Pastoral Success and the Cross of Christ

Desiring God 1989 Conference for Pastors

The Achievement of the Cross

I don’t know about you, but when I get in a room like this and I’m surrounded by all these male voices and we’re singing these hymns, my mind goes back to seminary. Does yours? It’s great to hear a bunch of men together singing like that, and that’s been encouraging. I’m going to be talking fast, so hang on because I have a lot to say in the time that’s allotted to me.

A Crisis of Vast Proportions

The title that I’ve been given for this hour is Pastoral Success and the Cross of Christ: A Contemporary Crisis. And I want to say that it certainly is appropriate because there is a crisis of vast proportions in today’s clergy.

Now, for the most part, it is suffered in silence. The laity for the most part in my conversations with them, would indicate that they have little idea that it exists. But if you travel among clergy as I sometimes do, you hear it all because you’re safe. I mean you’re not part of the context. And then being a pastor you understand as other people that are not really in the pastoral ministry cannot understand. And so after a few pleasantries, say in a pastor’s study, you talk about your children and oftentimes the pastor will begin to talk and he will talk and talk and talk and talk and talk. So it is my opinion, brothers in Christ, that the church is being ravaged today by its own ignorance of God’s word and corporate minded ideologues in the pews and in the pulpit.

What I want to do this morning is I want to address the problem. First of all, I want to talk about my bout with the success syndrome. Secondly, I want to elaborate some of the truths which I learned out of that, briefly just mention my experience of success, and finally land on pastoral success in the cross of Christ. Now, those who have served alongside me can say this. They would affirm that I am an even keeled, positive, straight-ahead pastor. I can say without any hesitation that they’re right. There are some qualifications. I sometimes have down periods, but basically I’m positive about the ministry and that’s what makes what I’m going to share very enlightening

Dark Thoughts Stirring Underneath

It was many years ago that I wasn’t feeling well as I walked up my broiling Southern California driveway. My briefcase in hand, I moved up towards the house and saw my wife behind the screen. And I didn’t know this, but she had been watching me with increasing alarm because my characteristic gait, whatever that is, didn’t have its characteristic spring, whatever that is. But she noticed with increasing alarm. But what she didn’t know is that I was in the deepest, darkest depression of my life.

She didn’t know that I was seriously considering leaving the pastoral ministry at which I had been engaged for a number of years, and I was full of dark thoughts. Beneath my pastoral veneer dark thoughts moved at will, and I would sometimes see myself sinking in a deep pit while the benevolent smiling faces of my congregation sort of moved in and out of focus, and I wanted to quit. I was down. The question is, how’d I come to this? And in retrospect as I look over my life, I can say it could be summarized under the words of the great expectations that I had for my life. I was reading the “Psychology Today” issue sometime ago, that when you have a particularly emotional meaningful moment, sometimes it will be imprinted in your mind in such a way that you can see your very fingerprints.

That’s how it was when I came to Christ. I was 12 and a half years old. I had heard the gospel for the first time in my life. About four months before I had sat under the gospel, I’d been under deep conviction. I went to camp, heard the gospel preached again, and I was marvelously born again at 12 and a half years old. I wept a great puddle of tears on the cement floor and repented of my sins. I got in my sleeping bag that night, and the Bible was alive to me. I can still remember the dirt under my fingernails and the flashlight and the smell of my sleeping bag. You know what a 12 and a half year old sleeping bag smells like at camp. It’s a wonderful smell. That’s the aroma of salvation to me.

Even though I wasn’t quite a teenager, I felt called to preach. I got up the next day after I was saved and I announced to everyone at camp and chapel that I was called to preach. I called my mother and told her I was called to preach. That was hard going down with my mother because she wasn’t really a believer at that time, and it was a precocious announcement, but it was of God. I’ve had it psychologised for me and everything else. Well, I don’t know, but he’s a sovereign God and he’s the God of all things. And I was called at that time. What it did is it gave me focus during the years it followed. When I went into high school, I had a focused life, focused on serving Christ.

When I was 16 years old, I preached my first sermon, Jonah and the whale. God has a whale of a plan for your life. The great line in that sermon was when the whale swallowed Jonah, I announced that he was “down in the mouth” and it was a sermon of dubious wit and doubtful quality, but just doing it established my pastoral persona. And I can remember the pastor sitting down in the front row and him grimacing while I was preaching, but he told me it was a good sermon afterwards because when you’re 16 they’ll tell you that. So that just affirmed my direction. God had called me when I was 12 and a half years old. I felt I was gifted to preach. And in my immature pride, I felt he was going to do great things with me. And it was an intensely serious matter with me. Everything that I did was focused on the ministry.

Growing Anticipation

When I got out of high school. I directed Youth for Christ Clubs in Los Angeles. I preached on the street virtually every Saturday night, handed out tracks, and organized evangelistic outreaches. And then I met my wife, Barbara, and she was a soul-winning excited believer. She had the joy of life and she brought it to my life. And so being married to a woman like this just assured me that there were great times ahead that God was going to use me. And then when I got to seminary, like I said, being here is wonderful. I felt like I’d gone to heaven when I went to seminary. I mean the first time I really cracked a Greek Testament and I was able to read a few words, it was wonderful. I’m the kind of person that I’ll take a critical commentary and open it up and run my fingers down the pages and feel the ink.

There’s a romance to biblical studies. So when I got there and I was with people like you surrounded by people like you, I felt like I had gone to heaven. And it just affirmed where I was going. It confirmed my vocation and it heightened my expectations. During my seminary years, we’d chosen to begin a family in college, so I was working full-time my last couple years of college when I started seminary. And my church was looking for a youth pastor. And so they hired me. They couldn’t get anyone else. That was during the 1960s. And if you remember the sixties, those tie-dyed, ragged, braided years, those were terrible years.

But they were also great years of spiritual harvest, if you remember, because everything was up for grabs. You could talk about Jesus in virtually any context. And there is a picture which hangs in our parsonage. It is a picture of five boys sitting on a trailer in Parker, Arizona, the edge of the Colorado River, 1968. They’re holding their beers. These guys are cool. They’ve got on sunglasses, their hair slicked back. They’re sunburned and they’re feeling terrible.

