Pastor, Keep Preaching the Gospel!
As I was busy rushing from one place to another, I noticed a man looking at me with a big smile on his face. He had just stepped out of a work van and was doing some sort job nearby. To be honest, I had a lot on my plate to get done that day, and was determined not to be slowed down. The next thing I knew, the man who had been grinning at me was now standing right in front of me.
I do not remember what I was thinking at that moment but, sadly, it was probably something like, "Oh great."
He said, "You don't remember me. I went to your church 14 years ago when you first arrived in Lexington. You preached the gospel every week, and so did the small group leaders. To be honest, I did not want to hear it and stop attending. I thought I wanted something more practical that would help with my daily life. I found what I was looking for, I was getting my ears tickled, but I could never shake the gospel you preached and 4-years-ago I trusted Christ, and I am now in a great gospel-preaching church where I now live. I just wanted you to know. Thank you! Don't ever stop!"
I am not usually one to cry, but as he walked off, I teared up thinking about the sheer goodness of God and the incredible power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To think, in my self-preoccupation, I would have preferred to avoid that conversation that day. After all, I thought that had important stuff to get done. Thankfully, God's sweet providence does not acquiesce to my self-referential ordering of what is important: "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps" (Prov 16:9).
My encounter with that man woke me up and reordered my thinking and priorities. I was not depressed or discouraged on that day but I was sinfully distracted. The core activities of pastoring have a relentlessness about them--prayer, study, preparation, planning, pastoral care, visiting, discipling, preaching, counseling--are never-ending. There is never a finished project. There is always more to be done. No pastor worth his salt thinks he ever does enough in any of these areas so consistently possesses a nagging feeling of inadequacy. Most pastors cry out with Paul, "Who is sufficient for these things?" (2 Cor 2:16). On our better days, we answer that cry like Paul does as well, "Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God" (2 Cor 3:5).
In 1 Corinthians, Paul explained how believers should evaluate ministry: "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful" (1 Cor 4:1-2). The Corinthians valued the outward gifts that stimulate applause like we so often do as well. Paul rejected this visible success standard for evaluating Christian leaders. The measure, according to Paul, is faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus. Paul goes on to assert that he is free and independent of human evaluation, whether it be the Corinthians' judgment or his own (1 Cor 4:3). After all, he had "decided to know nothing ... except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). Nevertheless, it is a battle to remember that success in ministry is gospel faithfulness. It is certainly a difficult truth for pastors to live out.
Pastor, can you echo Paul's assertion of being free and independent of human evaluation because the only thing that matters is to "be found faithful" (1 Cor 4:2)? Paul says, "This is how one should regard us," because so often we do not define success by faithfulness. Too often, pastors evaluate success by applause, size, and immediate outward results. After all, these are the measures often thrust upon pastors by their congregants. There is a frequent accusation in a pastor's conscience that preaching the gospel is not enough. If only they were cooler, younger, smarter, a visionary, kinder, more creative, more charismatic, and fill-in-the-blank. Sadly, many (most?) pastors feel like failures based on these kinds of evaluative standards, ones that God never provided.
When I shared on social media the providential encounter I explained at the beginning of this article I was stunned at the immediate and overwhelming response. The post was shared thousands of times, and I began receiving social media responses, direct messages, emails, and phone calls with people telling me how meaningful and encouraging the anecdote was to them. Several pastors said they were going to print the Tweet out and read it each day as a reminder of how God is at work even when they do not see the immediate results.
If you have an encounter like the one I had with the man who shared with me how God had used the gospel faithfulness of our church to bring him to faith in Christ ten years later--cherish it. But remember that even when you do not experience the kind of peek behind the curtain that God provided me on that day--showing what he is doing when the gospel is preached--please know that is what he is doing. Paul reminds us of this important truth when he exhorts, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Cor 3:6-7).
Pastor, be encouraged, keep your head down, keep planting and watering by faithfully preaching the gospel of Jesus, and you can know God is working through it even when you don't know.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.