Centrality of the Church in Disciple-Making
Desiring God 2013 Conference for Pastors
Brothers, We Are Still Not Professionals: Reclaiming the Centrality of the Supernatural in Ministry
Friends, it’s a privilege to be with you. Thank you so much for making a priority of being here today. Let me ask you to open your Bible and turn to Matthew 28, right at the very end. While you do, I’ll simply say that I’ve got this session and then I have a seminar session after this. The two are related through this theme that you see at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Go to the very end of Matthew’s gospel. This is very familiar, the Great Commission. Notice there in Matthew 28:18–20 what the Lord says:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18–20; all Scripture quotations from the NIV).
What does it mean for us to make disciples? Specifically for those of us who are pastors, what does it mean? Here’s what I want to do in these two brief sessions this afternoon. In this first session, I want to talk about the disciple-making pastor. And then for those of you who want to come to my session in the second one, I want to talk about the disciple-making church. We’re going to be looking at similar things. It’s the same goal, but from two slightly different perspectives. So in this time together I want us to think about the disciple-making pastor. What is pastoral ministry about if it’s not about making disciples? If someone were to look at your ministry and ask you, “How do you see the Lord using your ministry to make disciples?” how would you answer that? What do you see? Well, let’s turn over to 1 Peter 5. If I don’t hear pages turning I assume that’s because you’re on electronic media flipping, but however you get there, go over to first Peter, chapter five.
Shepherd the Flock Among You
Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:1–4:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
Now, many of you have read this passage, no doubt. If you care enough about being a pastor to come to Minneapolis in February, I assume it’s well within your ability to have opened the word. If you’re a pastor, you’ve meditated on this passage. It’s a precious passage to us. I trust you’ve studied it and meditated on it. As we do, I think we understand more of what it means to be a pastor. We feel the weight of it. We see more of how to do it. These are the kinds of things that interest us in this session this afternoon.
Now, the subject of the ministry, I think should interest any Christian — anything that gives us examples of how to follow our Lord Jesus Christ. And pastors, we see, are supposed to be examples. Anything helps us if we’re Christians. And if we’re really Christians, we want to follow Christ and we’re anxious to get anything that will help us do that. Even more than merely being Christians, I think this topic is one that’s especially interesting to church members. Of course, normally all Christians will be members of a local, gospel-preaching church near them. They will meet together regularly with those brothers and sisters for edification and encouragement. But we know today that some Christians have been poorly taught on this. They don’t know that they’re to do that.
Though something in them, I think, tells them of that need. Others have knowingly, sinfully neglected it. But normally I think, for the most part, we can assume that Christians know that they’re to be church members and they are. And for church members, few topics could be more significant than what those who lead them are commanded by God’s Word to do, for God’s glory and for their own good. Now of course, this passage is of even more interest, I think. As Peter says, he addresses it there in 1 Peter 5:1, saying, “To the elders among you.” Now since I’m speaking to a gathering of pastors, let me just say I know that’s in the plural but it doesn’t tell us anything about the plurality of elders in one local church.
Elders Especially Responsible for Teaching and Preaching
If you look back in 1 Peter 1:1, you see that this letter was written to Christians scattered across a wide area of what is now modern day Turkey, in many local churches. Go back to 1 Peter 5 now. When he says “to the elders among you”, there could be one elder per assembly per church. It doesn’t establish that case. But we know from elsewhere in the New Testament letters like James, or Acts 20, or Titus 1:5–9, that it was typical for churches to have a number of men serving as elders. And so, bother elders, how absorbing must this topic be to you? God has called you all into the pastoral ministry in your respective congregations. You must shepherd your congregation. You all are charged by God to do this. These warnings here are yours. These charges are yours. These hopes are yours.
But as much as they interest even this group of godly men who are the elders in a local church, they interest the one who normally brings God’s Word even more. In a church where there’s only one elder, one pastor, they’re called the pastor or the preacher. If it’s a multi-staff church, you might call this person the senior pastor or the pastor of preaching. But the passage particularly interests this one, because this particularly falls on him. His leadership of the elders by counsel and prayer, by training and time, and his leadership of this congregation will have much to do with the prosperity that the eldership then knows, but the prosperity the church knows. Now, many elders have other jobs and they’re elders. So in our church we have, I think, 16 elders right now. And of those, seven of us are employed by the church. Praise God that we’re able to do that. Nine of them are not. They have other jobs and they’re elders.