The reason that’s such a treasure to me is that it was that day that I prayed with those five high school boys that I met in Parker, Arizona at an outreach to receive Christ. Do you know what happened? One of them, the worst one of them, became Dmin at Viola College. Another one became a pastor in the denomination which I served. Another one became the leader of the largest Christian counseling service in Orange County. Another became an elder in a church. These were all unsaved boys that I met at the river. And that is a picture to me of the sovereign, intellectable, power of God. And whenever I get down, I turn to that picture, what God did in my life at that time.

A Church Plant and Beginning Enthusiasm

Well, not all ministry like that and 10 years of ministry, you have the vicissitudes and ups and downs. People are sticky. But my sense of ministry in those years was kind of an ascending thing.

When I got to be 32 years old, I decided I wanted to preach. I got to preach one night a year in my church. And so I decided if I was going to preach that I needed to get out and do it. I announced this to the pastor and he said, “I have a great idea. Why don’t we spin off a church?” This is a godly man that led me to Christ. He gave us, this was some years ago, 50,000 dollars and about a hundred people from the church, 20 couples, and we began a church. And as the fair-haired boy that grew up in that church, I was told by everyone it wasn’t going to be long until the daughter church was bigger than the mother church and that they were looking for great things for my life. And I believed it implicitly.

We gathered a great group of people together. When you begin a church, you’ll get a lot of enthusiastic people now, notwithstanding the fact that they’ll have their agendas when you begin a church, but a lot of energy. And we did things right. Our denomination retained a church growth expert who instructed us in the broad principles and the subtleties of church growth. They sent me to seminars on church growth. We obtained aerial photographs of our area, demographic projections, and ethnographic studies. We consulted the county. We targeted everything with painstaking care and prayerful premeditation. And we began a new church.

And as you know, beginning a new church is exhausting. You don’t have facilities. You’re meeting in a house for a while and then rented facilities, and then you bring everything in. Your hymnals, your pulpit, the cradles, the mic system, everything, and you unload it back in the trailer on Sunday night. But there is just a great sense of fellowship and joy in doing those things too. So we started right, fabulous potential, a great location. We had everything going for us. We had the prayers and predictions of our friends. We had the sophisticated insights of church growth. We had a superb nucleus of believers and we had me in my prime, or entering my prime so to speak. I had a good track record and we expected to grow.

A Surprising Turn of Events

But to our great astonishment, and this was after nearly a couple of years of work, we had fewer people than we had in the first six months of ministry. And our church was shrinking and not growing. And when I walked up that driveway, I was in a deep, deep, dark depression and I wanted to quit. After all that focus, after all those expectations, after all the preparation, after all that time in ministry, I was ready to quit. And my memory of that time, very melodramatic, was that I was out on a gray horizon sea and I’m treading water and it wasn;t long before I’m going to slip below the surface. That is how I felt. Well, when I saw my wife smile, I brightened as usual. She is a cheerful, wonderful woman. So we had a couple of hours with our happy family, eating our meal, getting them tucked in, making a few calls. But when the children were bed, I was ready to talk on that hot September night. With the bugs banging against the screen and my red bloodshot eyes, I began to talk.

My wife tried to cheer me up. She said, “Remember Noah preached 120 years and he didn’t have a convert.” And in my grimness I said, “Yeah, but there wasn’t another Noah across town that had the people flowing into his arc.” I was five minutes from the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, so guess who the other one was. And I began to say ugly things. My wife made note of these things and she wrote down all the things that I said the next morning. And she preserved them in a letter to a missionary girlfriend of hers in the Philippines. That’s why I have these things that I said, and here’s what I said, and they are ugly and they are mean and they are offensive. I said to her, in my dark fugue:

Most people I know in the ministry are unhappy. They are failures in their own eyes. 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?

When I talked about being at pastor’s conferences, not like this, but at pastor’s conferences where after a little talk you find immense hurt and self-doubt, most people feel like they’re IQ’s about three points above a plant when they end the conference. I went on to say:

In cold statistics, my chances of being a failure are overwhelming. Most pastors do no more than survive in ministry in piddly little churches.

I rehearsed how a professor of mine said, “Most of you’ll never pastor your church of more than 150.” I said:

If that’s true, that reduces us to subsistence living unless the spouse works. Those are the statistics.

Then I said:

It’s just asking too much of me. When you look at the ministry, you’ve got to have some way to measure your success. Farmers see their crops grow. It’s their proper reward. But I am not seeing anything.

Then I said:

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

And you can look at life like that. You can look at it like Psalm 73. I said:

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

And then I verbalized a conclusion, a sad conclusion when I said to her:

God has called me to do something he hasn’t given me the gifts to accomplish. Therefore, God is not good.

A Miracle Breaks In

It was ugly and misshapen. My poor wife was listening to all of this. Well, she is spunky. And I’ll never forget she listened to all of this. And here is her hero pastor, husband. And then she said to me, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but for right now hang on to my faith because I have enough faith for both of us.” That’s what she said. I went to bed exhausted, as all heroes do. And Barbara stayed up in the morning hours reflecting on our conversation. She said she wasn’t quite all that assured when I finally went to bed after what she said, all that bravado.

But she had been thinking about God and he had just been talking about how good he was, and that was fixed in her mind. And when you say a blasphemous statement like that, she knew God was good. You know what happened? This is one of the miracles in our lives. She went to the kitchen. She didn’t know what she was going to do. She is not a person who plays Bible roulette — “What’s God’s message for me today?” And then she doesn’t do that. But she was so desperate that she took a Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, which had been given to us a year before, a new one off the shelf where she kept her cookbooks. And she said to herself, “I’m going to read the first thing that I laid my eyes on.” God speaks to me.”

She opened it up and she saw a verse underline in red. Well, I don’t remember underlining it. Somebody in our family had to mark it or somebody who gave it to us, but it was underlined red. And this is the first thing that met her eyes. It was Psalm 37:24:

though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
     for the Lord upholds his hand.

And she said that God’s presence was so utterly palpable in that room that she felt she could reach out and touch him. She looked up above the verse and she read this:

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
     when he delights in his way . . . (Psalm 37:23).

