Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome—26 Years Later

Desiring God 2013 Conference for Pastors

Brothers, We Are Still Not Professionals: Reclaiming the Centrality of the Supernatural in Ministry

I want to thank John for that very kind introduction and for inviting me to do this. It has been over a quarter of a century, and the things that I learned actually some 37 years ago have served me well. So it is a great privilege to do this.

What I’m going to do tonight is give you a little bit of a personal autobiography, a spiritual autobiography that’s going to course through the decades. Then I’m going to come back to the seventies and talk about a defining event in my wife’s and my life. And then I’m going to talk about the principles, or the pillars, of success that I learned, if I can describe it. Because it would take three hours to do it if I went through it all. So it will be kind of like a riff through those things in about 20 minutes. Then I’m going to draw some conclusions about success and the supernatural at the end. So that’s where we’re going in the next 60 minutes.

The Calling of a Christian, the Making of a Preacher

Now, my earliest memories of Christ and my ministry pretty much match the decades of the last half of the 20th century, from mid-century on, and then into the first decade of this century. And so the most indelible memories of the forties was of a third-grader sitting uncomprehending in Vermont Avenue Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles while the elders were serving communion. I think, in retrospect, I sensed something as a third grade boy of the transcendent. The other memory happened just right after that when my Southern Baptist grandmother Rose Hughes came up from the south and took me to the corner of Hill and Figueroa in Los Angeles, where there was a huge circus tent. As a little boy, I saw Billy Graham radiating the spotlights, preaching the gospel as he began his great crusades.

It was an amazing spectacle, but I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s, the summer before I went into high school, that it came together. My family had moved to the suburbs and started attending a small church plant. I heard the gospel. I came under conviction. I knew that I was on the outside looking in, and I wanted to be in. I wanted to know it, but I thought it could never happen to me. But it was at the end of that summer when I broke my hand in athletics and did go to church camp that I was pointed to the King James of Romans 10:9, which says:

If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

It was like those words lifted right up off the page and came into my mind and lodged in my heart. And I was marvelously born again. And I mean in the fullest, metaphorical and theological sense of the word. I felt like the law of gravity had been loosed as a little boy. I could float away. I had often walked down this street before, but the pavement always stayed beneath my feet. But now I felt like I was 20 miles high. And the next morning, the month before I started high school, I announced to everyone that I was called to preach.

Well, I got some encouragements, some patronizing smiles, and a few pats. But I can tell you for me, it was deadly serious and that my commitment left me full in focus when I went into high school. I preached my first sermon when I was 16 years old. It was called God Has a Whale of a Plan for Your Life. It was on Jonah — a sermon, may I say, of dubious wit and doubtful quality. When the whale swallowed him, I announced, you know, that he was down in the mouth. Dubious wit.

And like any California boy, I was into sports and I was into my car, my 1941 Ford primered with racing slicks on the back. It had printstrips and the words “Swing low, sweet chariot” on the side. It was a Christian hot rod, but I loved the gospel and I loved my church more. And I was on fire for the Lord. I shared the gospel freely, participated in street meetings in LA and Hollywood, and I occasionally preached sermons, yes, of dubious wit and doubtful quality.

Marriage, Graduation, and Youth Ministry

Three things happened to me in the sixties. First I met and married Barbara, my outgoing, cheerful, soul-winning life of now 50 winters. Second, I graduated from college and began my seminary education. And I was so into it. I so wanted to get there and so wanted to study the Bible that I actually, when I opened up a critical commentary and ran my fingers down the page, I got a tactile thrill. Just the smell of a commentary made me feel good. You get a little weird.

Thirdly, I began a decade of youth ministry. Now, Robin Williams, this is in the sixties, has a statement about the sixties. He said, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there.” Well, I was there clear-minded and in my right mind because I was doing youth ministry. And I actually remember the ‘60s better than Robert Williams evidently, because it’s George Carlin who said that in the 1960s. Those were awesome days of ministry and evangelism. I mean, the ‘60s were awful in some ways and wonderful in others. You could talk to anybody about Christ and it was on the table.

I remember those Bible studies as a youth pastor. Everybody was naturally sitting on the floor in their bell-bottoms and sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts and wooden crosses and rabbit-skin-covered Bibles as I taught the word. And there was a year in the height of the ‘60s, right towards 1968, which was really a terrible year, where I think there were only two or three weeks where someone didn’t profess Christ. They were awesome days. In a spiritual sense of the word, it was psychedelic in my mind. Now, the ‘60s didn’t end abruptly, but they melded into the seventies. Barbara and I, now in our early thirties, gathered 20 families together with support of our church and surrounding churches and planted a church in the North Orange County area of Los Angeles just about 10 minutes from Disneyland.

What happened there is the center of the story I want to tell tonight as a launching pad into very important teaching in my heart. I’ll come back there.

