Beware Of Worldly Ideas Of Ministry Success!

Jeremiah teaches us what you don’t find in popular books about ministry today. As we consider Jeremiah’s ministry we learn that ministry success is not about: 1) numbers of converts or attenders, 2) our popularity and fame, or 3) our ease and comfort. There are many books that teach you how to have a vibrant ministry, an explosive ministry, or how to grow your church. Most of these books draw from marketing strategies, sales techniques, and worldly wisdom, not the Bible. There is no “formula” for growing your church. Yes, there are things we must do in order to glorify God, but Christ is in charge of building His church. We must never confuse our responsibility with Christ’s responsibility or we will get discouraged trying to accomplish something we can’t do.

Jeremiah teaches us that God glorifying ministry is about being faithful to obey God’s Word and His calling for our life by proclaiming the truth of God’s Word without compromise. It has nothing to do with us saving anyone, growing our church, or being popular. Yes, we will desire spiritual and numeric growth, but if we focus on that, rather than faithfulness, we will often attract people by worldly means, and the result will be a worldly congregation. If you are thinking to yourself right now, “Well that doesn’t sound very fun,” then you are catching on. Ministry isn’t about you having fun; it isn’t about you; it’s about glorifying God by humbly submitting to His Word. Fun times may be included if God so wills, but they are not the goal or criteria for biblically successful ministry.

Ministry Is Not About The Numbers Of Converts Or Attenders

Just reading that heading may seem like sacrilege. Maybe you are wondering if I am saying that we shouldn’t desire to see sinners saved by grace. No, I am not saying that. Any faithful shepherd wants to see every unbeliever come to Christ and be transformed by the gospel. What I am saying is that your success in ministry is not determined by how many people are being saved. I know this flies in the face of the opinion of some great men like Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon would not let a man into his seminary unless it could be demonstrated that there was a history in the man’s life of being used to lead sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. It seems reasonable, logical, and even biblical in some respects, that one called to the ministry should bear the fruit of converts. After all, why would God gift, call, and train someone for ministry if He didn’t intend to use him to save sinners? I don’t disagree with the wisdom of Charles Spurgeon very often, but in this case I have to take umbrage. Let me explain why.

God uses some men to plant, some to water, and some bring in a harvest (I Cor. 3:5-9). At times he regularly uses an individual in two or three of those ways and other times primarily in one way. It is not the servant’s responsibility to tell the Master how he is to be gifted or used in ministry. Our job is to faithfully obey the Word of God—and the Word of God doesn’t give guarantees as to how many converts will be saved under our ministry or how God may choose to use us.

I’m sure we would all love to preach and lead people to Christ like George Whitefield, but it is not God’s way to use everyone of His servants the same way. History verifies that it was God’s will for there to only have one George Whitefield. Being all-powerful, God could have raised up a legion of George Whitefields in every generation, but He has not. The Lord's purposes for some are to be be burnt at the stake as martyrs shortly after entering into the ministry. God calls others to write great works to bless the church for centuries. Others are called to train men who in their own ministries will lead many to Christ. Still others are called to missions, to lead in worship, or to be great administrators in Christian institutions. Though we all have the same responsibility to proclaim the gospel, there are no guarantees that we will have converts or a certain number of converts. Normally we will have some, but sometimes, as in Jeremiah’s case, we may have none (Jer. 5:3; 8:6).

Jeremiah had no converts. Yes, Baruch was his secretary and Ebed-melech the Ethiopian eunuch seemed to be a faithful followers of the Lord, but we are not told either of them was won over from rebellion to repentance by the preaching of Jeremiah. From the earliest part of Jeremiah’s prophecy to the last we are told what the Lord had in store for Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ And I set watchmen over you, saying, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not listen.’ Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what is among them. Hear, O earth: behold, I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their plans, because they have not listened to My words, and as for My law, they have rejected it also. (Jer. 6:16–19)

Twice in the text above we are told that the people are not going to listen and twice that they are not going to obey the Word of God preached through Jeremiah. Could this be the Lord’s plan for your ministry? Surely it will be to some degree, but this was exactly what God willed for Jeremiah’s ministry. Notice how the theme above is repeated in the texts below:

  • Jeremiah 7:26–27 —“Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck; they did more evil than their fathers. 27 “You shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you; and you shall call to them, but they will not answer you.”
  • Jeremiah 13:11 — “. . . they did not listen.’
  • Jeremiah 17:23 — “Yet they did not listen or incline their ears, but stiffened their necks in order not to listen or take correction.”
  • Jeremiah 22:21 — “I spoke to you in your prosperity; but you said, ‘I will not listen!’ This has been your practice from your youth, that you have not obeyed My voice.”