She had her assurance and so she went to bed that night reciting the verse, “Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand.” She repeated that over and over again. Now God’s weaving the tapestry of our lives. A fascinating thing. Later that week, she attended a denominational meeting. When she was there, she saw two women, pastor’s wives, whose husbands had left the ministry ust during that last year.

... whose husbands had left the ministry just during that last year. And she said, “They looked great.” She said they were California chic. I mean, they looked good, they looked prosperous, and she could almost hear them purr. They greeted each other, and she said, “How are you? And how’s your husband?” And they said, “He’s never been happier. He’s selling insurance now.” She added, “It takes a special kind of man to be in the ministry. You can’t measure your success, and every man must be able to do that in order to have a good self-image.” My wife’s mind was racing. She said to them, “I’ve never thought of Kent as extraordinary, just called.” And then the woman said, “Well,” with a slight tremor in her voice, “if your church doesn’t grow” — and my wife knew exactly what she meant, she meant grow big — “Kent is going to feel like a failure.”

I am summarizing all of this, but my wife was angry, not so much to them, just at the whole thing. And she said to them, “I don’t know why, but you’re wrong, and I’m not going to rest till I find out why.” And so, she went home and told me about this. Well, we began to get excited even in the midst of all of this, because God had met her and there was this meeting. And so we sat down and we wrote three questions down. She wrote them on a three by five card: Can a man be a success in a ministry and pastor a small church? What is failure in the ministry? What is success? When you get them out on paper, it looks sort of crass. And we began to get excited just seeing it in black and white.

Principles of Self-Destruction

Now, we spent considerable time thinking about how this had happened in our lives, what the input had been. I want to say that I don’t think any of the input just by itself was necessarily evil, but the aggregate under the premise in which I was operating was deadly in my life. Let me just give them to you quickly. There was a marketing principle. When we first began our church, the denomination sent us to a seminar and I learned some of the pragmatic principles of church growth.

Location, Location, Location

One of them is that location is virtually everything. If you want to have a church that grows, then you need to have a good location. You need to have accessibility. The great hamburger chains go that way, and you need to understand that if you want to sell spiritual hamburgers. Well, there’s truth to the principle of course.


Sociology, in the early stages, an expert was sent to me. If I named this person’s name, you’d virtually know who the person was. He perused our area. He assessed how we dressed, asked about our tastes in such things as furniture and education. After analyzing our answers, he pronounced us perfect for the suburban area of Southern California. It was the homogeneous principle. Doctors best evangelize doctors, mechanics to mechanics, and athletes to athletes. And our family was just right.

Giving to Get

The other was stewardship. In the back of my mind, I believe the church it gives is a growing church. I believe if it gives to missions, it’s a growing missions church, that there’ll be growth. I don’t know if anyone ever said that to me, but what was in my mind was a hybrid strain of prosperity gospel. You know, if you give, you’re going to get.

Godliness for the Sake of Numbers

And then the other was godliness, and this is a good one, really good. But in my mind, I thought that if we were burning, if our spiritual ethos was real, if we flamed, people would come to see what would happen. There’d be spiritual change. But the bottom line for me was that meant more people.

And then the other was preaching. This reminds me of my seminary chapel, right here, about this size and a room like this, and week after week we would have pulpit stars come and stand in the seminary chapel pulpit. Now when I go preach somewhere, I usually take a sermon that has SB written on the back of it. You know what that stands for? Silver bullet. I felt that God really used it. I don’t take my lead bullets when I go preach somewhere else. I take my silver bullets. So they bring their silver bullets and they shoot them at you, and you’re dazzled, and the message that comes across is that churches that grow have wonderful communicators. You notice I said “communicators.” So I kept thinking, “If you do this one thing, your church will grow.”

The Problem with Numerical Growth

Now, I had proudly looked at all these principles, tried to put them together, and did things just right. But the underlying premise in my life was that success had to involve numbers, and ultimate success meant a big growing church. There’s nothing wrong with those principles. Some of them ought to be orchestrated into our ministries. But this is the way I put it, and I wrote it down.

However, when the refrain they play to is numerical growth, when the persistent motif is numbers, then the siren song becomes deeply sinister — growth in numbers, growth in giving, growth in staff, growth in programs. It’s numbers, numbers, numbers. Pragmatism becomes the conductor. The audience inexorably becomes man rather than God. Subtle self-promotion becomes the driving force, and when you evaluate your ministry that way, you evaluate your ministry like a businessman, or an athlete, or a politician. And given my thinking, the only conclusion I could come to, I was failing. And so my logic was that God had called me to do something that he hadn’t given me the superior gifts to succeed with, thus all my bitter resentment and recrimination.

You want to know something? That is not the way I began the ministry those years before. When I began the ministry, my heroes, the icons in my life, were Jim and Elizabeth Elliot. I read his biography several times, and his phrase you all know:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which you cannot lose.

All I wanted was the approval of God, and all I wanted was the honor of taking up my cross and following Jesus. That’s all I wanted when I began. But imperceptibly, my high idealism had switched from serving to receiving, from giving to getting. And I realized that I wanted success more than I wanted the smile of God. And when you’re in that position, you are in trouble, and you begin to evaluate everything from the perspective of numerical growth, and people become just so much beef on the hoof. It can enthrone a relentless pragmatism in ministry, and if this happens, you’re going to erode the noblest ideals and it can corrupt your theology.

I want to submit to you today that there are people preaching a corrupt gospel, a less-than gospel, because of this, because pragmatism is a conductor in their life, and they’re preaching a man-centered gospel rather than a God-centered gospel. I mean, it’s a dangerous thing. We realized that we had been seduced, and we began to see it.

Principles of Biblical Success

Things were brighter. Things hadn’t changed, but we got on our knees, we confessed our sins, and we covenanted to be radically biblical in our evaluations. We searched out what success is. And I want to share with you what the Bible revealed to us in those months. It didn’t come together quite as orderly as I’m going to share it, but I want to give that with you in the next minutes, and so hang on to your Bibles or your notes or your pen.

Faithfulness, Not Success

Well, as we searched the scriptures, the first thing that we came across was a statement that anyone would see when they are thinking about what the ministry’s all about, it’s 1 Corinthians 4:1–2:

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

So we saw that it was imperative that we understand what faithfulness is. Nowhere can you say that you’re called to be successful, but you find here that you’re called to be faithful. And so, that became sort of the principle text in which we searched out this whole matter of the success syndrome.