College Church in Wheaton

The ‘80s began with me being called to a college church in Wheaton where we had a gifted staff and preached the Bible expositorily, lectio continua for 27 years and initiated Crossway’s Preaching the Word commentary. As best I can tell, I preached 1,200 fresh Sunday morning expositions along with my other preps, which meant that I spent about 20 hours a week in the study. And if my math is still right, that’s 24,000 hours in the study. That’s a lot of time in the kitchen to get the meal out on the table, because I believe in preaching the word.

So I pastored through the ‘90s into the middle of the first decade of this century for some 41 years, and then I’ve been doing itinerary ministry for the last six. Now, over those years, my haircuts began to reveal my ears and my hair turned Mr. Rogers Gray. And now when I bend over the tie my shoes, I look for other things to do since I already made the effort. I’m serious about that. And the little old lady that I help across the street, the gray-haired lady, is my wife. She smiles at that, by the way.

The point is that I’m an old guy who has seen it all and has had decades now to reflect on the subject of ministerial success. So my assigned title and topic could hardly be more compelling and appropriate, John — Success in the Supernatural: Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome 26 Years Later. It actually happened about 37 years ago. But brothers, I believe it’s more relevant today than ever because today, at the beginning of this millennium, the temptation to imagine success in terms — now listen closely — of media-savvy, in style, and ecclesiastical coolness is far more subtle than the old seductive managerial bromides of the old church growth movement. The new professionalism is far more subtle, and we need to be very careful.

A Defining Moment

Now that defining event of the ‘70s is this. We were planning a church in North Orange County. From the onset, we had everything going for us. We had a committed nucleus of believers, some of them were longtime friends and some that had come to faith under my ministry. We had the sophisticated inside of the church growth establishment, and we had retained one of their foremost experts. If I said his name, you’d know who he was. The expert had visited us, looked at us, and pronounced us just right for our community. We had the homogeneous unit principle, and to boot we were native Californians, ministering to Californians. We had a good location. We knew how to publicize things.

Barbara was and is a joyful, people-loving pastor’s wife. And our four children, well, they’d get along and let woebegone. But most of all, we had me, yours truly in my prime. I had been called to preach since I was 12. I had been preaching in high school. I had a decade of youth ministry under my belt and the seminary education was complete. What a great guy! We had everything going for us.

But to my painful disappointment and resounding whoa and humiliation, we weren’t growing. In fact, despite all the labors, the hours of strategizing and careful planning and prayer, we had fewer regular attendees than the first six months. And our church was shrinking and prospects looked really bad. And I entered the deepest, darkest depression of my life, and I wanted out.

I want to say to everyone here: men, this is not the hardest thing that ever happened to me in ministry. I’ve had far more wrenching things than this. And you could top it if you’ve been in the ministry for just a few years, but the significance of my experience is that it almost made me step down from the calling that had been given to me, I believe, before the foundation of the world.

And though I hadn’t told Barbara about my misery, she could sense it. On a hot summer’s midnight of soul, I was ready to talk. And what came forth from my lips was truly repugnant and offensive. And as I read it now it’s whiny and self-pitying and tinged with arrogance, and frankly, mortifying. But the following is exactly what I said because my dear wife, when I said it to her, took notes and wrote it down verbatim and sent it to a missionary friend of the Philippines. And when that woman came back and we met her at the plane, she stepped off the plane, handed my wife a letter, and said, “You need to do something with this.”

At the Lowest Point

Here’s my twisted thinking:

Most men I know in the ministry are unhappy. They’re failures in their own eyes and mine as well. Why should I expect God to bless me when it appears he hasn’t blessed them? Am I so ego-centered to think that he loves me more? In cold statistics, my chances of being a failure are overwhelming. Most pastors do little more than survive in piddly little churches.

Those are my words. And I told her how a seminary professor said that eight out of 10 of us would never pastor a church beyond 150. And I said, “If that’s the case, it means that we are confined to subsistence living, unless you work.” I continued:

The ministry is asking too much of me. How can I go on living, giving all that I have without seeing results, especially when others are? Everyone needs to see results. Farmers see their crops grow. It’s a proper reward. If I were in the business world, it would be measured by my bank account. Life’s successes are measured quantitatively. How can anyone do it otherwise?

Those who really make it in the ministry are those with exceptional gifts. If I had a celebrity status, a deep resonant voice, a merciless executive ability, a dominating personality that doesn’t mind sacrificing others’ success, I could make it to the top. But where is God in all of this?

And I defied my poor wife, saying:

Disprove me. Just look at the great preachers today. Their success seems to have little to do with God’s spirit, they’re just superior.

