Two years into pastoring a new church plant, I was deeply disappointed about it. We planted BroadGrace church in rural Norfolk, England, in 2010, and by the end of 2012 I did not know if we had done the right thing. We had seen very little numerical growth, and I was worried that we might have seen just as little spiritual growth. I certainly felt that my faith was small and dwindling. Sunday meetings felt like hard work.
I don’t want to overplay it—I loved being part of the church and was always grateful for the brothers and sisters with whom the Lord had brought us together. I began to question, though, what the Lord had brought me to Norfolk for. Had I simply been wrong to think that he had called us to start a church in this part of the world? Or were we getting something wrong?
Jesus was disappointed too
To be disappointed with the results of your ministry is to walk in good company:
As [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41)
The tears that Christ shed over Jerusalem were tears of disappointment—of frustration that his city would not recognise him and come to him in repentance and faith. If you are feeling down about your ministry, you are in exalted company. It is a good thing to be disappointed alongside Jesus.
We often lose the wonder of serving alongside such a King as Jesus, seeing our ministry but losing sight of him.
Nevertheless, we’re in danger of being “over-disappointed.” For Christ, the indifference and sin of Jerusalem drove him to the cross. For us, it often drives us to self-pity and frustration. We often lose the joy and wonder of serving alongside such a King as Jesus, seeing our ministry but losing sight of the Lord who gifts it to us.
So what is Christ-like disappointment, and what is over-disappointment? A good question to ask yourself is why you are disappointed in your ministry:
- Are you disappointed primarily for Jesus—that he is being robbed of the worship and glory that he so richly deserves?
- Are you disappointed also for people—people who are refusing Christ’s offer of life and walking away from salvation?
- Or are you disappointed for yourself? Are you disappointed because the respect, self-worth, success or applause you want deep down have not flowed from your ministry as you hoped?
In 2012, two years into our church plant, I think my disappointments were mixed. I was disappointed for Jesus and the people around us, but I was also far too disappointed for myself.
It’s possible to work hard in your ministry & share Christ clearly & be doing it for all the wrong reasons.
The frightening truth is that it is possible to work hard in your ministry and share Christ clearly and be doing it for all the wrong reasons (Philippians 1:15-17). The desire to make a name in ministry, whether among your friends, in your church or across your network of churches, is powerful. It is all too possible for us to be driven by it, and then disappointed because of it. It is certainly an issue for my heart.
So think about your ministry, and why you’re feeling down about it. Are you disappointed because you think the people in your church do not seem to be growing more like Jesus, or are you disappointed because no one seems to even notice the work you put in?
Two marks of successful ministry
We tend to judge the success of our ministry in terms of measurable outcomes. Numbers are very easy to measure, whether it is numbers in church, or at an event we helped organise, or numbers saved during a course we led.
We can try to assess spiritual growth as well. If I spend a good deal of time meeting up with a friend whose marriage is in trouble or who is struggling with doubts about Christ, then success is a renewed marriage or strengthened faith. If the future holds divorce or falling away, then I think I have failed. And am I not right to do so?
He looks to you for faithfulness, not numbers. His criteria for success are not the same as ours.
The Bible offers two liberating ideas when it comes to measuring “successful ministry.” First, the success Christ is looking for from your ministry is faithfulness. To simply speak the truth about Jesus is a successful ministry. Whether the result of ministry is a revival or a riot (as it was in Paul’s case—Acts 17.1-9) is not in our hands. The Lord looks at what we say, and he is honoured if we are faithful to the gospel. The numbers saved in your youth group or at your evangelistic pub quiz are in his remit, not yours. He looks to you for faithfulness, not numbers. His criteria for success are not the same as ours.
The second factor Christ counts as success in ministry is love. Jesus doesn’t want to see my sales figures; he wants to look at my heart. He looks to us to simply love faithfully in the situations he has put us in. He is looking at your ministry and asking: Do they love those around them so much that they are delighted to share with them not only my gospel, but their lives as well?
So do you love the Lord, and those you serve, enough to faithfully speak the gospel to them and share your life with them? Yes? Then that is success, and a defence against the overwhelming disappointment of measuring what Jesus does not, and then becoming crushed or puffed up by results.
Jesus is not disappointed with your ministry
Christ-like ministry will be disappointing. If you love Jesus and love others then, strangely, your ministry will disappoint you all the more. You will long for people to be saved, for them to grow, and for Jesus to be honoured. And yet alongside that, your ministry will satisfy you more. You can please God by sharing a faithful message and sharing a loving life. He is not disappointed with that ministry. Neither should you be.