Over and over again we are told that they would not and did not listen to Jeremiah’s preaching, prophesying, and warnings from the Lord. (Jer. 25:3, 4, 7; 26:5; 29:19; 32:33; 35:14, 16, 17; 36:31; 37:1-2, 14; 38:15; 40:3; 44:5). Every preacher experiences to one degree or another what Jeremiah experienced in abundance. We all have those who seem to harden rather than soften under the preaching of the Word. We preach the gospel with all our might, begging God to save the unconverted, but nothing happens. People come and go without changing. There are even those who enjoy sitting under convicting, fiery preaching, enjoying the warmth of the fire, but rejecting the message. Ezekiel speaks of this kind of person in Ezek. 33:31-32:

They come to you as people come, and sit before you as My people and hear your words, but they do not do them, for they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouth, and their heart goes after their gain. Behold, you are to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; for they hear your words but they do not practice them.

Every church has at least a few strange birds in the congregation who hate Christ, don’t want to submit to Christ, but make it a habit of showing up every Sunday to hear some good hard hitting preaching. They are like bugs, drawn to the light, but who never use the light for its intended purpose. They are quick to come up after the sermon with a smile on their face and say, “Great sermon preacher!” However they walk away unchanged. They don’t read their Bible! They don’t pray! They don’t serve others in the church! They are mere fat cells in the body of Christ, sucking up resources, but contributing nothing.

There is a reason they don’t contribute; they are still dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3). The Holy Spirit does not dwell within them (Rom. 8:9). They have no spiritual gifts to share with others. They have no love for Christ to motivate them. Their religion is a man made religion crafted by their own lusts and personal convictions. They live within the church the way parasites live on or inside an animal, always taking, but never giving. For them, hard, confronting, gospel-centered expository preaching is a form of mental flagellation. The conviction they receive from the Word is a painful cathartic that they submit to in order to assuage their guilty consciences. They live for themselves, but are deluded into thinking that if they take a beating every Sunday from the preacher, when they die, Jesus will accept them into heaven for suffering so faithfully in church every Sunday.

I don’t know about you, but indifference to the Word of God messes with my mo-jo! It seems to collide with my firm belief in the sufficiency, inerrancy, and power of the Word of God “which is a hammer that shatters rock and a fire that consumes” (Jer. 23:29), which is “living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), and a Word which never returns void without accomplishing all that God desires for it to accomplish (Isa. 55:11). Yet we must remember that sometimes the purpose of God’s Word is to judge, not save, to harden, not soften. Jesus made it clear to the unbelieving religious leaders who were rejecting His Word that it was going to be His Words, which they rejected, that would judge them on the last day (Jn. 12:48). The gospel is an aroma of life to some and death to others (II Cor. 2:14-17). Our responsibility as preachers of the Word is to study diligently to show ourselves approved (II Tim. 2:15) so that we can faithfully preach the Word of God clearly and accurately in the power of the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit is in charge of the effect the Word has in the lives of those who hear it.