That’s what I said. And in my verbal rant, I found myself coming to an ominous conclusion that I hadn’t wanted to admit. It had been brooding in me for a long time, and it finally came out. I said, “God has called me to do something he hasn’t given me the gifts to do. Therefore, God is not good.” In my anger, I blurted out the thought that had tormented me, and there it was squirming and ugly and misshapen and blasphemous. I knew that I’d been called by God since I was 12. I never wanted to escape the call. I embraced it. It’s all I ever wanted to do. But now I felt like it was a butt of a cruel joke and I wanted to quit, and in my aching desperation, I said, “What am I to do?”

The Words of a Faithful Wife

Well, thank God for a good wife. She could have said, “I agree. Who needs this? Quit. There are a lot better ways to make a living. Besides, you make me awfully tired. Why don’t you go sell insurance?” But here’s what she said, “Ken, I don’t know what you’re going to do. But for right now, for tonight, hang on to my faith because I believe that God is good. I believe that he loves us and is going to work through this experience. So hang on to my faith. I have enough for both of us.”

And being the man’s man that I am, I heaved a great sigh and went to bed exhausted, and my wife stayed up long into the morning hours reflecting on our conversation. That was awful. I had never ever spoken like that. She had always looked to me. I never even intimated it. And as she was there, my despair began to creep in like a fog into her spirit. And as the night wore on, my wife felt alone and afraid and she longed for a word from God.

Now I’m going to talk about something supernatural right now. She did something that she has never done before or since, has never recommended and never will. She played Bible roulette. I was in the other room, and she took a Bible that had been given to us some months before by an old man in our congregation. It was a King James Thompson Kirkbride Reference Bible. She never used it because we weren’t using the King James Bible anymore. So she took the Bible, and with it before her she whispered a prayer: “Please Lord, give me a word of encouragement right now.” And taking a deep breath — how else do you play Russian roulette? — she tremulously opened the Bible and her eye fell on a verse, underline in red, likely by that old gentleman:

Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down:
     For the Lord upholdeth him with his hand (Psalm 37:24, KJV).

And overwhelmed, she looked back at the verse in front of it, which says, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: And he delighteth in his way” (Psalm 37:23, KJV). She said — and I’m quoting her — “God’s presence was so utterly palpable that I thought if I reached out, I might touch him.” Now, my wife’s experience wasn’t a miracle. No laws of nature were suspended, but it was a sweet, once-in-a-lifetime providence given her to sustain her faithful soul and by extension, my faltering heart.

Faulty Measures of Success

So she went to bed that night reciting the words of Psalm 37:24. The next morning, when we got up, she told me and that heartened me, but it didn’t erase my jaded reasoning. But she was confident that things were going to work out. Now men, this is it; later that week is another providence. She attended a meeting and she encountered two friends whose husbands had recently left the ministry. And in the course of the conversation, she asked about their spouses. And one replied, “He’s never been happier. He’s selling life insurance now.” And then the woman added to Barbara, “It takes a special kind of man to be in the ministry. You can’t measure your success in ministry, and every man must be able to do that in order to have a good self-image.”

That woman was echoing my present struggle, but my wife wasn’t going for it. She said, “I’ve never thought of Ken as extraordinary, just called.” And I’ll tell you that’s true. Well, the woman responded with a tremor in her voice, “If your church doesn’t grow big” — and my wife knew exactly what she meant — “Kent is going to feel like a failure.” And with that, my wife became angry, not at the woman, but the same dark force that had worked on her and was at work with me. And my wife said, “I don’t know why, but you’re wrong. And I’m not going to rest until I find out why.” Now that is vintage Barbara Hughes.

Learning God’s Definition of Success

I like to say this about my wife playfully. She may be wrong, but she’s never in doubt. And she was right, and she wasn’t in doubt. I began to get my equilibrium back. You see, I could see God’s hands in those two astonishing providences. I mean if you take the odds of those things happening, they’re in the millions. And that blasphemous theological fog began to lift. And as we talked, our spiritual adrenaline began to flow.

I saw the problems as vast. And then we thought of seminary friends and couples who had said yes to the call of God and were discouraged. You know these stories. Some had quit after all that time and after all that, they quit. And the problem was success. That is what we had to think through. I’d never tried to define it. I had never gone to the Bible and tried to figure it out.

Well, my wife went and got the tablet that I had written all those things in my rant. She still had that. It was probably still burning on the edges. And she wrote down three questions:

  • Can a man be a success in the ministry and pastor a small church?
  • What is failure in the ministry?
  • What is success in the ministry?

And as the two of us sat looking at those things in black and white, the questions were so crass and coldly secular. What in the world had brought me to ask such questions? We replayed the advice of church growth experts and well-meaning friends, which, with exception, was largely sociological and managerial. And I have to say, there’s nothing wrong with much of the advice. It ought to be part of the intelligent orchestration of ministry.

