The Secret to Finishing Well

Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

I want to finish well (2 Tim. 4:6–7). Don’t we all? In fact, I’ve never met a church planter who didn’t.

But here’s the sobering reality: many of us won’t. In an age of immanence and immediacy, taking a long view of life and ministry is no easy task. Daily is our vision obscured by the demands of the present, the tyranny of the urgent, the cravings of the flesh, the noise of the world.

Chances are, if you’ve been in pastoral ministry for more than eight seconds, you know someone who started with vision, passion, and sincerity, but is no longer running well . . . or running at all. If you’d asked them on the first day of their church plant or ordination, none would have imagined their names would contribute to the statistic of ministry casualties.

And yet all of us are only five minutes of foolishness away from finding ourselves in the same place.

Needless to say, we need to play the long game. But how can those of us who are closer to the starting line than the finish line of ministry run so as to finish well?

Fig Leaves and Skyscrapers

We’d just wrapped up a conference for church planters and leaders with the theme “Stand Firm, Finish Well.” Ray and Jani Ortlund were our teachers, both of whom are approaching their eighth decade (which Ray assures me will be the best he’s ever had!).

At one point over dinner, the conversation turned to the topic of longevity in ministry and the various ways Satan will try to trip us up and take us out. Ray looked me square in the eye, with an intensity matched only by a genuine sense of care, and asked: “Adam, who in your city knows you and loves you, and isn’t in the least bit impressed by you?”

That’s one of the most important questions anyone has ever asked me.

There are many vital parts to ministry endurance: a rich and meaningful devotional life, faithfulness to God’s Word, a healthy marriage, integrity, wisdom, courage, patience, pace, focus—the list could go on.

We hide weaknesses because of a desire to impress. And we desire to impress because we fear weakness.

But there are two manifestations of “the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:10) that perennially threaten us. I’m talking about those ancient human proclivities to hide and to impress. Eden and Babel. Fig leaves and skyscrapers.

We hide weaknesses because of a desire to impress. And we desire to impress because we fear weakness. 

Church planter, do you really want to finish well? Then from the first step to the last, you must intentionally pursue being known and being non-impressive.

Who (Really) Knows You?

It’s all too easy to give the impression that we are known. We stand on a stage with a microphone week after week. People know our names, see our faces, hear our words.

But who knows the true state of your heart? Be honest. Who, along with your spouse, really knows you?

Could it be that the increase of pastoral disqualifications in recent decades is directly tied to our technological capability to widely project our image, yet remain (largely) unknown? Behind a smartphone or a microphone, we have the ability to hide in plain sight.

Behind a smartphone or a microphone, we have the ability to hide in plain sight.

The result is a ministry culture where genuine confession and repentance—gifts vital to godly longevity—are cashed in for the exhausting task of image maintenance.

If Judas teaches us anything, it’s that it is entirely possible to be among the people of Jesus, doing the work of Jesus, and yet be walking in darkness. Amazingly, not one of the other disciples knew the true state of Judas’s heart the night of his betrayal. But Jesus knew.

Sin festers in the dark, but is incinerated in the light. Few things are more crucial to endurance in church planting than faithful friends among whom there are no secrets. Make no mistake: on your own, you’re not going to make it.

So we need to make biblical friendship—the kind marked by vulnerability, grace, and truth—a far bigger priority. Friends who know us, love us, and aren’t impressed with us.

Cultivate Non-Impressiveness

So many church planters are obsessed with the spectacular. And our obsession is killing us. The pressure to grow quickly in order to survive the “infancy stage” is real.

It doesn’t take long for the desire to plant a faithful church to mutate into a desire to build an impressive church. And that’s deadly.

By non-impressive, I don’t mean non-inspiring. On the contrary, when you meet a non-impressive leader, you leave their presence feeling like you’ve experienced a measure of Christ himself. The absence of posturing, humble-bragging, and self-promotion is a breath of mountain air to your soul.

Because they’re secure in Christ, they’re not trying to impress you. And because they’ve given up on trying to impress you, they’re free to sincerely love you. 

Our problem is not our weakness, but our self-reliant cleverness that keeps us from relying on God.

So let’s just go ahead and own it: our problem is not our weakness, but our self-reliant cleverness that keeps us from relying on God. It’s our addiction to our own capability that closes the door of God’s power on our life.

The good news is that we don’t need to be impressive or spectacular for God to do a great thing through us. We just need a poverty of spirit that makes space for him to show off what only he can do. Jesus doesn’t want our strength; he wants to give us his.

No More Hide-and-Seek

Paul finished well because he rejected the swagger and self-assurance of the “super-apostles” (who, it turns out, weren’t remembered anyway). Paul didn’t run away from the place of weakness; he set up shop there (2 Cor. 12:9–10). And the power of Christ rested on him, propelling him through every ministry difficulty imaginable, all the way into glory.

There is freedom and fuel here. If the gospel is true, then I’m not all that awesome. But I am loved. And that’s awesome.

Jesus doesn’t want our strength; he wants to give us his.

Jesus is not disillusioned with my insecurities or weaknesses, because he never had any illusions about me when he saved me in the first place. Because of his work, I don’t have to hide, and I don’t need to impress. Jesus has eternally secured for me the smile of my Maker.

So let’s refuse the destructive game of ministry hide-and-seek, hiding our struggles while seeking to impress. We will always lose. Instead let’s burn our fig leaves and knock down our towers of self-glory. Let’s walk in the light, live in the Word, number our days, love our families, submit to godly authority, stand on the gospel, and keep running the race.

By God’s grace, let’s finish well.

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