Among those who are employed by the church, I’m the one who was called when there was only one pastor. I was the only pastor they had. And so, I’m what we would know in our neck of the woods as a “senior pastor”, which I know is not a biblical designation, but it’s prudential and it works. You understand what it means. It doesn’t merely refer to the fact that I’m the oldest of the pastors, though I am, and that increases every year. But it refers to the fact that I have particular responsibilities. It means that normally I’m the one who’s going to be in the pulpit at the congregational assembly teaching God’s Word to God’s people. Now, if that is you, if that describes you, if you’re that person, would you just stand up? I just want to see in this room how many of those kinds of people there are. So you’re the one who’s normally preaching in your church on Sunday. I don’t mean always, but normally.
Wow, that’s a lot. All right, please be seated. Great. Thank you for being here. I’d love to just see how it went yesterday. I’m just curious, how many of you thought yesterday it was one of the worst sermons you’ve ever preached? Stand up. I’m dead serious. Anybody feeling that? Yeah, brother, I feel your pain. I’ve been there. A few people. All right. Kevin, are you being serious or are you just joking around?
Kevin DeYoung: Dead serious.
All right, I’m sorry, brother. How many of you think, “Ah, it was pretty normal. It’s about what usually seems to happen when I preach.” Stand up if that’s you. All right. That’s pretty interesting. That’s most guys. All right. Sit down. Now, all glory to God, it’s no showboating on your part. If you think, “Man, the Lord really obviously blessed in an unusual way,” would you please stand? Come on, it’s not being unhumble. This brings glory to God. I’m just curious. Just stay standing for a second. So guys, if you want to look around and see, maybe you can get encouragement from them. Praise God. A few brothers said that. Kevin, what are you doing? You stood up again.
Kevin DeYoung: It was the worst, but God blessed it.
All right, he’s making a theological point. It was the worst, but God blessed it. Well, that’s so true. If we are the one who normally preaches in our church, we need to understand that we do have unique opportunities as we teach the Word from week to week. What a privilege. What a special burden the Lord gives us. I love those weekends where I don’t preach, and I love those weekends where I do preach. You know. Well, I want us in this time to consider some of the practical faithfulness that you, brother pastors, are especially called to as the pastor of your church. But before we do that, let’s make sure we notice the most important thing in these few verses.
Shepherding in Light of the Chief Shepherd
In 1 Peter 5, I wonder what you would say it is. Looking through those few verses again (1 Peter 5:1–4), I think it’s clearly there in verse four. Peter writes of Jesus Christ as the Chief Shepherd. He is the Senior Pastor. He is the Chief Shepherd and he is the Good Shepherd. You can tell because good leaders, the good shepherd, lays down his life for his sheep, as we read in John 10:11. So brothers, if you’ve come into this seminar, if you’ve come to this conference this week weary, take hope from 1 Peter 5:4. Let that be your hopeful verse. It says:
When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
Praise God. So let’s just start being encouraged right there, all right? Praise God. The ancient Greeks saw pelicans beating their breast with their beaks and they thought that the bird was plucking its breast to feed its young with its own blood. The early Christians adopted this as a picture of what Christ has done for Christians; that he has fed us and given us life by giving us his own blood, by giving himself for us.
This is what a good leader, a good shepherd, and a good pastor does. He lays down his life for the sheep. We’ve read of pastors doing this, and you can find some good accounts of them in biographies in the bookstore. We’ve heard of pastors doing this. We’ve seen pastors doing this in imitation of Christ. But brothers, these are the years, the days, and your church is the place where you must do this. It all becomes very practical, doesn’t it? All the training at seminary or however else we’ve studied. Well to that end, in our time together this afternoon, in this first session, I simply want to share with you some reflections on four crucial aspects of the ministry of a disciple-making pastor. These are four crucial aspects of the ministry of a disciple-making pastor. And I pray that as I do, you’ll be especially reminded and encouraged. And I pray that the Lord will build up your congregation.
This is not, by the way, how I normally preach on Sunday mornings. Normally on a Sunday morning, I have one passage and I work through that passage. I am not doing that in this message. This is a topical address at a seminar. So here we are. I want to make four simple points. I’m going to be going to a bunch of different verses. You may turn there as you wish, or not.