But when the refrain that it plays to is numerical growth, then a siren song becomes deeply sinister. Pragmatism becomes the conductor. The audience that the preacher plays to is inexorably man rather than God. And an enthroned pragmatism will erode the noblest ideals and corrupt the man’s theology. And today, as I look across the landscape and over the years, the ruins are everywhere. It’s awful that I had been seduced by a secular thinking that implicitly places a number on everything.

Lessons Learned

Well, we saw the problem exactly. It was like standing at the foot of a great mountain, maybe a dark mountain. We knew the climb would take some energy, but at least we could see it before us. So I repented. I asked for God’s forgiveness and covenanted to search the Scriptures and learn what God’s word had to say about success. We were utterly determined, even fiercely determined, to evaluate our success from a biblical point of view. And what I’m going to do in the next few minutes, as quickly as possible, is give you that riff on success. The first thing I learned I’m going to spend a little more time on, then a little less time on the next things, and as we move, it’ll go by faster.

A Call to Faithfulness, Not Success

The first one is so foundational. As we searched the Scriptures, we found no place where God’s servants are blatantly called to be successful, but rather we discovered they’re called to be faithful. You know the classic texts. First Corinthians 4:2 says:

Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful (pistos).

Well, how does that work out? I mean, good, but how does it work out? Well, an outtake from the life of Moses clarified our thinking. And it was, men, a revelation. I’d never seen it like this. It’s in Numbers 20. Forty years after the astonishing miracle at Rephidim, where God had ordered Moses to speak to the rock and watered gushed out for all of Israel, Moses again faced the same people at Meribah, and bitter accusations were hurled at him. Distraught, Aaron and Moses went into the tent of the meeting, the glory of the Lord came down and God gave Moses directions. He said, “Tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water.” He’s to speak to the inanimate rock. It’s clear.

So Moses set out to do as God commanded, but as he surveyed that multitude of complaining people, his anger erupted. And Moses said:

“Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

It was an awesome miracle, a huge success. And no doubt there was a roar that rolled back and forth across the people. And Moses was the man. I mean through his bold actions, God had met the desperate needs of the people. Another resounding success in the storied life of Moses. Chalk that one down.

But that was from Earth’s point of view. From heaven’s perspective, Moses was a seismic failure because in his righteous fury he totally disregarded God’s command to speak to the rock. And he struck it, not once, but twice. His failure to execute God’s explicit word, his directive, was of such massive proportions that God denied him his life’s dream of leading Israel into the promised land.

Know the Word, Obey the Word

Think of the heartache and the disappointment of this man, an octogenarian in his 80s who led them through everything. So what you see is that Moses’s meltdown at Meribah teaches us you can be hugely successful in ministry and, as John just said, be an abysmal failure. Pastors, preachers, elders, brothers, it is possible to give the people exactly what they need, the exposition of God’s word via lectio continua, to have wonderful, well-orchestrated worship programs that really do meet their needs, and still be a failure. It’s possible to be held up as a paragon of success and have your name wafted around to be the object of ardent praise of your people and be a failure.

The reason that Moses so miserably failed is that he was not faithful, obedient to God’s holy word. So in discerning success, we have to understand that the Scripture consistently links success to faithful obedience to God’s word. I think it’s hugely significant that following Moses’s death, God directly declared this truth to his successor, Joshua. The first chapter of Joshua, the beginning of his ministry, links future success twice to his faithful obedience to the word. In other words, Joshua is to learn from his boss’s failure. So here it is. Success comes from knowing God’s word and doing God’s word. And it follows for those of us who pastor that if we are ever to know true success in ministry, we have to steep ourselves in the Scriptures so that our blood becomes bibline, so that we faithfully can obey them.

Here’s the deal: we cannot be profoundly influenced by that which we do not know. So we need to have the English Bible coursing through us. I can read a little Greek, but God still speaks to me in English — the ethics, the narratives, the theological sections, all informing us so that we can obey God.

Now, what a day it was when this came together, what I’m talking about in Numbers 20, when I saw from the Bible a great public success like that of Moses at Meribah is not ipso facto success in God’s eyes. From heaven’s perspective, success, my brother, is faithfulness, which manifests itself in hardworking obedience to God’s word. And I mean hardworking obedience, creative obedience, and prayerful obedience. And I came to see that it’s axiomatic that there is no success apart from faithfulness.

So our situation was tough and discouraging, but at the same time, it was a great opportunity for faithfulness to dig further into God’s word, to listen hard and long to his voice, to live in honest obedience to what we saw; to work hard, and I think to sense his smile. It. It’s hard to communicate how healing and salutary this discovery was. It was like the fog was being lifted. Success is faithfulness. And the beautiful thing is, for everyone in this room, it is equally available to all of us, whatever our situation, those of us with small numbers and inadequate resources as well as the big ministries. And that understanding was the beginning of liberation, and it paved the way discovering the other pillars of biblical success. Success is faithfulness.

