Ministry Is Not Mastery

It is an old habit but on Mondays I often reflect on the nature of pastoral ministry and the challenges pastors face.

In truth, Monday is the second day of the week but for pastors everything leads up to the Lord’s Day. All their prayers and preparations have been pointing toward Sundays. For them it is the culmination of the week. On Mondays they naturally reflect on what happened and on how it went.

Background and Bona Fides

Yesterday and this morning I have been thinking about the church-growth movement in light of what the New Testament says (and illustrates) about ministry. When I was first introduced to the church-growth school of thought, in seminary, I reacted against it but after I was called as young seminary graduate, as an assistant pastor, to a small, near-urban congregation nine minutes north of downtown Kansas City, Missouri my new duties required me to give the church-growth school another look. Perhaps I had been too negative toward the church-growth movement? Perhaps I needed to be more open-minded? For most of six years I tried to learn what I could from the movement. I studied and practiced evangelism. We expanded the diaconal ministry per Tim Keller’s Jericho Road. We tried, within our limits, to implement The Phone’s For You (™) to capitalize on “the law of large numbers,” and Evangelism Explosion (™). I became an EE trainer and taught classes to the congregation and to young people who traveled from across the Plains to Kansas City in the summers for two weeks of ministry and fun. The CRC had SWIM. The OPC had SAIL. We called it Project Jericho. We were going to march around the city, as it were, until the walls fell. Weather permitting (and even when it did not) we stood in parking lots and evangelized. We made fliers for the local St Patrick’s Day parade calling attention to St Patrick’s Christian faith. The ink was not set and my tan gloves turned green. We knocked on doors. I preached in the City Mission. We recorded radio programs and commercials. I imitated Denny Prutow’s idea of a telephone answering machine with a gospel message. We advertised the number in the classified ads in the newspaper (the Craig’s List of its day). I recited that phone number so often that, 30 years later, I can still recite it in my sleep. We sent out hundreds of newsletters each month in hopes of connecting with people and attracting new members. We mailed out evangelistic audio cassettes (think podcasts). We held car washes to raise money for the local shelter for unwed mothers (as an alternative to abortion). Some of us picketed the abortion mill in Johnson County, KS and even the local hospital. I pushed to revise the liturgy and the music to make the church more “seeker-sensitive” and “contemporary.” We became a busy church. Like the Apostle Paul, “I am talking like a madman” (2 Cor 11:23; ESV) in order to say that I am not taking potshots from the sidelines. I gave the church-growth program a fair try.

One day, in passing, one of the young people in my congregation said something to me like this, “You spend all your time and energy trying to reach outsiders but you don’t seem to think about us very much.” That stung but she had a point. I worked hard on my sermons, Sunday School lessons, Bible studies, and catechism classes but I was very much oriented to church growth. I was not very much oriented to what I now understand to be be an ordained means of grace approach to ministry.

For all that I learned and tried one aspect of the church-growth movement, perhaps the most fundamental aspect, always made me uneasy and makes me uneasy to this day: the church-growth model was a theology of glory and it turned ministers, who should be theologians of the cross, into theologians of glory. The selling point of the various methods and mentalities was numerical success: look at this congregation. Their pastor and leadership adopted this model and look how many people came. Congregation after congregation was shown to be growing and exciting and influential. Why could we not do the same thing? The possibility was very attractive and it was easily clothed in the pious language of “reaching the lost.” I did want to reach the lost but I also wanted to be “successful.”

Metaphors Matter

The metaphors of the church-growth movement tend not to be biblical and rural. They tend to be from the business world and urban. Where Scripture speaks of “shepherds” (pastors) and servants (deacons), the church-growth literature has tended to speak of CEOs (Chief Executive Officers). Perhaps one of the more clever, if misleading, efforts of the church-growth business was to swap rancher for shepherd as in, “I am not a pastor, I am a rancher.” This move was clever because it exchanged one rural category (shepherd/pastor) for another but in a way that is congruous with the church-growth vision of the fast-growing, successful empire overseen by a CEO figure.

What are the Biblical metaphors for ministry? Consider the terms minister and ministry. In Matthew 20:17–19 Jesus tells his disciples once again that he is going to Jerusalem not to establish a glorious earthly kingdom, not to conquer his enemies with a sword, but to die an ignominious, humiliating death at the hands of the hated Romans and the Jewish authorities. “Then,” Matthew writes, the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Salome?) approached Jesus to ask for positions of power and influence in the kingdom she imagined that he was to establish soon in Jerusalem. The disciples were indignant when they heard about her request but Jesus took it as an opportunity to teach them about the nature of the Kingdom of God:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25–28; ESV).