1. Preaching the Word
The first aspect, the first mark of a disciple-making pastor, or disciple-making ministry, is preaching. Don’t think that making disciples is something that merely happens in sort of one-on-one meetings. The most fundamental way you make disciples in your local church is by preaching. That is the most fundamental ministry God has entrusted to you: giving God’s Word to God’s people.
Now, I remember something when I was interviewing with our church in Washington. I remember telling the pulpit committee that I was happy for every aspect of my public ministry to fail if it needed to, except for the preaching of God’s Word. I understood that to be my priority. Now, I don’t know how wise that is for a prospective pastoral candidate to say that to a pulpit search committee, but that is exactly what I said to them. What I wanted to get across was that there’s only one thing that’s biblically necessary for building the church, and that’s the preached Word of God. Others could do pretty much everything else, but I was specially responsible and set aside by the congregation for the public teaching of God’s Word. Like I say, there were no other recognized elders or pastors at the time. So the Word of God would be the fountain of our spiritual life, both as individuals and as a congregation.
God’s Word has always been his chosen instrument to create and convict and convert and conform his people. God uses his word to create faith. If we go through the New Testament, you see this. First Thessalonians 2:13 says:
You received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.
So the Word performs God’s work in the believer. Or Hebrews 4:12 says:
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
God’s word gives us new birth. James advises in James 1:21, saying:
Humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
The word saves us.
The Regenerating Power of the Word
Peter also claims regenerating power for God’s word. In 1 Peter 1:23, he says:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
And then 1 Peter 1:25 says:
And this is the word that was preached to you.
So there is creating, conforming, life-giving power in God’s Word. The gospel is God’s way of giving life to dead sinners and to dead churches. Friends, many of us are called to go into churches that are orthodox on paper and dead in practice. I hope that amen meant not that you want that to be the case, but you’re saying, “Yes, I too can witness that has been my experience.” Or, “I know of other poor guys who’ve been in that experience.” Well, the gospel is God’s way of doing this. He doesn’t have another way.
If you’ve come to this seminar or if you’ve come to this conference this week hoping to find a breakout session that will tell you some other way to do it, I’m telling you, if a breakout session tells you another way to do it, they’re wrong. This is what God does. He creates his people by his word. If you want to work for renewed life and health and holiness in your church, then you must work according to God’s revealed mode of operation. Otherwise, you risk running in vain. And you don’t want to do that. God’s Word is his supernatural power for accomplishing his supernatural work.
That’s why our eloquence, our innovations, our programs are so much less important than we think. That’s why we as pastors have to give ourselves to preaching and not programs. That’s why we need to be teaching our congregations to value God’s Word over programs. Preaching the content and intent of God’s Word is what God used to call his people and build his church in the past. It’s what God uses today to build his church. So preaching his word, his gospel, is primary.
Prioritizing Private Study
Now, one thing very practically that means for pastors is that if you want to know what the heart of your public ministry is, it’s your private study. If you have members of your church who make you feel guilty for not being out and doing “pastoral ministry” more you need to teach them this. You know, pastoral ministry in their mind is meeting with Bill or meeting with Tom. And I’m in favor of meeting with Bill and Tom, but I just want them to understand clearly the heart of your pastoral ministry is what you’re doing when you are giving yourself to God’s word in private, pouring over it, studying it, praying for God’s Spirit to give you eyes to see, and praying for the people that he has called you to preach his word to. You must give yourself to the study of God’s word. We ministers of the Word must give ourselves to faithfully read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the holy Scriptures, and such studies as help us to know and understand them better. What did Paul say to Timothy?
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction (2 Timothy 4:2).
And he said:
But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Timothy 4:5).
We must teach our congregations that this is our job description. They’re not going to know it if we don’t tell them that. We want them to require us to give ourselves to the preaching of the word. Pastor, give yourself to preaching the word, and teach your congregation that your job is to give yourself to the preaching of the word. Now, you may think this is the kind of conference where I don’t need to say that, and I partly do think this is the kind of conference where I don’t need to say this, but because we’re in a seminar or in a breakout session, or whatever we’re calling this, on disciple-making, I want to make it clear to navigator staff members that I love one-on-one discipling work. And the most fundamental discipling work that a pastor is called to is the public teaching of God’s Word.