A Call to Humble Service

Now, I remember attending a minister’s retreat at Forest Home Conference Center in the San Jacinto mountains. And I remember for two reasons. First, I was put off by my initial encounter with the speaker for the weekend when he arrived in a lime green Cadillac Eldorado with a white Landau top. You remember those monster Cadillac Eldorados, the kind you could put steer horns on the front? And when he stepped out of the car wearing a satiny sky-blue running suit with a couple of gold chains around his neck, I just wasn’t going for him.

But what really did it was when that preacher spoke that night, he told us that if we had extravagant desires for material possessions, that it was God’s will for us. His reasoning was Psalm 37:24:

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

So we were told if we were delighting in the Lord and yet had a desire for a Cadillac like his, it was God’s will because God gives his children the desires of your heart. And he said, “The king servants travel first class.” Well, nevermind, the simplistic exegesis, or eisegesis. Nevermind the simplistic unbiblical deductions about the desires of the regenerate. Nevermind that the symbol of Christianity is the cross. I penned a few lines about this and it could be well done in a country song.

Name it and claim it. That’s what faith’s about. You can have what you want If you just have no doubt So make up your wishlist And keep on believing And you’ll find yourself Perpetually receiving.

You can preach that and you fill a church with that. Is it really possible for a minister of the gospel to live this way? All we need to do is read our Bibles, read church history, read the New York Times. They love this stuff.

A Foot-Washing Heart

This is exactly what Jesus experienced among his disciples in the upper room when no one had made provision to wash the disciples’ feet and no one was willing to do it. And that is why, in an electrifying moment in that upper room, the incarnate son of God stripped himself down to his tunic, donned a servant’s towel, and washed the feet of his prideful self-serving disciples. I’ll bet you anything that in that room, you could hear all the water drop and you could hear the breathing of Jesus. And in that silence, Jesus says:

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you (John 13:14–15).

Jesus used irrefragable logic. If it’s true for the greater, then how much more is it true for the lesser? That is a powerful argument. Well, who said it? I mean coming from the lips of infinitude, that is infinitely compelling. If the God of the universe is a servant, how dare we his creatures be anything else? Brothers, there is no success apart from a servant’s heart. I don’t know if you believe it, but that’s what it says. And whether you serve a congregation of 20 or 200 or 2,000, there can be no success apart from a foot-washing heart.

Now here’s the beauty. Success is equally available to all of us. There is nothing like the pastoral ministry to give you an opportunity to serve souls and the ill and the demonized with the gospel. I mean, that is liberating. We were free to be successful. Success, brothers, is faithfulness. Success, brothers, is serving with a foot-washing heart.

A Call to Loving God

Now all of us know that the number one priority in all of life is loving God. There’s that point where Christ, back lit by the sunrise over Galilee, asked Peter three times if he loved him as dramatized for all time, which is the abiding principle that before all things, even service to God, we must love God with all of our hearts. It’s the highest priority of life. It’s the first question for every soul here tonight. And it is the essential question for anyone who would want to please God.

Now that divine priority has been clear from time immemorial at the giving of the law, the Shema:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

And it was solemnized and substantiated by Jesus himself when a lawyer asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment of the law?” (Matthew 22:36). Jesus answered with the Shema. And then he said, “This is the great and first commandment” (Matthew 22:38). So it’s dominical. It’s from the lips of Jesus. Nothing is of greater importance.

Now, I recovered this truth and was refreshed by its piercing reality that there’s no success apart from loving God. And I say I recovered it because of course it’s a truth I had long known, but it had been smothered by my ministerial misery and patheticness. Jesus’s stunning reproach of Peter set it like the pole star in the heavens. And for us, Barbara and me, it became the compass of our souls navigation and a source of recurrent reproach and correction. And we were refreshed by this because it brought clarity to our thinking about life and ministry. It affirmed that prima facie success is not necessarily success in God’s economy. That’s huge.

We realized it’s possible to be the pastor of a large church and not love God, just had been in my own situation. It’s possible to design and preside over perfectly-conceived and executed worship services and not love God. I mean that can be done by a pornographic voyeur. It’s possible to preach insightful, biblical Christ-exalting sermons and not love God. Man, it’s even possible to write bestsellers that encourage other people to love God and not love God. But that being said, the potential to love God is equally open to all. That’s what’s so beautiful. It’s not determined by stature or standing; and it’s not determined by ability. Praise God.

University education, intellectual aptitude, and pulpit eloquence are no advantage in loving God. In fact, maybe the more eloquent you are, the more drawback it is. And Barbara and I basically experienced a new surge of freedom as we refreshed ourselves with that and I repented again. And I committed myself to consciously loving God above all things regardless of what happened in the days to come. Do you hear that?

