This year is a milestone year for me in a few ways. For instance, it was 25 years ago (Summer 1994) that I took my first ministry position—youth director at Zion Chinese Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. But it’s some more recent milestones I’m reflecting on today. This very day (August 8) 10 years ago was my first day as the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. But this summer marks two other 10th anniversaries —it was 2009 when my first book was published and when I had my first public speaking engagement. Below some reflections on these three “10th anniversaries.”
1. It was an odd feeling at the time when Your Jesus is Too Safe became my first published book. I’d been trying 10 years at that point trying to get published as a novelist. Despite serving in vocational ministry, I saw my writerly self as a storyteller. I began writing my first novel in earnest in 1997 and eventually got an agent with it. But it didn’t get published. (Not then, anyway. More than 10 years later it was published by David C Cook.) So I wrote a second novel. My agent said it was too long for a first-time author with no platform. He only showed it to a few publishers. Didn’t get published. (I still think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.) I started writing a third novel. Then we planted a church. And that writing got interrupted. I set the manuscript aside. My agent contacted me and said, “Do you have something I can show people?” I said, “I don’t have time to work on the novel. But I could turn this sermon series I just preached on Jesus and the Gospels into some book-quality chapters.” He said, “I don’t know. You’re really a fiction guy.” I put a proposal together anyway, titling it The Unvarnished Jesus. And what do you know? Without a big platform, without a big church, we got a modest publishing deal with Kregel for what would eventually become Your Jesus Is Too Safe.
2. A few years later, after I’d published a couple of Bible study resources with Lifeway and was working on a few things for Crossway, I had the itch to pick up the storytelling again, and I messaged my agent to say, “Hey, I’ve got some time now, and I’d like to resume that unfinished novel.” He said, “I don’t know. You’re really a non-fiction guy now.”
3. That unfinished novel, by the way, a meta-mystery titled Echo Island, is scheduled to be published by B&H as a YA novel next year. I’m working on it this summer.
4. In 2008, when I was interviewing with the search team from Middletown I explained that I had a book scheduled to publish the next year, a month before I was scheduled to begin at the church, and I had one speaking engagement booked in relation to the book (at The Journey Church in St. Louis). I said, “This may just be one book. This might just be one speaking engagement. And that’s it. And that’s fine. But if God continues to open doors to those opportunities, I would love to pursue public ministry in that way.” They were excited about the prospect and gave me their blessing to continue writing and speaking in public ministry, neither of us knowing if the Lord would will such a thing. In his kindness, he did. And their kindness, Middletown was very generous with me for six years, seeing my public ministry, in a sense, as their ministry to the wider world too. I self-limited my Sundays away for outside speaking to four a year so that I would not be gone too much from the pulpit, but otherwise developed a measured travel scheduled as more opportunities arose.
5. The burdens of ministry in my time in Vermont were immense, more so spiritually and emotionally than even I realized until I was a year or two removed from it. But I dedicated most of my Wednesdays in my six years of ministry there as writing days, both for sermon prep and for book projects and blogging. Routine is a big help to me, and it keeps me prolific.
Those were five reflections on these 10-year milestones in my life. Here are five exhortations for you based on them:
1. Do not despise the day of small beginnings. Yes, I’ve been writing and speaking for 10 years now, and it helps me pay my bills. But I also labored writing for publication without any success for 10 years. If you’re a writer, you can’t help it. If you aspire to publishing, in some ways it’s harder these days than ever before. But keep at it. Don’t let what you don’t have discourage you from working with what you do.
2. Let your local ministry be the credibility for public ministry, not the other way around. We know the guy who gets ministry jobs because of his platform. It’s a hollow legitimacy that eventually bears bad fruit. If you have or are in some way pursuing a public ministry—whether it’s writing (for print or just online) or speaking/preaching, or both—remember that local church ministry is where the authenticity is. Local church ministry is where the accountability is. (Which is why you should only partly trust, if you do at all, the online pundits who have no discernible church membership or connection.) The soil of local ministry is where the fruit of integrity, wisdom, and experience are grown. If you don’t have that, anything you share with the world is just bluster.
3. Hold it all loosely. People are fickle. And broken. They do and say messed up things. Personal slights and offenses pile up with the years. Do not find your validation in anything but the justification you have in Christ by faith. He is your reason for living. Grace is the reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Don’t make ministry, whether local or public, your identity.
4. Your reputation follows you. If you’re a jerk, it gets around. And you may think you’re too big for it to do much damage, but actually the bigger you get, the bigger the jerky shadow you trail around behind you, and the bigger the smoking crater you will make of your ministry when your shred of integrity cannot hold up the weight of your pride. Just know: Your legacy will ultimately not be found in your content production but in your humility, your love, your kindness to others.
5. Make much of Jesus. By God’s grace, I have been privileged to write nearly 20 books and study resources in the last 10 years. I have preached or taught in many churches, conferences, and other events in numerous countries in the last 10 years. Also by God’s grace, my message has not really varied. No matter my text, no matter my topic, I want people to see the glory of Jesus in his gospel. This good news is the power to change—for the lost to be saved and for the saved to be strengthened. In this regard, I am unabashedly a one-note Johnny. You’re not gonna get anything different from me. If you do, you should worry. My exhortation to you is to fearlessly adopt a gospel fixation. Don’t worry about it seeming rote or redundant. Go hard after Jesus. Hold him up as beautiful. Make his magnification the mission of your ministry, in whatever contexts the Lord is gracious to open to you. You won’t regret it, even if sometimes “they” don’t get it.