That is not at all unrelated from making disciples. That is the most fundamental aspect of your discipling ministry as a pastor. Do not set that aside. That is the most basic part of your call as an elder, and particularly if you’re the main preaching elder. So, the first aspect is preaching God’s Word.
The second aspect of a disciple-making ministry is prayer. In your personal life, pray. In your home, pray. In your meetings with others, pray. In your elder meetings and your members’ meetings, pray. In your public services, devote so much time to prayer that nominal Christians are bored by talking to the God they only claim to know. Don’t worry about them. Don’t try to pitch your times together to what nominal Christians will like. You will kill your church. You want to be a disciple-making pastor. Pray to God unashamedly, publicly.
Lead your people into praying to God. Show them how to pray to God by your own example of praying. You want to attract real Christians and hungry non-Christians. Diligently call upon God by prayer for the true understanding of his word so that you may be able, by the Scriptures, to teach and exhort with wholesome doctrine and to withstand and convince those who oppose the truth.
Prayer shows our dependence upon God. It honors him as the source of all blessing. It reminds us that converting individuals and growing churches are ultimately his work, not ours. Jesus reassures us that if we abide in him and his words abide in us, that we can ask anything according to his will and know that he will give it to us (John 15:7). What a promise. Are you seeing that in your church? Okay, what then should we pray for if that’s the case?
Focusing Our Prayers
Well, let me give you a few specific examples of things that you should pray for. I’ll give you five.
Number one: what more appropriate prayers could a pastor pray for the church he serves than the prayers of Paul for the churches that Paul planted? Just look through the New Testament. Look at Ephesians 1, Ephesians 3, Philippians 1, Colossians 1, and 2 Thessalonians 1. Look at Don Carson’s book called A Call to Spiritual Reformation, where he goes through the prayers of Paul. Allow these prayers to be a starting point for praying Scripture more broadly and consistently. Instruct your church members that one of their most important ministries is praying for you. When was the last time you actually instructed the members of your church to pray for you?
Number two: pray that your preaching of the gospel would be faithful and accurate and clear.
Number three: pray for the increasing maturity of the congregation, that your local church would grow in corporate love and holiness and sound doctrine, such that the testimony of the church and the community would be distinctively pure and attractive to unbelievers.
Number four: pray for sinners to be converted, and the church is built up through the preaching of the gospel.
Number five: pray for opportunities for yourself and other church members to do personal evangelism. Model that yourself. Pray about such matters publicly in your services. When we come on Sunday mornings in our gatherings, like we did yesterday morning, we always have a prayer of praise. In the morning service, we always have a prayer of confession. And in the morning service, we always have a pastoral prayer of intercession. When we come to that pastoral prayer of intercession, I’ll often say something like this, “We brought God glory by singing his praises, by confessing our sins, saying the same thing about us that he does, and now let’s bring God glory by showing our dependence upon him and that he is utterly reliable and trustworthy. Let’s go and ask of God now.”
Brothers, it’s another way we lead our churches to praise God by advertising his trustworthiness and reliability. And pray personally. One of those practical things you can do for your own personal prayer life and the prayer lives of the members of your church, I think, is to assemble a church membership directory. Here is an example. This is a church membership directory. It has pictures. They’re not great pictures but they’re there. It’s a way that everybody in the church can be encouraged to be praying through a page or two a day. I try to pray through two pages of this every day, so that every month I’m getting through praying for the whole church. And we tell people at membership interviews that we want them to do the same thing. So everybody gets a copy of this. We publish it again every couple of weeks to keep it updated. Information is always changing in there.
We’ve got separate sections in here for members in the area unable to attend. We have a page for elders, deacons, deaconesses, officers, staff, and interns. And there is a section that records the children of church members, supported seminarians, supported workers like missionaries, and all former staff. If you’ve ever been staffed or interned at CHBC, you’re in the back here. We have several pages of that, just saying when they were here, what they did, where they are now, what they’re doing now, and what their email is now. We keep praying for them. So this is a wonderful tool to build your own church’s prayer life. Model for your congregation faithfulness in praying through the directory, in your own devotional times. And publicly encourage them to make praying through the directory a daily habit.