Now, one of the things that I have periodically done is to imagine myself — this a nice device — standing before Jesus with the morning sun coming up over Galilee. He’s backlit by it, and he’s asking me those three penetrating questions, and he knows everything. He knows the very temperature of my soul. I can’t fool him, and I have to answer them straight up. And sometimes that’s painful. There is no success apart from loving him. Success is faithfulness, success is serving, and success is loving.

A Call to Faith and Pleasing God

Now the writer of Hebrews, as we switch gears, in his famous section on faith makes a straightforward statement regarding the importance of faith. Hebrews 11:6 says:

And without faith it is impossible to please him (God).

There’s no way around it. God simply will not take pleasure in our accomplishments or our works, no matter how great they may be, apart from faith. So it can fairly be said where there is no faith, there’s no smile of God and no success. And the writer continues:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Quite clearly, a faith that is acceptable to God believes in two things: First, it believes that God exists, or believes in the God that exists. And when it believes that, secondly, it believes that God rewards his people because he is equitable to his people. And the problem during those dark days in ministry was faith. Men, I was not believing what I believed. That’s not a verbal slide of hand.

You see, I wasn’t consciously disbelieving that God is or that he rewards those who seek him. Yet the reality of the things that I believed about God had faded and the massive implications of who he is and his existence had been shriveled by the self-absorbed focus of my heart. And the truth that God is an equitable rewarder of those who seek him and was suppressed by my miserable preoccupation with my circumstances and myself and my grumblings on that dark night when I concluded that I was the butt of a cosmic joke. The fact that I actually said “God is not good” testifies to my shrinking belief.

I truly was not believing what I believed and God wasn’t smiling. There’s no success apart from the smile of God. And what I needed, and what was to come in the following weeks, was the rebirth of faith and renewed belief in what I already believed. It didn’t come neat and organized; it came in bits and pieces — some unconscious and subconscious. But in retrospect, I see that crystallized in the divine categories of faith as described here in Hebrews. So I just want to say right here, brothers, what we believe about God is everything. And if you believe in the cosmic Christ as revealed, for example, in that hymn in Colossians 1:15–18, you’re onto it.

Let me just say, if you truly believe that he’s the creator of everything — every cosmic spec across the trillions of light years of space, all the textures and shapes and colors that dazzle our eyes, the light of the firefly and fire itself, the stripes of the bumblebee, the gliding rainbows of the cell; and if you really believe that he is the sustainer of all creation, the force that is presently holding your body together right now; and if you confidently believe that he is the goal of everything in creation is moving toward him; and if you further believe that he is the lover of your soul, that he is the creator, sustainer, goal, and love of your soul, then you believe in the God who is. And I believed what I believed. I didn’t just simply believe that I believed it, but I believed it. And today, that’s the most important thing about me.

My outward lack of success did not change. But I can tell you this, we sensed the peace of God that we believe came from his smile, which is success.

A Call to Prayer

John Bunyan once said:

You can do more than pray after you’ve prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.

Prayer is essential to success. There are powerful reasons that you can give for prayer, for what prayer does to you, for what prayer does to your people, the church. But the heart of it is, the great reason why we must be men of prayer, is that Jesus was a man of prayer.

The Gospel of Mark tells us as Jesus’s Galilean ministry spread, that Jesus came under the immense pressure of increasing the large crowds. And the picture that Mark gives is wave upon wave of people pressing in on Jesus. He could hardly find room to stand. So great was the pressing crowd that he came under actual physical danger. Mark 3:9 makes it clear. He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him. That’s a strange thought. But the Son of God was in danger of being trampled. So he wisely puts someone out on a boat just like you’d have somebody in the car with the engine running.

The crowd, as Mark describes the chapter, were the ill-pushing and grabbing people falling over him, the demonized staring and sizing him up and intoning his name, and the jaundiced Pharisees who were watching every move as they waited. Jesus, though he was God, was fully man and really did feel the pressure. It was immense, perverse, and unrelenting. And what did he do? He withdrew alone to pray because Mark tells us that:

And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him.

Luke’s parallel account reveals that he spent the whole night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).

Our Need for Prayer

Have you ever tried to spend a whole night in prayer? I’ll tell you what I’ve done. I tried it a couple of times. One time I tried it with a couple of my buddies when we were in our early twenties. We got a Mercator projection of the world and we started praying. We prayed and so on. I did well for a couple of hours, but then I began to fade and they faded. And so it was kind of guys going back and forth, waking each other up with their snores, and going back to prayer.

But weary Jesus, pummeled by ministry, really did pray all night under the stars in full consciousness, in passionate engagement with the Father. All night. Why? Because he could not carry on his earthly ministry apart from dependent prayer. The Son of God himself couldn’t do it. And so there on the mountain, he exposed his soul, so to speak, to the soul of his Father in his presence, and he received strength and wisdom.