Now, what does it mean to be faithful? And there is a vignette from the life of Moses which clarified our thinking, and this is a watershed passage. It is in Numbers 20. I hope that you’ll mark it down and that you’ll take a look at it from the perspective that I want to share here. Forty years earlier, after the dramatic incident at Rephidim where God ordered Moses to strike the rock right at the beginning of his wilderness ministry to provide water for the people — remember, they were rebellious at that time — and he told him to strike the rock, and he did so, and you remember that water poured out, and all of Israel, at the beginning of their wilderness sojourn were watered, and their flocks.

But it’s 40 years later. He’s now at Kadesh, and the same thing is happening again, which I think is kind of a ministerial revelation, by the way. It’s 40 years of ministry and it’s the same thing. And bitter accusations are hurled at Moses. Numbers 20:3–4 says:

Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle?

Unbelievable. And Moses and Aaron are so devastated and so at their end, they go into the tabernacle before the Lord, and the Lord tells them what they are to do. He says, “Gather the assembly together, speak to that rock before their eyes, and it will pour out its water.” So Moses gathered all of the assembly together, and you can imagine. He says “all the assembly,” you’re talking about a million plus with their livestock. They’re camped in formation around the tabernacle, and he gathered them together. He gets ready to speak and he loses it. And so you read about this, the last part of Numbers 20:10–11:

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “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.

Again, it’s another stupendous miracle. I mean, can you imagine being there? This is not a little streamlet. All of them are watered. I mean, when the water pours out of that rock and the people clear away, can you hear the roar going from horizon to horizon? What a huge day of success. What a marvelous day it is in ministry. They’re singing his praises again that night. But that’s from earth’s point of view, isn’t it? What is it from heaven’s point of view? From heaven’s point of view, it was his day of ultimate failure, because God had told him to speak to the rock, and he had struck the rock. And because of that, God said to him:

Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.

He lost his dream. Do you know what that tells me? That you can be hugely successful, you can be giving people the preaching of the Word, I mean good exegesis and good preaching. You can be giving well-orchestrated worship like we had today. You can be giving them a great education program. The people can be flourishing under your ministry, and you can be an absolute failure. Do you believe that? That’s what it says here. So we began to see that his problem was he wasn’t faithful. He wasn’t obedient to God’s word.

Obedient to God’s Word

We fleshed that out a little further, and I’m taking a little longer in this principle. I’ll go faster in the other ones because I want you to see this. We realized that you needed to be obedient to God’s instructions in his word if you are to be faithful. And that was beautifully, beautifully affirmed in the life of Joshua. When Joshua follows him, you read God’s instructions to him:

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success (Joshua 1:7–8).

Success is wrapped up with obedience to God’s word. Charles Colson said much the same thing when he’d received a number of letters to his prison ministries. They were building a new building and people were telling how successful they were, and so on. He wrote this in “Jubilee,” he says:

As much as I am sincerely certain that God is indeed blessing us, I believe even more certainly that it’s dangerous and a misguided policy to measure God’s blessing by standards of visible, tangible, material success. The inference is that when things are prospering, God is blessing us, and conversely, when things are going poorly or unpublicized, God’s blessing is not upon the work, or it’s unimportant. We must continually use the measure of our obedience to the guidelines of his word as our real, the only standard of success, not some supposedly more glamorous or tangible scale.

There has to be obedience to his word. And I want to suggest to you that if we are going to be successful, faithful, and obedient to the will of God and his word, we have to be people of his word. I know something that you all know if you’ve been to Bible school or seminary, that you can go through Bible school and you can go through seminary and not know the word. You can know your Hebrew grammar, you can read your Greek New Testament, you can know some of the great theological constructs, you can know the history of doctrine, and so on. But it’s possible, because I went through seminary with some men who never had read the Bible once. And I think there’s something sublimely egalitarian for all of us. The most important thing above all of these things is just knowing your Bible, just reading it.

Now, I pastored a church where I was doing a little reading in another book and I found out that there was a William Evans who pastored College Church in 1906. I also found out that he had the entire King James Bible memorized from cover to cover, that Henrietta Mears tells a story about having him at Hollywood Presbyterian Church and inviting him into the college group. And the college group would say, “Deuteronomy 3:7.” He would say, “Let me think a moment,” and he’d recite it. And that just to prove his point about memory, he had memorized the New Testament in the American Standard Version of 1911, so he’d ask you what version you wanted for the New Testament. Well, that’s a little intimidating to be sure.

But I’ll say this, if you’re not reading the Bible through at least once a year, how can you be filled with the word of God enough to respond in profound obedience to him? How can that be? How can your ethics be influenced unless you’re not reading the Bible through? Personally, I use M’Cheyne’s plan. I read it one and a half times a year. But I would just say to you, if you’re not reading the Bible once a year, then how can you expect to have the profound obedience and faithfulness that brings success in life? We ought to be like Spurgeon said, that “when they cut us, our blood ought to be Bibline.”

Never a Lazy Servant

The other part of obedience is hard work. I’ll just say this, that there are a number of people I’ve run across the ministry that don’t put in a full 40-hour week. Personally, I can’t remember putting in less than 60. Maybe that’s a sin. But I’ve had people come to me and tell me this, because when you’re in the ministry, especially in a lot of places, there’s no time clock to punch. You can count things as ministry that really aren’t ministry. No one knows when you come in, no one knows when you go home. It’s easy to be slothful in the ministry.

But there is no such thing as a lazy, faithful servant. And that is the point of the parable in Matthew 25:14–26. Remember, one slave was given five talents, one slave was given two talents. They went and multiplied them and the master came back and he said what we all want to hear when we get there, “Well done, good and faithful slave” (Matthew 25:23). He gave one talent to another slave who went and hid it, and when he came back, he pronounced this withering statement, “You wicked, lazy slave.” That’s the point of the parable. You cannot be faithful if you’re lazy. God calls us to be faithful. That means implicitly obedient to his word and hardworking.