Now your prayers for your people don’t have to be long, just biblical. So I’ll often begin an elder’s meeting by reading the passage of Scripture that’s going to be preached on this coming Lord’s day. And then we’ll go around, let’s say it’s an elder’s meeting or a staff meeting, and everybody will praise God for something they’ve just seen in that passage of Scripture. And then we’ll go through a couple of pages in the directory, each one just taking a different one in turn. We’re praying something for them out of the passage of Scripture. The prayers are normally short, one or two sentences. Just keep going around. It models that for them. Perhaps choose one or two phrases of Scripture in your own personal time to pray for people, if you don’t know them very well.
Get to know the sheep in your flock as well as you can. If you don’t know them, simply pray for what you’re learning in your own Bible reading. But I think modeling this kind of prayer for others and encouraging the congregation to join you can be a powerful influence for making disciples in the local church. I think it encourages selflessness in people’s individual prayer lives. So they’re not just praying about their own families, their own jobs, their own evangelism; they’re praying about other people.
I think one of the most important benefits is that it helps to cultivate a kind of corporate culture of prayer that will increasingly characterize your church as people who are faithful to pray. But brother pastor, in order for that to happen, you have to give yourself to prayer. So do you want to make disciples as a pastor? Preach God’s word and pray.
3. Personal Discipleship Relationships
The third aspect is the one you would expect — personal discipling relationships. Have personal discipling relationships. I think this is one of the most biblical and valuable uses of your time as a pastor, and I realize that a pastor’s time is limited. We’re not here at any one church for that long, even if we’re here for decades. Unless the Lord comes back, we’re just getting this church ready for the next guy. This is not going to be a monument to you and your ministry forever. It never really was, but you won’t even be able to live under that illusion for long. Because if you just wait till the next pastor gets there, very soon, Lord willing, there will be a fresh blessing breaking out that is in no way dependent upon you.
Hallelujah. Praise God. Could you imagine something better going on than that? The evil one would try to make you doubt, thinking, “Is this just because of me and gifts God’s given me?” No, what a joy it is to see the Lord blessing the ministry of others. Friends, that’s what you get to see as you cultivate personal discipling relationships in which you regularly meet with a few people one-on-one to do them good spiritually.
Now, if you’re in the kind of church that’s given to jealousy and gossip about the pastor having friends, you need to confront that head on. Call it carnal, jealous, ungodly, and satanic. Tell them you’re a human being and you’re going to have friends or they can fire you. I’m not joking. I don’t mean that as hyperbole. I really think we are responsible to teach our congregations that that is a good and godly thing, and will be for their own benefit. Even if they’re not one of the immediate ones that you have time to befriend.
Because what will happen through your discipling relationships is that leaders will be built up in that congregation and the whole congregation will know the blessings of an increasingly mature and diverse leadership. And you are the one with the privilege of getting to lead out in this, getting to help to build this. Pray against tendencies you see to jealousy or to gossip in this. And teach and encourage your fellow church members to join with you in this ministry. It’s simple. Invite people after the Sunday service to call you to set up a lunch appointment. Those that expressed interest by calling and having lunch will often be open to getting together again. As you get to know them, you could suggest a book for the two of you to read together and discuss it weekly, biweekly, or as-often-as-you-can basis. And this often opens up other areas of the person’s life or conversation and encouragement and correction and accountability and prayer.
Whether or not you ever tell the person that you’re discipling them is immaterial. That does not matter. The goal is to get to know them and love them and do them good spiritually — to love them in a distinctively Christian way by being a blessing to them spiritually. So initiate personal care and concern for others and pray God would use you to help establish a culture of that in your church, not merely a program that you can implement as if you can make a staff member responsible for it and think you’ve taken care of it. Programs can be helpful to aspects of it, but pray that God uses you to help establish a culture of it in your church, where you relate honestly and openly to others. I think this practice of personal discipling is helpful on a number of fronts. It obviously is a good thing for the person being discipled because they’re getting biblical encouragement and advice from someone who may be a little further along in terms of life stages or their walk with the Lord.
So in this way, discipling can help to function as I think another channel through which the word can flow into the hearts of the members and be worked out in the context of personal fellowship. It’s good for the one who disciples as well, whether you’re the main pastor or a non-staff elder or some other church member, because it encourages you to think about discipling not as something that only super Christians do, but something that if you’ve been a Christian for two weeks, you’ve got something to say to the person who just came to Christ yesterday. It’s part and parcel of your own discipleship to help other people follow Christ.