Well, followers of Christ, the a fortiori force of this argument from the greater to the lesser is cosmic. If such prayer was necessary for the eternal Son of God to carry out his mission, how much more necessary is it for us adopted sons, pressured servants that we are, jostled not only by the regular demands of life, but by needy souls — the ill, the sinful. We may feel pressured so much that we don’t have time to pray, but that is what we need most.

There could be no success apart from dependent prayer. So if you’re starting to see how this is coming together, success is faithfulness. Success is serving with a foot-washing heart. Success is loving God with all your soul. Success is believing in who God is as revealed in Christ. And success is praying with the passion of Christ.

A Call to Holiness

I have a couple of more now. The logic of Scripture is unavoidable. God calls his people to be holy. I’m speaking specifically of Leviticus 19, in which the context is sexual holiness. No unholy life can be considered a success. And thus the tragic irony is that there are untold numbers of successful pastors and Christian workers who are in fact abysmal failures. Everyone is calling them a success and they are failures.

During my long tenure, I have seen it all. I’m not spending long on this tonight, so don’t worry. I remember hearing about a peer of mine in this way. John, this was back in those early days and you might intuitively know who it is. Barb and I were in Cambridge, England on a sabbatical and we got word across the Atlantic about the fall of this pastor. And my wife cried for two days. She couldn’t believe it. And then she said to me, “You better not be like that.” I mean it was so devastating. And I have to say I don’t think I can be shocked. I’ve heard it all. I’ve seen it all.

But for those who desire to serve God successfully, there’s no question that sexual purity is essential. And this is a ball that I have kicked around all kinds of times in the narrative of David and Samson, suffice it to say — and I’ll say it with Bonhoeffer — “When lust takes control, at that moment, God loses all reality. Satan does not fill us with hatred of God, but forgetfulness of God. Lust-glazed eyes become blind to God.” It’s awful.

We were talking about it at dinner tonight. It’s awful because of the cyber world. It’s awful. When a man falls into sexual sin, I want to tell you something, he doesn’t fall very far because that is where he has been in the chambers of his soul. Samson’s epitaph becomes ubiquitous: “he did not know that the Lord had departed from him” (Judges 16:20). So men, no bromides here. Holiness isn’t easy, but the fact that God demands it means that he upholds and blesses those who seek it. There is no success apart from holiness.

A Call to the Right Attitude

Well, attitude is huge in everything and it’s huge in ministry. And there are two attitudes that characterize ministerial failure, that is, negativism and jealousy. These are attitudes to avoid like the plague. And for us, especially to me, an honest look at my ministerial soul was crucial in discerning whether I was moving towards success or failure.

Now as to a positive attitude, the apostle Paul sets the standard for all time. I think he’s the person I want to meet first when I get to heaven after Jesus. I mean if there’s ever a type A personality, it was the apostle Paul. He was brave, he was passionate, he was a missionary general of the early church. He underwent beatings that would break a thousand hearts. And in Philippi, he was tossed in jail and his enemies from within the church, Christian brothers, were preaching the gospel from envy and hoping to cause him pain. I can’t believe the astonishing cussedness of the elect. Awful. In Philippians 1:18, we hear Paul’s response:

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Envy from Hell

It’s unbelievable. Attitude is more important than circumstances. It’s more important than the past. It is more important than money. It is more important than success. It is more important than failures. It is more important than our gifts. It is more important than others’ opinions. Attitude is even more important than the so-called facts. And brothers, we have choices every day regarding our attitude for what comes our way.

Two men looked out from prison bars, One saw the mud, the other saw stars.

Paul saw the stars. God bless him. And as to jealousy and envy, and its positive counterparts of selflessness and goodwill, there are those who would restrict the rise of others. But on the other hand, there are those who would wish to elevate others. All you have to do is look at Numbers 11. During Moses tenure, two men in the camp named Eldad and Medad began to prophesy. And Joshua learned a lesson here. Joshua, protective of his boss, tried to stop them.

But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).

I mean, that’s so beautiful. He kind of said, “When the tide is in, all the ships ride high.” And then later, John the Baptist had the same unthreatened, magnanimous spirit when he told his disciples, who were alarmed at Jesus’s eclipse of John, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). What a way to go, perpetually seeing the stars, trusting God to work his will, encouraging the saints to do the work of the ministry, and rejoicing in their elevation. I just ran across a word last two weeks ago that I didn’t know. It’s a German word, schadenfreude, which means pleasure in other people’s pain and failure. None of that. That’s from hell. Success is attitude.

Defying all Quantification

It’s been 37 years since my wife played Russian Roulette with her King James Version. And God so marvelously met her in those astonishing providences. We covenanted and searched the Scriptures to find out what God had to say about success, and it began our liberation from the success syndrome.