Now, what was encouraging to my wife and myself was that it didn’t make any difference what size our church was. We could do that. It was equally accessible to us as it was for pastors of huge churches. And that became foundational in our thinking. This particular principle became foundational in our thinking.

Success Is Serving

Now, briefly, let me give you some of the other principles that developed out of that. The second principle that Barbara and I took to heart was success is serving. You have heard about the conductor of a great symphony orchestra who was asked, “What is the most difficult instrument to play?” And he said, “Second violin. I can get plenty of first violins, but to get someone who can play second violin with enthusiasm, that is the problem. And without a good second violin, there’s no harmony.” That’s so often the way it is. People don’t want to be second fiddles. It’s not in vogue in the church today. I’m speaking of the broad ecclesiastic structure. The mindset is that success is sort of a lordship sitting in the honored seat, being a celebrated guest at luncheons, speaking to vast throngs, building monuments, and collecting honorary titles. Whatever you call it, it values being served and being exalted.

I remember visiting a denominational meeting, and they had a speaker come in — an unnamed speaker from an unnamed city in an unnamed age. And he told us as he spoke to us that if we had extravagant desires for material possessions and we were walking with the Lord, that they were God’s will for us. His rationale was Psalm 37:4, which says:

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

I was sitting there with about 70 pastors and I was the only one who raised my hand. I’m no hero, but I couldn’t take this, so I raised my hand and I used that little homely analogy, not necessarily perfectly theologically accurate about the fact that I had a little white dog inside of me and a little black dog inside of me, and which one got fed the most. I was talking about the fact that I could sin, that I still had a sin nature even though I was regenerate. He looked at me and he said, “I don’t know about you, but my black dog is dead. Ergo, everything that I desire is God’s will.” That was his lime-colored Cadillac and all of his fancy suits.

“All the King’s servants,” he said, “travel first class.” Nevermind the faulty exegesis, nevermind the unbiblical and simplistic deductions about the desires of the regenerate. Nevermind that the symbol of Christianity is the cross.

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.

Amen? There’s a bunch of Baptists here. How about it? For those caught up in such thinking, Christianity exists to give me eternal life, to increase my physical health, to coddle my body, to enlarge my power, to elevate my prestige, and to give me money for whatever my heart desires.

No Servant Greater Than His Master

Then you turn to the 13th chapter of John and you have that electrifying moment when, after Jesus has stripped himself and washed their feet, he 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him (John 13:14–16).

It’s the ancient a fortiori argument from the greater to the lesser. But on his lips, how powerful the argument is. If it’s true for me, how much more true for you? And I want to submit to you that if we’re not serving with a servant’s heart, we’re not living in success. If that was true for Jesus, how much more for us? You got to be faithful and you got to be serving with a servant’s heart. And if you’re not serving with a servant’s heart, I don’t care what the statistics say, you’re not a success.

Success Is Loving God

The third thing is what we know to be the number one priority in all of life, and that is loving God. That unforgettable incident at the final chapter of John where Peter is asked three times by Jesus, “Do you love me?” And three times commission. I mean, that poignantly celebrates it and sets it down for all of us to remember. Isn’t that wonderful? The number one priority in all of life is loving God.

You go clear back in Israel’s history to the great Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4–5, which says:

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.

It’s possible to have wonderful worship services. It’s possible to write books that deepen others’ love for God and not love God. I think all we have to do is look at the newspapers the past two years and you know that that’s true. The high places are not safe. I think they must be dangerous, because I don’t think that all those people began that way, do you? I don’t think they began that way.

Then I just want to say this, that love liberates. First, because it places our ministries and our lives beyond the fallible, oppressive judgment of the quantifiers.

Secondly, it liberates us because it takes away the tendency to compare ourselves with other people. I mean, who knows how much someone else loves God? I only know my own heart. So it takes away that dangerous tendency. And then it frees us to live our lives to the highest priority. There is an ongoing liberation in knowing that the highest priority is in loving God. That’s liberating. It’s something we can all grow in.

And finally, regardless of status, it is sublimely egalitarian. It’s equally available to the archbishop or the gardener. In fact, it’s probably more available to the gardener to love God. And that is liberating in our name-dropping, rung-dropping, status-conscious world. And we had a new surge of freedom as we realized this. And we committed ourselves to loving God above all things. Because we knew if we get there and we don’t love him, it’ll be ashes on the altar. There is no success apart from loving God.

Success Is Believing

Fourthly, success is believing. There is a refrain that runs through my mind. I use it all the time in my preaching. That is, we need to believe what we believe. We don’t need to learn new and more and more wonderful doctrines. We simply need to believe what we believe. Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” So there is no way around it. Regardless of our accomplishments, regardless of what we do, God will take no pleasure in them unless there is faith. So I think it can fairly be said that without faith there’s no success.

Now the writer continues. This is Hebrews 11:6:

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.

He asks for two things: to believe that he exists, that he is — an ontological statement with other things in it — and that he is equitable towards his children, that he rewards those who diligently seek him. Those are the two things that please God. Part of my problem was I wasn’t believing what I believed. I wasn’t believing in the God who is of Scriptures, the massive theology. I wasn’t believing that he’s equitable towards his children. I would’ve fought for the truth. I believed the truth. But I wasn’t believing what I believed. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. The great Christological hymn in Colossians 1:15–18 affirms that he is the creator of all things. He is the sustainer of all things. He is the goal of all things and he is the lover of all things. If we believe that, it’ll change our life.

I mean, if you believe that he created every speck in the universe, every color, every texture, from the fires of Arcturus to the fires of the firefly; if you believe that he is holding every atomic particle of the universe together, that if you took a spaceship and traveled for a million years making left and right turns in the frozen backwaters of space and you came to a stellar dust, that he’s holding it together; if you believe that, if you believe that Jesus is the goal of all the universe, that he is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, and everything is moving toward him; and if you believe he loves you, that’ll change your life. We don’t need to believe more things. We just need to believe what we believe. And when we believe that, we’ll believe he’s equitable towards us. We reaffirm our belief in the things that we believe.

Success is Prayer

Then fifthly, we learned that success is prayer. There’s a lot of prayerlessness in the ministry. We’ve had conversations with our colleagues, haven’t we? And we’ll talk about that maybe. I want to submit that there are three reasons we should pray. And one of them maybe you don’t hear very often.