I’ve had people tell me sometimes, “You know, that’s not really for me. That’s a kind of special ministry that I don’t really have.” I just want to say, “Help me understand what you mean that you’re following Christ if you’re not helping other people to follow Christ. I’m not saying I know you’re not a Christian, I’m just saying I want to understand what it means to follow Jesus if you’re not helping others follow Jesus.” Hard bake that into your definition of being a Christian as you preach and teach.
Everyone Disciple Makes Disciples
Now to be clear, you’re not calling everybody to be an extrovert. Different people have different emotional budgets the Lord has given us. You’re just telling them, “Spend what you’ve got.” Encourage people to give themselves as the Lord gives them life, circumstances, and opportunities to be able to be a blessing to others like that. Members need to know that spiritual maturity is not simply about their own private quiet times, but about their love for other believers, and their concrete expressions of that love.
I think a healthy byproduct of non-staff members discipling other members is that it promotes this culture of growing a distinctively Christian community in which people are loving one another, not simply as the world loves, but as followers of Christ who are together seeking to understand and live out the implications of what Jesus commanded his disciples there in Matthew 28. That we are to live our lives in love for God and others. These kinds of relationships help both the spiritual and numerical growth of a church.
Before I leave this part of it, brother pastor, another healthy byproduct of your own personal discipling is that for other members of your church, I think you’ll find it helps to break down defensive resistance to your pastoral leadership as you are there working with individuals, trying to help them, because you realize change will always meet resistance. You don’t have to be young and stupid to have change be resisted in your church. You can be old and very wise and godly and experienced and still find change wrongly resisted. It’s just a natural human tendency of organizations and organisms and groups of people together. They’re used to doing a certain thing. It’s not because they’re unusually carnal. It’s not because they’re not as mature as you are. It’s just because they’re normal. The body has antibodies that protect it.
It’s just entirely normal. So what you need to do is find ways to work with the way the Lord has kind of made people to help bring them along. And personal discipling relationships will help to do that. As you open up your life to others, as they begin to see that you’re genuinely concerned for their spiritual welfare, they will be more likely to see you as a caring friend, as a spiritual mentor, and as a godly leader. They are less likely to understand your gradual initiatives for biblical change as personal power grabs or self-centered ego trips. They’ll trust you more. Don’t be overly critical and negative.
I think developing these kinds of relationships establishes personal knowledge of yourself, which is so helpful in nurturing personal trust of your character and your motives and growing an appropriate level of confidence in your leadership among the congregation. It gradually breaks down that sort of “we versus him” barrier that sadly, but often subtly, becomes a very wearing situation that a pastor faces, especially in his early years in a congregation. It’s a helpful thing for paving the way for biblical change and growth.
I thought Jeremy McClain, one of our church members, made a very wise comment to our interns in the autumn. He had just been to the first elders meeting as an intern, so he’d seen our elders meeting. And he said just how wonderful it was to have a group of men who are such godly, committed shepherds. He commented on how well they knew the congregation and were caring for them obviously by the conversation and the prayers and all this. One of the interns was saying that. And I think that’s true by God’s grace. I’m very thankful for the elders I serve with. But Jeremy, who’s also an intern but had been a member of our church for a few years, wisely commented, “But you know, it’s also a wonderful blessing of God to have a congregation that wants to be shepherded, to have members who want to be pastored”
And that is so true. Brother pastor, pray for sheep who want shepherds, who want to be pastored and loved and cared for. So, brother pastors, and other church members who are here, give yourself to doing good to each other spiritually.
The fourth thing is patience. When I arrived at Capitol Hill Baptist, I waited three months before I preached my first Sunday morning sermon. I just wanted to see what they were doing. It was very kind of them to give me that time. Brothers, run at a pace the congregation can keep. Of course, there are some things you’re going to encounter that you may need to change quickly, but as much as possible do these things quietly and with an encouraging smile, not a disapproving frown.
I often have occasion to observe, young men have great acuity of vision and very poor depth perception. They see what’s right and wrong, and often they’re right, not always but often, but they have no idea how to get there. They don’t have much depth perception. Be patient, allow the Lord and experience to bring about that depth perception. I think the key to displaying and actually having this kind of patience is to have a right perspective on time, on eternity, and on success.
