The following is a guest post by Casey McCall, Student Ministry Director at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church.
Ministry is always easy in the abstract. Have you ever noticed that? I first noticed it several weeks ago when I went with my pastor, David Prince, to New Orleans to explore possible church planting locations for our church. As George Ross, the SEND Nola Coordinator for the North American Mission Board, showed us around the city, I began to dream. I began to envision what success would look like in such a place. I began to think of all the things that would need to be done in order to accomplish such a goal. I began making a list of things that would be essential to anyone living in New Orleans with the goal of church planting: community involvement, neighborhood presence, personal relationship building, service to others, and personal evangelism. And then I envisioned success. I dreamed of a thriving, gospel-proclaiming church having an impact in a hard-to-reach community, transforming it one heart at a time. It all seemed so simple to me in the abstract.
Then I came back home to Lexington, Kentucky. As I continued dreaming about our church’s role in New Orleans, a convicting question kept assaulting my mind: Why is there such a disconnect between my dream of successful ministry in a different city and my actual habits of ministry in my own context? If I’m not leading neighbors to Christ in Lexington, why do I think it would be so easy in New Orleans? If I’m not heavily involved in community activities now, what basis do I have to assume that I would be so involved in a different context? It’s easy to be a ministry hero in your own mind. Doing actual ministry, however, is a different story. As we envision successful future ministry, we need to remember a few important things.
Vision is important. We all need to have a picture that we are driving toward in life—an end goal of what we want to accomplish. However, as we dream and envision, we need to make sure that our dream embraces gospel priorities and does not err into utopianism. The likelihood that you become the next Charles Haddon Spurgeon is slim to none, and I’m not even sure that you should be aiming for that. You’re not Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and your context is not London, England in the 1800s. Success in your specific context may look radically different than success in someone else’s context. In fact, what made men like Spurgeon so successful was their faithfulness within the specific context to which they were called. Spurgeon wasn’t trying to be the next John Calvin; he was trying to introduce people in London to Christ. You and I shouldn’t be trying to be the next Spurgeon; we should be trying to introduce people in Lexington, KY, or Dothan, AL, or New Orleans, LA, to Christ.
When I say that we should dream realistically, please don’t hear me saying we should dream minimalistically. I love the Baptist missionary William Carey’s words that we should “expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” What I am saying is that we should seek to define success the same way God does. If your church does not attain mega-church status within ten years, you are not a failure. Success in ministry is more often slow and difficult than instantaneous and easy. Our quick-fix society struggles with this, but there’s a reason the Bible keeps using farming metaphors when describing gospel ministry. Farming is hard work. It takes skill and patience and has to account for factors beyond the farmer’s control. Paul seeks to bring realistic expectations to the status-obsessed Corinthian church when he writes, “What then is Apollos? What then is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives growth” (1 Cor. 3:5-7).
Ultimately, whether or not your work becomes noticed outside your own immediate context or your church explodes with growth, is not up to you. As we envision the future, let’s dream of a long life of faithful and sacrificial labor. Let’s dream of busting our tails to do all that we can in the specific place where we are—where God has called us—while trusting God for the results. That’s what success in ministry looks like.
Start Where You Are
Here’s the stark truth: If you aren’t having gospel conversations with your neighbors now, you aren’t going to do it on the mission field either. If you’re not discipling others in the faith now, you’re not going to in that new ministry location you keep dreaming about. So many of the changes and transitions we make in life are merely the futile attempts to escape the reality of living in a fallen world. We don’t want to deal with the real problems in our lives, so we imagine starting over from scratch in a new context where our current problems will be gone. We long for a fresh start so we begin dreaming up idealistic scenarios where we are freed from the worries that trouble us now. “If only I didn’t have to work multiple jobs…” “If only my church would support the work I’m trying to do…” “If only I had more passionate people around to help…” What we fail to realize, however, is that the problems we are trying to escape are not merely the result of present circumstances.
Most of the time the problems we face in life and ministry are the result of living as sinful creatures in a fallen world, and these problems, therefore, will not go away by packing up a moving van and transporting our families to a new and improved ministry context. We can’t escape relational conflict and the difficulties of work and ministry, because we can’t escape the curse (Gen. 3). The grass will hardly ever be greener on the other side. It may appear that way in your dreams, but before long, you will be trying to escape a different set of problems in your next place.
If you want to be successful in ministry, stop trying to run away from the problems you are currently facing by dreaming up idealistic scenarios in new locations and start doing ministry now, wherever you are. Stop making excuses for why you can’t be successful, and confront your problems with gospel resolve and work toward change. You think you’re called to preach? Start preaching. You think you’re called to pastor? Start serving the church. You think you’re called to the mission field? How are you doing reaching people where you live? Are you tired of dealing with certain stubborn people? Work toward relational reconciliation. Seminary and books—as helpful as these tools are—are not the best training tools for gospel ministry. Doing ministry in your church under your church’s leadership will prepare you for ministry better than anything else. Start doing ministry, and start right now—wherever you are, no excuses. That’s where God has called you.
Expect to Bleed
Ministry will never be easy. Jesus never promised it would be easy. In fact, Jesus told us we would have to bear our own crosses as we follow him (Luke 9:23). So often we glamorize ministry by refusing to picture the hard and difficult process that lies before the intended goal we are trying to reach. If the gospel teaches us anything, it should teach us that success only comes after suffering. Christ was resurrected to glory only after bearing the curse of the wrath of God. The apostle Paul says that gospel ministers are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10). The cross sets the pattern for our lives. We should never expect easy success. We should never think we can bypass the hardship and go right for the glory.
Discouragement in ministry is often the result of a failure to view ministry through the lens of the cross. So many ministers are trying to bypass the blood and the sweat and the tears in favor of some abstract formula for success. Ministry doesn’t work that way. There is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for success. The steps taken by John MacArthur or Rick Warren at their respective churches that led to such explosive growth may never work in your context. But do you want to know what always works in every context and has a proven track record of over 2000 years? Lovingly and boldly proclaiming the gospel and discipling new believers to do the same. It’s hard and, at times, heartbreaking work, but last time I checked, Matt. 28:18-20 still contained the marching orders for the church.