The first one is because of what it does to us. If you think of your life as a photographic plate, then if you expose yourself to the sunlight, the special intense sunlight of the Lord’s presence for five minutes, 15 minutes, a half hour, there’s a sense in which he burns his image into you. Someone once asked George McDonald, “Why pray if God knows everything beforehand?” And he said, “What if God knows it’s the thing that we need most.”

Not only that, when we are exposing ourselves to the sunlight of his presence and having his character burn into us, there’s a sense in which it’s not God’s will that’s bent to ours, but that our will is bent to God’s will. When you toss out a boat hook to the land and it fastens out there and you pull hard, what happens? Does the land come to you? You go to the land, don’t you? That’s been my experience anyway. So our wills are bent to his. We have his character burnt into our lives. Our wills are burnt to his. I think that is the greatest need of the soul of a believer. It’s this intense exposure to God and what it does to us.

It’s also what it does to the church. In Acts 12, Peter crashed the prayer meeting.

Then thirdly, and most importantly, it’s because Jesus prayed. If you read Mark the third chapter, you read of a pressured, pressured, pressured Jesus. He was so pressured that the ill were literally stumbling over him. And, according to the RSV, he was going to be crushed. He kept a little boat just off the shore. I mean, that’s like if I was speaking here and I have a car out here with the engine running, and Mike’s sitting out there, and if they don’t like what I say, I can get through the door. That’s just about as intense as it was. And yet, in the midst of all of this crush and all the pressure from the demonized and from the ill and from the Pharisees, it tells us that he got apart and got alone. The parallel in Luke 6 says that he went up in the mountain and he spent the night in prayer.

Now, if we’re talking about an a fortiori argument, if the very son of God in the busyness of pressured earthly ministry had to get away and spend long times of prayer, how much more do adopted sons and daughters to God have to do the same? If logic means anything, are we, who have pastoral ministry, committed to long times of regular prayer with God? If we’re not living a life of dependent prayer, it’s not a life of success, regardless of what the statistics say.

Success Is Holiness

And finally, success is holiness. Leviticus 19:2 says that we are to be holy because he is holy. I was just reading that through just recently, in the last month or so. As I read through the context, do you know what the context of Leviticus 19:2 is? It is principally talking about sexual purity. And that is where there is a huge irony today, because there are untold numbers of successful pastors and Christian workers who are abysmal failures because they are sensualists.

I think that we need to read Judges 13–16 and focus on 16:20 when Delilah calls out to Sampson, “The Philistines are upon you.” As the King James says, “He wist not that the Holy Spirit had departed from him.” I think that’s a ministerial epitaph. I think because the very pores of our society are full of sensuality, there are all kinds of television voyeurs that are in the ministry. I know of some that ultimately fell into sensuality because of HBO and cable television they went home and watched after prayer meetings on Wednesday nights. I know of people that would call themselves fundamentalists and carry bibles, but at home they’re voyeurs and dirty-minded. They have secret files full of filth.

We ought to read, obviously, the story of David, and understand this. When lust has a grip on your soul, then God is never more distant. We need to clean up our lives. How many chapters of the Bible did we read last week? How many murders did we watch on television? How many fornications? Because there is no success apart from holiness.

The Significance of Attitude

Barb and I got a great letter from a friend of ours some years ago. I’d written a note of encouragement to him because he had suffered a heart attack. This is what he wrote back:

Dear Kent, et al. Following my recent heart attack, the doctors informed me that there was one chance in 10 that within six months I would have a second attack, which would be fatal. And one chance in five that I would have another non-fatal attack. With the realization that these were lousy odds, I decided to wait six months to answer all cards and messages I had received from so many concerned friends and acquaintances. I figured if things went well statistically, I might never have to answer, or could answer once for two hits. Well, the six months are up.

The odds are now getting better and better that I’ll die of something else, so I’m forced to respond. My excuses for being inconsiderate are all used up. Thank you for your concern. Thank you for your message. Thank you for caring. Thank you for your love. Each message received was one more good reason to fight. Without them, the struggle would’ve been almost unbearable. I’ve lost 35 pounds. I’m jogging five miles a day in under 60 minutes and hating every minute of it. I can have anything I want to eat as long as I don’t put salt on it and don’t swallow it — no meat, no dairy products, no nothing but vegetables, fruits, grains, and a restricted amount of nuts. And as you know, no matter how you cook them, vegetables are really inedible. May I suggest, don’t get old. You’ll live to regret it. My love, John.

Now, we were encouraged because that was such an upbeat letter because there’s a qualified sense in which attitude is everything. Well, I’d like to say more about this, but if you think about it, all you have to do to read a great book on attitude is Philippians, where Paul is in the slammer in Rome, so to speak. He has a splendid attitude about the whole thing. Here he is, the missionary general of the church, a supreme intellect. He’s been fighting the judaizers and everybody all across Asia, and he’s in jail. What does he say in Philippians 1:18? It’s the hatred of his other competitive theologians, we’ll put it that way, pastors. He says, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. Because of this, I rejoice.” What an attitude.

Two men looked through the bars. One saw the mud, the other the stars.

Absence of Envy

I just want to say a couple of things. We realize that the success in ministry is wrapped up with attitude, a positive attitude and an attitude which is free from jealousy. We need to be positive people. We need to have a Pauline attitude, a positive attitude, the Philippian attitude. He says, “I want you to know, my brothers, that my imprisonment has worked out for the greater progress of the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). It’s literally the pioneering of the gospel.

The other is an attitude which is free from jealousy. You’re going to talk about Charles Simeon, John. A great vignette from his life comes from a story about one of his curates, Thomason, who was at the church. Simeon was sidelined to the Isle of Wight for several months, and Thomason began to preach and he was doing a terrific job. Simeon kept getting these great reports. Some people were saying he was preaching as well or as better as Simeon. When Simeon heard about it, he said essentially this:

Praise God. Now I know why I’ve been set aside. That he may increase, but I must decrease.

