I’m 62 and have been a vocational pastor for 39 years. I serve in a smallish church of very diverse believers, and commit around 55 hours per week to active ministry. I’ve got my hands and head full, and don’t know that I can handle much more.
So yesterday’s billboard wasn’t helpful. It urged college students with one part encouragement and one part moral imperative to “Be the spark that changes the world!”
I’m 40 years out of college, and the spark has yet to happen. Despite all “I’ve done,” the world remains the same as always, only worse. There’s no ignited the world line in my résumé. Yet isn’t that what pastors (and other Christians) are supposed to do? Don’t real leaders envision, implement, and bring about big picture, systemic, generational change? Perhaps some do. But I haven’t.
While some are supposedly changing the world, I’ve been reinforcing the faith of the pew-6 brother who’s battling porn, the pew-10 sister who’s terrified of COVID, the pew-9 widow who has three young children, the pew-16 guy whose wife left him, and the pew-29 teen whose faith has hit the skids. I’ve kept busy trying to help my flock survive in the world and thrive in Jesus.
So where does that leave me—and millions of other Christians and pastors like me—who feel like failures in a “be the spark” world?
Defining Our Calling
I’m a simple guy with an uncomplicated calling. Get saved. Love the triune God. Be sanctified. Love my wife, children, and neighbors. Treat people with respect and justice. Live a God-centered and gospel-saturated life. Help others do the same.
I am not implying I’m the one who saves people. I’m way too Reformed for that. Blessedly, salvation is all of God (Rev. 7:10). But I do need to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12–13). And I need to be the kind of pastor who helps others be and stay saved (1 Tim. 4:6–16). I am very much called to serve the salvation and sanctification of the people in my pews.
Matthew 28:19–20, Acts 6:4, and 1 Timothy 4:11–16 are defining for me. Love people. Tell them about Jesus. Baptize them and add to the church. Preach, teach, write, counsel, comfort, encourage, affirm, correct, be an example. Saturate it all with prayer. Repeat all these steps for several dozen hours per week, and for 39 straight years. Plow forward without looking back (Luke 9:62). Run well and finish strong (1 Cor. 9:24–27; 2 Tim. 4:7, 8). And do this all with joy (Heb. 13:17). That’s my calling. And with a few tweaks, I’d say it is the calling virtually every believer has, from the megachurch pastor to the mom with kids.
Learning from Biography
But it’s hard work getting and keeping people saved. Helping them mortify their relationship with sin, and deepen their relationship with Jesus, is labor-intensive. While the world is pursuing mighty causes, I’m sweating it, trying to help my little flock survive and thrive.
Not that I don’t care about the big picture. It’s just that the big picture is actually a composite of seven billion little pictures; seven billion precious individuals who cannot be neglected for the sake of any “world-changing” cause. If I unwisely adopt the glamorous concept of leadership, I can head out to change the world, while leaving behind many souls—including my own—in the process.
If I unwisely adopt the glamorous concept of leadership, I can head out to change the world, while leaving behind many souls—including my own—in the process.
I’ve learned this from biographies. Though it isn’t the case in every instance, many who do allegedly great things are great failures where it matters most: on the home front, and in their personal character and conduct. Their public cause is a greater priority than their private character—to the harm of family, friends, and neighbors. They change the world while losing souls.
Here’s my takeaway: it’s more important to be a good and faithful man who helps others be good and faithful than it is to revolutionize the world.
Sorry to Disappoint
I am sorry to disappoint those—both to my right and my left—who will want more from me. Some will interpret my simple ambition as otherworldly escapism. But while I certainly care about causes on both sides, it’s all I can do to move people from where they are to where they need to be. From despair to hope; greed to contentment; bitterness to forgiveness; lust to purity; laziness to hard work; doubt to faith; ignorance to truth; rage to love; isolation to hospitality; fear of God’s wrath to blessed assurance; earth to heaven. My hands are full as I try to help people run, walk, stumble, or crawl across life’s finish line into glory.
It’s more important to be a good and faithful man who helps others be good and faithful than it is to revolutionize the world.
“Change the world” billboard vocabulary is momentarily inspiring. But it’s ultimately disheartening, for global change rarely happens. It is better to know that on the day of accounting, we will answer for ourselves, our family, our church, and our neighbors.
I’m not advocating for ministry mediocrity or indifference, but for faithful, biblically guided ambition. I care about this very broken world, and wish I could do more to heal its many wounds. But I know my limitations. I know that I, at least, have to commit my finite vision and vigor to getting people saved and sanctified in my world, not to igniting the world. I’ve made peace with that. And I hope all who serve faithfully in the everydayness of individual lives can, too.
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