overflowing out of joy in God.
Here is a story: I came to Bethlehem 33 years ago, and there was a core of people — it was small — who didn’t like me. They stonewalled me. They wouldn’t sing the songs. They folded their arms. They sat on the back pew. There were about eleven pews in those days. They sat on the back one. They were just like really close, because eleven is not many. I did everything I knew to win them over, and finally I just said to them, “You know, I love you. And I intend to out-rejoice you and outlast you.” And I did. They were all gone eventually. Some of them were won over, and some of them just vanished.
“People don’t get excited about burdens being laid on their back. They get excited about a burden-lifter.”
And my point is that I didn’t try to get them into service. If I could just get them into service, I didn’t want them in service. It would be bad blood everywhere. I want them to love Christ, and to love the gospel, and to love singing, and to love worshiping and, yes, to love me. But I was not going to be dragged down to their level and fold my arms, become bitter and become angry.
I really wanted to so exult over Christ that they would see. I give thanks to all the ones who did, and I pray that those who left might have found it in another place. So my last word is this: Don’t preach and teach and labor over programs and activities. Give yourself to the word and the glories of God.