What a thing to say. We hear about Eldad and Medad in the Numbers 11 and we get Moses’s fabulous statement when Joshua comes concerned that their prophesying in the camp. He says in Numbers 11:29:

Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”

What a watershed statement for Joshua. There are penetrating questions we can ask: How do we feel when a colleague has gone to a prestigious church, or written a fine book, or been asked to preach at the annual convention, or been praised by someone who we have desired praise from? Or even more revealing: How do we feel when we hear of a colleague’s weakness or misfortune or humbling? Negativism sours the proper deserts of ministry. Jealousy evacuates our lives of the satisfaction and blessing of God in our lives. How much better to be like Moses or Jonathan or Charles Simeon or Alexander White, of whom it was said, “All of his geese became swans.” Attitude.

The Most Dramatic Failure

Well, now the cross. I think I’m staying within my time constraint here. I would like to suggest to you that Christianity from Golgotha onwards, has been the sanctification of failure. That is one of the meanings of the cross. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion, he came as messiah. That was his self-assessment, and that was the enthusiastic opinion of the people. But a week later, when the nails were driven through his extremities, the masses suddenly and universally believed him to have miserably failed. And when the midday darkness shrouded the hanging Jesus, his enemies and his followers alike, took it as a sign of divine disapproval of him.

What they couldn’t see, as he slowly genuflected in the darkness, is that by an infinite active and submissive will, he was becoming sin for us. Wave upon wave of the world’s sin poured onto sinless Jesus. Again and again, during those three hours, his soul recoiled and convulsed as the murders of a thousand killing fields, the whorings of the world’s armies, the lies, the hatreds, the jealousies, the prides of mankind, were poured onto his purity. Our sins found their way into his every sense, the very pores of his soul. What horror he must have felt as he became sin for us and felt his eyes and his hands and his feet and his lips and his heart, as if they were members of the evil one. He looked and he didn’t know himself as he became something he could never be apart from his sacrificial will, and that is sin. When the sun returned and his terminal cries were completed and his body hung motionless with flies whirling around and over around him in a bloody frenzy, all that the world could see was failure. It was the most dramatic failure that the cosmos has ever witnessed.

But we know that what the world saw as failure was a supreme success of the universe. The Holy Trinity knew it, the Old Testament scriptures taught it, and believing hearts would soon see it, and we see it, don’t we? And here’s what I think. It reveals that there is success which the world cannot and will not see and it is this: Following the cross in sacrifice is success. I think we understand that what the world regularly views as failure as it looks at disdain on God’s humble, self-denying service is actually resounding success. The world calls it failure. God calls it success because it is the cross.

Jesus said in Mark 8:34–35:

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

The Inherent Sacrifice of Ministry

Christianity without the cross is a failure. Bearing the cross is success. In this respect, Paul said:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

For Paul, life was the death of the cross. He said in another place: “I die every day” (1 Corinthians 15:31). The NIV says, “I mean that, brothers.” At the end of Galatians, he cries out:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).

So a life which embraces the cross is a life which is called a sacrifice. And sacrifice is success regardless of how the world of the church views it. I think one of the great glories of being called to the gospel ministry is that it calls us to sacrifice. That is intrinsic to the pastoral call. Sacrifice of time, sacrifice of ego, sacrifice of wealth, sacrifice of position. When Christ calls a man to ministry, he calls him to die and thereby succeed.

Now, I’m aware that it’s possible for a person to save by de-quantifying the definition of success as you have. Turning away from staff and numbers and souls and books and print and degrees and breadth of influence and prestige that I am encouraging mediocrity. I’d like to stay far from it. Instead, think of this. Think what it would be like if we were faithful, living in profound obedience to God’s word and working long hard hours at our tasks, serving with a foot-washing heart, loving God with all our heart, soul, and might, believing what we believe, praying with the dependence and passion of Christ, living pure holy lives in a sensual world, manifesting a positive, supportive attitude in the midst of difficulties, living lives of sacrifice as we joyfully take up our crosses and follow him. If that is mediocrity, then give us more of this blessed mediocrity. Brothers, it is success.

Question and Answer

How do you breed into your congregation this understanding of what biblical success is?

Well, first of all, it’s just coming to a definition of it and becoming aware of it and realizing that they’re assaulted with the same thing. That they feel the same pressures about this and the principles are transferable to them. I think becoming aware of it is important. I have an open letter in one of my books to the congregation, a 20-page letter, which talks about what you need to understand about success. So that would be one way to get your elders to read that and discuss the principles. I know a lot of pastors that have done that. But it’s to become cognizant of those things and just hit on them for what they are.

I assume you use church growth principles even now in your ministry in some sort. How do you keep the balance between using them as tools and slipping into that success mindset you spoke about?

When I say this, I don’t say that numbers have no significance. You have 3,000 saved at Pentecost and you have 5,000 fed. They mentioned it. Except that if three were saved at Pentecost and five were fed in the other place, it would be equally a success. I know what the numbers are, and I keep track of those things. When I work with the people I work with, we have goals and we set them out and so on. I know the principles of visible accessibility, 80 percent seating and parking and all that kind of thing. We labor under those things and we’re cognizant of those things. It’s just that I will not submit to being driven by pragmatism and what works. And I will not say, I will not admit that the Holy Spirit is limited by what he can do by the size of your parking lot.

When trying to determine the will of God for something you ask, should we ask what God’s will is before you ask what the numbers are?

Right. I also believe that when I say hard work, I don’t mean just sweat. I mean, if you’re not being creative, if you’re not availing yourself of all the wisdom that’s available and using it properly, then I don’t think you’re being faithful in the sense of being hardworking. It involves creativity.

When you talk about being positive, do you ever preach sermons about what serious trouble our nation is in your congregation and get flack for it?

I just recently preached a sermon on riches and wealth, and this is a debatable thing, but part of the thesis of what I said is that money is not neutral. If you have a lot of money, you’re in danger. Then I took all the New Testament passages and basically said, this church is in harm’s way. It’s in great danger because it is a rich, wealthy church. Our souls are in danger. I had people that didn’t like that. I’ve preached on the abortion issue four or five times in the last four years. I mean, those imply our nation’s being in trouble. I’ve talked about the coming judgment.

How do you deal with the personal sin of pastors and how does that relate to the failure or success from a biblical point of view? Where does the reality of sin in our lives fit into the impact on our ministries in the system as you’ve integrated and pulled it together?

