Like any other line of work preachers can find themselves discouraged. Wondering if what they are doing really matters and if they are making a difference, pastors often resort to unhealthy evaluations of their ministries. Worldly evaluations of success can distort a pastor’s expectations and crush their joy.
Pastors often feel greatly encouraged when any combination of the following is present: attendance is up, people are affirming, there seems to be excitement, or giving is increased. These good things could be real evidences of grace. God may in fact be using the preacher’s work to bring about true gospel growth in people. However, they could also be a ruse. They could point to something bad. Many people could be coming to hear you preach, lavishing affirmation, demonstrating excitement, and even giving because you aren’t actually preaching God’s Word faithfully. I can think of a few smiling, gospel-muting, preachers on TV who have all of these but don’t have the gospel.
What’s my point? Be very careful what you are using as a ministry evaluator. Some things can be deceptive; not the least of which is our own flesh and cravings for affirmation.
Along these lines have you noticed that when talking about the minister’s job the Bible does not place much emphasis upon how people do or do not respond? This is telling to me. The emphasis is upon the preacher’s character and the content of his teaching. Paul tells Timothy to work hard like a soldier, athlete, and farmer (2 Tim. 2:3-7). Ministers are to patiently teach and correct others with gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24–25). Amid the context of a hedonistic culture that worships themselves Paul exhorts his young apprentice to preach the Word of God (2 Tim. 4:1-4). And in Corinth instead of giving the seekers what they wanted, namely wisdom and power (which he had by the way), he gave them what they needed, the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:22-23). The apostle Paul modeled for us the priority for the pastor. Instead of focusing solely on what his hearers want or are saying the focus is upon what he is called to be and do. In other words, Paul says, watch your life and your doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16), fulfill your ministry, preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:2, 5).
Oh but this is so hard. As pastors we forget this on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning. One of the reasons I think we forget is because we forget our true audience. I mentioned earlier that Paul does not seem to be overly consumed with the polls of the people, but this does not mean that he is unconcerned with his craft. He is very concerned with what he is doing. But instead of laboring for the favor of men he is focused on what God thinks.
Minister’s (Ultimate) Audience
This is revolutionary for us to understand. Read through 2 Timothy 4 again. Look at the perspective of the apostle. If you permit me to summarize for the point, he tells Timothy that he is charging him in the presence of God and Christ Jesus to preach God’s Word. What’s more, this is the same God who is the judge. He is watching how you handle the Bible in the context of the church—his church purchased by his blood (Acts 20:28). He tells him to preach and teach this Word when it is popular and unpopular. He warns him to not be captive to the narcissistic culture but rather to expose it with preaching. Further Timothy is warned to pursue holiness, stick to the text, and be a zealous evangelist. Pivoting out of this point Paul tells him that he is rounding third in his ministry. He is about to head into the clubhouse. The sun is setting, and he is done. Now, from the perspective of the end he looks back and says this is what matters. It is about faithfulness. It is what God wants and it is not always what people want. Timothy, he says, aim to conduct your ministry with faithfulness in the sight of God.
Getting this point will not cure us of the temptations to despair and the tendencies that we have to evaluate ourselves and our ministries based on what people will think. However, it will snap us out of the fog of despair when we begin to question if it all really matters.
This perspective is particularly personal to me. This morning before preaching I started doing some math. While out for an early morning walk I was actually walking down the road of this evaluation. I put in about 15 or so hours of preparation, and then I then preach for about 40 minutes per week. Multiply that out over the year and you have about 800 hours of sermon prep with around 35 hours of actual preaching. That is a lot of time! Then as I walked my dog I began to think, What is this accomplishing? Do you know where I went immediately? I started thinking about people’s responses. I included the four areas mentioned above (and more) in my subjective evaluation. Somewhere amid my math and my musing it hit me, What the heck are you talking about, Raymond? Is it worth it? Of course it is worth it! As I preached to my own heart I was reminded that before anything else preaching is about glorifying God. He is pleased through the foolishness of the message and the messenger to bring glory to himself. What’s more, the ministry of the kingdom often moves at a slow but steady pace. The incremental work of the ministry of the Word can almost be imperceptible. But mark it: God is using the Word preached to gain ground in the souls of men, women, and children. He is claiming people and transforming them into the image of his Son through the preaching of the Word of God (John 17:17; 2 Cor. 3:18).
If you are a pastor, and you are discouraged, please be reminded of Paul’s words, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). Then he goes on, “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful (v.2). God wants faithful ministers.
If you are discouraged today and have a bad case of the Mondays, then perhaps you are evaluating yourself on the wrong standard and are pursuing the wrong end. Brother pastor, it is about faithfulness before God, with God’s Word, in God’s church. Are you being faithful? Then be encouraged, you are making a difference. And remember, “there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).