Greatness in the Kingdom is not a matter of earthly glory and power. It is the exact opposite, humiliation and death. “It shall not be so among you.” The church-growth literature advises pastors to grab power for themselves, to surround themselves with elders and deacons who agree with them, and to “throw under the bus” those who get in their way. There is a reason that Mark Driscoll spoke so freely about running over a couple of pastors (whom he had fired the night before) when talking about church growth to other pastors. The church-growth model is not about faithful, gracious, careful exposition of the law and the gospel. It is about carefully structured sermons with a dramatic turning point. In my experience that dramatic turning point is often the announcement of some exciting new measure whereby the church will grow. As I have listened to the podcast series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” I have been having flashbacks to my “church growth” days. As Mike Cosper notes in one episode, Driscoll easily equated the Kingdom of God with Mars Hill church and clearly implied that anyone who disagreed with him would be guilty of preventing people from entering the Kingdom. So, people stood aside and Driscoll accumulated power and control until the whole thing imploded because of his abusive behavior.

The word that Jesus used for servant in Matthew 20:26 is “servant” or “slave” (διάκονος). It is the word that, when applied to the church, is translated minister. The abstract noun that we translate as ministry is closely related (διακονία). That word had a double reference in Acts. Sometimes it referred to the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1) and more frequently to the distribution or ministry of the Word (e.g., Acts 6:4). In either case, ministry is not an exercise of power. It is fundamentally service. It is the opposite of lording it over. The imagery here is not that of glass towers full of the powerful but of the Suffering Servant girding himself with a towel and washing his disciples’ feet (John 13;12).

It is interesting that Luke used the same noun (ministry, διακονία) to describe the work of the deacons and the apostles. Derke Bergsma was my professor of practical theology. He taught us to think of ourselves as “deacons of the Word,” servants, not masters. We are parallel to the deacons, who are ministers of mercy as we are ministers of the Word. He was right. Other Biblical imagery leads us in the same direction. The Dutch Reformed schools sometimes have courses in “poimenics,” i.e., in pastoral ministry. Pastor is the Latin word for shepherd. Poimen (ποιμήν) is the Greek word for shepherd (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:2). Humble service, subjection to Christ, shepherding (not ranching), is the right category. We are like David before he was elevated to the crown. We mere shepherd boys protecting the flock from wolves and thieves.

Resisting The Siren Song Of “Success”

Luther rightly contrasted the “theologian of glory” (theologus gloriae) with the theologian of the cross (theologus crucis). On Mondays pastors are acutely aware of their sins and failures. Perhaps more than on most days they are tempted by the glossy brochures and shiny emails to chuck ministry for a theology of glory, the towel for the power suit, and the pasture for the palace. Do not do it. The Spirit was working through the gospel and the sacraments. Trust, pray, and wait. We are not “gentiles” lording it over others. We are Christians, bought with a price (1 Cor 6:20) and servants of the Suffering Servant who went to Jerusalem not to accumulate earthly power and glory but to die and thereby inaugurate the true power in the world, the Kingdom of Heaven and the glory of the world to come through the preaching of the gospel and the due use of the ordained means.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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7 comments

  1. “Reaching the lost” is the fig leaf that covers neglect of the sheep. Our church sends out e-mails announcing every trivial meeting, “opportunities for service (busyness)”, etc. but this week one of our long time church officers fell and injured himself to the extent that he and his wife needed help with meals. We didn’t get a single e-mail about this. Members who believe this is the kind of thing we should be attentive to, organized members who are older like this injured church officer to provide meals. I know what the girl in your article means. Our church leaders seem to prioritize the needs of the goats over those of the sheep. Didn’t Jesus tell Peter three times to attend to His sheep?

  2. Well said, Dr. Clark. It is disappointing at best for some of us who found or even formed new churches to escape the misguided “seeker friendly” movement, to now see our new churches drifting into the same errors we fought a generation ago.

  3. Great word of caution and encouragement to pastors, Dr. Clark.

    I’m currently reading a book recommended by my good friend, who’s a URCNA pastor, called “By His Spirit and Word: How Christ Builds His Church” by Cornelis P. Venema, which addresses this very topic (https://www.marsbooksonline.com/index.php?l=product_detail&p=134). It’s a gentle but necessary corrective against the church-growth, seeker-sensitive (aka “attractional”), and emergent (glad this one’s losing steam now) movements, calling the church (and, by extension, its pastors) back to the Reformed confessions’ and biblical emphasis on the ministry of the Word rightfully preached and sacraments lawfully administered.

    We neglect these God-ordained means for the growth and nourishment of the church to our own detriment and, dare I say, in disobedience of Christ—even if our intentions be well-meaning.

    This post along with the book has been a welcome reminder that the Spirit uses the Word preached (law and gospel) to create faith in Christ, while likewise using the sacraments to confirm Christ and His benefits to us promised in the gospel.

    May God forgive our wanderings and bring real growth and nourishment to the church by His Spirit using the means Christ has appointed, with pastors who preach the true Word and administer the sacraments aright, and with congregations that desire and see the value of such a simple yet biblical practice.

  4. Dr Clark
    Have you written anywhere about what you think evangelism looks like for a pastor dedicated to the means of grace? I’m specifically talking about outside of Sunday and with regard to planned events or other means of doing evangelism that involved some planning and forethought.

  5. Thank you for writing this and sharing about your experience in these areas. It’s easy for us coming after you, especially if we had a short stint of fascination with some of these figures, to think you always had the right track figured out. It’s encouraging to hear it’s ok to learn over time.

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