Well, one is like you say, your anthropology is one of the most important things in your theological system, knowing who you are and what man is. Personally, one of my greatest concerns is I think your christology often goes when your anthropology goes, when you get a defective doctrine of sin and man, how utterly sinful we are and depraved we are every part of our personality. So it’s like when I’m preaching, to use Baxter’s words, it’s the sinner pleading with sinners. So I know who I am. I’m not talking down to people. In dealing it practically with my own staff, this is one of the things that we talk to each other about. I ask them straight on questions every quarter: Is there major sin in your life? How’s your relationship with your wife? I even ask them: Have you committed adultery? I ask them those questions and they ask me the same questions.

There’s collegial accountability. And one of the prayers that I often pray over the people I work with is, “God, if there’s someone here that would be heading toward adultery, take them home now rather than disgrace your name.” But the reality of who we are is that I keep coming back to the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor spirit for there’s the kingdom of God.” In other words, “Blessed are those who realize they have nothing within themselves to bring themselves to God, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” And he says, “Blessed are those who mourn (that is, over their own sins and the sin of the world).” I see that as foundational then to true meekness and humility and hungering and thirsty and after righteousness in that whole logical order. So being aware of who we are, but I don’t see that as necessarily negative, just reality.

Yes, but there is the reality of sin even in the light of “faithful servants”.

Well, I’m aware, I don’t know if this has happened to others of you who preach here, but I can be preaching in the spirit and I can really feel the power of God, and then I can be saying to myself, “This is going pretty well. They’re really with me.” And all of a sudden I’m in the flesh and I’m preaching in the flesh and I’m repenting at the same time that I’m preaching as I’ve just lost it while I’m preaching.

How would you apply the principle sacrifice is success to your family and personal health?

Being in the ministry is a sacrifice itself. I remember I asked John Stott this question one time, and this was when I was a youth pastor. It was at the Urbana Convention. He just preached on John 13. So he said, “If there’s nothing in your life that is analogous to foot washing, you have no business calling yourself a follower of Christ,” or something like that. So I said to him in a session like this, “What is there in your life that qualifies you?” Because here he is, pastor of All Souls in London and world traveler and everything else. He blushed, I kind of put him on the spot. He talked about being in hospitals. He said, “I don’t know what to say to you because that’s a very hard question to answer.”

But intrinsic to ministry is self-sacrifice. One preacher said if you’re really preaching God’s word and you put yourself in it, you die naked a little bit in the pulpit every week. I think there’s sacrifice in that. I think it’s intrinsically sacrificial. I don’t carry it to the extent of telling my family that they’re making great sacrifices because I’m in the ministry. Everybody has to work. Everybody ought to be making sacrifices. I have not self-consciously done that with them. I have not said that. Maybe I should, but I haven’t done that with them. Interestingly, they’re pretty positive towards ministry. I’ve got one that’s going to lead us next year as a missionary to Austria and another one’s studying for the ministry.

When I think about pragmatic approaches to ministry, a lot of times the cornerstone or foundation seems to be that needs-centered rather than God centered. But is there any place in ministry to approach it from people’s needs rather than from above? And if so, what?

He’s talking about being God-centered or needs-centered. Man-centered would be a more pejorative statement. That’s not what I’m really talking about, but my opinion is that you’ve got to define what you’re about and it’s God-centered, but being God-centered does not exclude taking people where they are and people’s needs. I mean, you find Paul doing this in his preaching. He contextualizes his preaching. We need to do that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not God centered. It’s when it’s totally contextualized that it becomes a problem. And then when you begin to say they know they’re sinners already, I don’t need to tell them they’re sinners, and what they need is a good experience when they come here rather than hearing what God’s word has preached, then you’re in trouble.

Is that a thin line to cross or do you know when you’re crossing it?

I think it’s a line you can cross imperceptibly. All of a sudden you’re entertaining them.

In the transition from church growth as a ministry tool to a heresy or a false god, can you phrase some of the steps that you think have caused that? And then secondly, do you see any other ministerial tools that are in danger of becoming heresy today?

I have to say, I didn’t knock church growth in what I said. I knocked my appropriation of it. So I want to be careful about what I’m saying about that. I will say that sometimes I think that the church growth movement looks around the country to see where a lot is happening as far as people coming into the church. Then they say, what are they doing? And then they baptize it and say it’s good. Pragmatically, if I auctioned off a Corvette every Sunday night at Collies Church, I could probably fill it with 4,000 people at a dollar a piece. I’d have to have it subsidized, but you know what I mean.

Do you see any other ministerial tools today that were in danger of making a false god?

Just the common things. We talked about preaching, and I think that we have a tendency to want to look at the culture and then baptize the culture. I think that Christianity has always been counter-cultural. If we’re not counter-cultural in our ministries, we’re not preaching true Christianity.

You started this session off by saying the Church has been ravaged by patrons of the world and corporate-minded ideologues. How do you deal with that corporate ideologue that just continues to press you to adopt the latest corporate method, the latest corporate mentalities?

Well, we all have people that think that way. They’ve read a book somewhere. The classic statement I’ve got in one of my books is a story of a pastor who the elders were executives of the major corporation and had this percentage growth and they’d read a book that said that what this church needs now is a rancher rather than a shepherd. They said, “You’re a shepherd but not a rancher, so we’re going to get somebody else.” I don’t know. I say some of them you meet head on, you can preach on it. It’s all in how you approach it. I got a story here of somebody that was savaged by corporate executives with an IBM mentality after years and years of godly Christ-centered ministry. It’s a true story.

We know right now you’re doing very well in terms of numbers and things like that, and you do have the opportunity to be a silver bullet speaker, if you will. Knowing that, how do other men who pastor large churches respond to you. Do they ever talk with you about their success or their failure in the ministry and compare notes with you because you’re in a position where you can talk to some of those guys that have big churches?

I’ve received some notes from them affirming me. I got one from Paul Cedar and some others like that. John, you have three services here on Sunday morning? You’re facing the same thing. The point is, wherever you are on the downside numbers of the upside, you better have a biblical definition of success or you’re in big trouble, wherever you are.

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.