Time, Eternity, and Success
First of all, on time. Most of us only think about five or 10 years down the road, if that, but patience in the pastorate requires thinking in terms of 10, 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years of ministry. That begins to put it into perspective.
I remember interviewing John MacArthur a few years ago for a Nine Marks interview. And John, who had been pastoring there for a long time at that point, said that his fifth year of ministry saw great division on his church staff and on the leadership of the church, but he persevered. And now he’s looking back on that 35 years later. We don’t often have that kind of perspective. So just ask yourself with your current church, are you in it with your current church for the long haul of 20, 30, or 40 years? Or are you figuring on moving up the ladder by taking a bigger church in five or 10 years? Are you building a congregation or a career? Stay with them. Keep teaching, keep leading, and keep loving. So first is a biblical perspective on time.
Second, have a biblical perspective on eternity. As pastors, one day we will be held accountable by God for the way we’ve led and fed his lambs. All our ways are before him. He will know if we used the congregation simply to build a career for ourselves. He will know if we led them or left them prematurely for our own convenience and benefit. He will know if we drove the sheep too hard. Shepherd the flock in a way that you won’t be ashamed of on the day of the Lord.
Colossians 3:23 says:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
And then number three, a biblical perspective on success. Brothers, be careful, if you define success in terms of size your desire for numerical growth will probably outrun your patience with the congregation, and perhaps even your fidelity to biblical methods. Either your ministry among the people will be cut short — I mean you’ll be fired — or you’ll resort to methods that will draw a crowd without preaching the true gospel. You will trip over the hurdle of your own ambitions. But if you define success in terms of faithfulness, then you’re in a position to persevere because you’re released from the demand of immediately observable results freeing you for faithfulness in gospel ministry to whatever the message would call us to, leaving the numbers to the Lord. It seems ironic at first, but trading in size for faithfulness as the yardstick for success is often the yardstick to legitimate numerical growth.
God is happiest, it seems, to entrust his flock to those who shepherd in that way. Confidence in the Christian ministry does not come from personal competence or charm or charisma or experience, nor does it come from having the right programs in place or jumping on the bandwagon of the latest ministry fad. It doesn’t even come from getting a degree from a seminary. Much like Joshua, our confidence is to be in the presence and power and promises of God. More specifically, confidence for becoming and being a pastor comes from depending on the power of the Holy Spirit to make us adequate through the equipping ministry of God’s word. Second Corinthians 3:4–5 says:
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
And how does the Spirit make us adequate? What instrument does He use? God’s word. Second Timothy 3:16–17 says:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The one thing necessary is the power of God’s word. That’s why preaching and prayer will always be paramount no matter what fads top the charts. Stake your ministry on the power of the gospel. Success is faithfulness in these matters. It is staying focused on these in the whirl of competing priorities. So be patient. Be patient.
Our Work in Light of the Great Assize
To summarize this entire right after lunch message: preach and pray, love and stay. John Piper’s not the only poet speaking this week. Preach and pray, love and stay. One day before the American Revolution, there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness. There was an eclipse over the New England states known for years afterwards simply as “The Dark Day”, a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished. The legislature of Connecticut was in session, and as its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on, they shared in general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that this was the last day, that the day of judgment had come, and someone in consternation moved an adjournment.
And then there arose an old puritan legislator, Mr. Davenport of Stanford, and he said that if the last day had come, he desired to be found in his place doing his duty. And therefore he moved that candles be brought in so that the House could proceed with its duty. I think there was a quietness in that man’s mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom, and an inflexible willingness to obey present duty. My pastor friend, you and I should do our duty in all things like this old puritan. We can’t do more. We should never wish to do less.
The ministry has private discouragements and public discouragements a-plenty. And God’s kindness to it often has common settings, blessings in this life. But we will never be faithful ministers in anything other than appearance if we only consider the ministry in terms of this life. And so I want to conclude with that quotation that I use almost every time I’m speaking to pastors, and that I hope some of you may be able to recite. It’s of John Brown in a letter of paternal counsels to one of his pupils, newly ordained over a small congregation. And I quote:
I know the vanity of your heart and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small in comparison with those of your brethren around you. But assure yourself on the word of an old man that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ at his judgment seat, you will think you have had enough.
Brothers, we need to remember what momentous work we’re about, and that one day these clouds will be rolled back like a scroll. Live and minister in light of that day.