Now, the enduring benefit of our search was that it delivered our ministry from the quantifiers who place a number on everything, and the managerial professionals of the church growth movement. And here’s the deal, as you bring it together. Being faithful to God’s word, and serving God with a foot-washing heart, and loving God with all your heart and soul, and believing in the God who is, and praying with the passion and dependence of Christ, and living a holy life in a pornographic world, and doing ministry with an attitude that sees the stars through the bars and rejoices in the elevation of others, these seven qualities — faithfulness, service, love, belief, prayer, holiness, and attitude — all defy quantification.

Later, when I went to college church and without doing anything differently, the church began to grow. We were not seduced. And my wife, if she would hear, would say, “It meant less than people might think.” And pastors, preachers, elders, here it is, whether you are on the upside of the numbers game or on the downside, you must have the Bible define your success. In fact, when you’re on the upside, you may need it more.

Now I’m not talking about being in an above-it-all, Buddhist-like detachment. I always checked the attendance and the figures when I came in during the week, but they didn’t deter me from biblical principles. And you have to understand numbers. Scripture celebrates that 3,000 were saved at Pentecost. On one occasion, 4,000 were fed, and on another occasion, 5,000 were fed. That’s all beautiful. But I’ll tell you, at Pentecost, if three people were saved and the Holy Spirit was in it, it would be enough.

A Legacy of Learning True Success

The other enduring benefit of our searching out the Bible about success is the publication of Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, which includes those two providences back there. You see, I never planned to write it. It never even was in my mind. It was after a few years at college church. I had one of those weeks where I knew I couldn’t get an exposition together for Sunday night. I said, “Barbara, why don’t we share what we learned about success those years ago?” And she demurred at first, but then she acceded. So I did it.

After the service was over, a friend who was in the publishing business grabbed me by the arm and said, “This has got to be a book. Don’t sign with anyone else.” And my wife said, “A book? We told you everything we knew in 45 minutes.” And the guy took us out to lunch that week with a contract and a $2,000 check. I signed the contract, spent the money, and I had to write the book. It was our first book. If I somehow was given a directive that I could only keep one book in print, this is the book I would keep. It’s not because it sold all that much, but because of the letters and the calls that Ihave received over the years and keep on getting from God’s servants, from missionaries and pastors and Christian workers.

Some people say, “I went to hand in my letter and somebody gave me the book, I read the book. I tore up my letter.” And he’s still in that same place.

Supernatural Success

Now, the opening words of the title that John Piper gave me tonight, Success is Supernatural, is perfect because every element that I’ve talked about, if you’ve been listening, is supernatural. No one aspect can be accomplished in the flesh. And besides, if the ministry isn’t supernatural, it isn’t anything.

Now that being said, if you’ve been listening closely you’ll notice that there is nothing in our definition of success that is new or unique. In fact, I’ve had it pointed out to me with a yawn, and it used to put me off. Now I answer, “I hope not because if it’s new or unique it’s probably not in the Bible.” Each of those pillars are essential for biblical success. If you take one out, say holiness, or you take another out, like prayer, a bunch of the others will crumble and the others will all develop perosis. It’ll evaporate.

Now, as to the question of liberating relevance today, I believe that is very relevant. Now listen closely. The old managerial professional model was simply out there. You can see it. It’s easy to see, not very subtle, straight from the anthropologists in IBM. The new siren song is more subtle because it posits ministerial success on, as John Piper observes, one of ambience and tone and idiom and timing and banter. It is more intuitive and less taught, more style and less technique, more feel and less force. And I would say it is more seductive. And guys, there are many who imagine that a hip ecclesiastical cool is the key to success. That mixing the right cultural cocktail, say of Bonhoffer, bits of Bono, and Mother Teresa into a techno cup, will do the trick. But that has nothing to do with the supernatural.

Now again, imagine what would happen if ministers of the gospel excelled in the supernatural elements of success and were faithful, living in profound obedience to God’s word and working long and hard at their tasks, serving God with a foot-washing heart, loving God with all their heart and soul and might, believing in the God who is, praying with the dependence and passion of Christ, living pure, holy lives in a sensual world, and manifesting positive, elevating attitudes in the midst of the ministry: the stars would rise.

Other thoughts after 26 years? Well, guys, I would add a full chapter entitled “Success is Weakness”. I would follow the incredible, pulsing golden thread that holds 2 Corinthians together from beginning to end where Paul pulls out every narrative aspect and literary device and huge cultural picture to teach that New Covenant ministry is power in weakness. The paradox of ministerial power is, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Success, according to God’s holy word, is faithfulness, service, love, belief, prayer, holiness, attitude, and weakness. And success is supernatural. Amen.

was a pastor for 41 years, the last 27 as senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton. He continues to be involved in training pastors in biblical exposition and preaching.