Ministry Is Not About Achieving Popularity Or Fame

If you read through the book of Jeremiah you will quickly discover he was not popular nor did he acquire fame. He was however well-known as an irritating, negative, rain-on-your-party, doomsday prophet; he had zero positive popularity. Let us take the Psalmist’s advice and “Selah,” pause and meditate on that fact for a moment. Let’s wrap our mind around the possibility that God may call us to a ministry where we will never be liked, instead our calling is to be a burr in the saddles of religious hypocrites, a stinging mosquito in the mind of the ungodly, and a splinter in the consciences of men who wish to be left alone in their sin. Some will dislike every faithful preacher, but Jeremiah was almost universally disliked. Could this be God’s ministry for you? Consider these characteristics of Jeremiah’s successful ministry as it relates to popularity and fame:

  • Jeremiah was rejected by the false prophets, ungodly priests, and the people for his negative prophecies (Jer. 26:7-11).
  • Jeremiah’s life work as a prophet was burned by the king because he spoke what God told him to speak (Jer. 36:25).
  • Jeremiah was arrested and imprisoned for preaching the truth (Jer. 37:13-14, 18).
  • Jeremiah was beaten (Jer. 37:15).
  • Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern with deep mud at the bottom and left there to die of thirst, hunger, and exposure (Jer. 38:6-13).
  • Jeremiah was kidnapped and taken to Egypt (Jer. 43:5-7).
  • Jeremiah was accused of being a liar for preaching the truth (Jer. 43:2).

If you read almost any popular book on “how to be a success in ministry” it isn’t going to mention any of these “successful qualities.” Instead you will be encouraged to promote yourself, rather than humble yourself. You will be told that in order to lead successfully you need to have status, a good platform, that you should be political and even compromise the truth sometimes in order to achieve the greater good, which usually means to have more fame, acceptance, and popularity. You will be encouraged to avoid being too definitive in your doctrine, but instead give them various views, and let people decide for themselves. Such advice is worldly, ungodly, and unbiblical. Jeremiah and thousands of others could teach us that God glorifying ministry is not about having popularity and fame. This is not to say you won’t have some popularity and fame, but you need to understand you may not have any. Sometimes you faithfully proclaim the truth in a clear, engaging, accurate way and people hate you for it. Welcome to the real world of successful ministry.

Granted, you may, over the course of time, shepherd a flock that is for the most part united in sound doctrine. You may have some long stretches of relative peace where spiritual and numerical growth is apparent. However, if you preach like God wants you to preach, you will create enemies. The world will hate you. Satan will do whatever he can to discourage, disqualify, or liberalize your ministry. Jeremiah was a faithful preacher and prophet, yet never experienced popularity or acceptance. Could it be this is what God has in store for you?

Ministry Is Not About Your Personal Ease And Comfort

I won’t spend long trying to prove this point because the first two are proof enough. However, if you have been in the ministry a while and have faithfully preached and taught the Word of God you have had some hard times, especially if you have pastored a large church. The more sinners, the more problems, and sometimes we are the problem. Ministry isn’t for wimps. And maybe during your hard days you have gone on vacation and noticed those small, pristine church buildings that seem to exist in almost every little town or on every quaint country road. And maybe you thought about how wonderful it would be to pastor a picturesque church in a beautiful place, with a small congregation of spiritually mature people? There you would have plenty of time to read, write, and enjoy the ministry until Jesus returns. Snap out of it! If you faithfully preached the Word of God, even in a small town, there would be opposition. Most likely your church would grow if they didn’t fire you first, and more people with problems would come and complicate your life.

As new people with new problems show up, you would be the only person on staff to deal with them and their problems. You might not have a single musician in your church or any other men that are biblically qualified to be elders or deacons. Maybe the giving would be so minimal that you wouldn’t have the ability to buy books, get a decent computer, or go to conferences. Yes, the building and city of the quaint little church might be adorable, but all that sparkles on the outside does not show the spiritual dirt on the inside. If you are called to pastor a cute little church in a cozy, sleepy town, and the previous pastor before you didn’t wage the good warfare, chances are they won’t tolerate you three Sundays. More often than not when a church goes without solid teaching and biblical leadership for a time, those with the highest spiritual convictions move out and those with the lowest spiritual convictions move in, fill the vacuum, fall in love with the building, and liberalism becomes its dying legacy. The fact is there is no such thing as an easy ministry. Yes, God has given some faithful preachers ministries with long stretches of relative ease, but over the long haul there are always battles to fight. Let down your guard and the enemy comes crashing in from all sides. Satan’s goal is to have many beautiful church buildings filled up with spiritually dead people and preachers who are devoid of the Spirit who themselves don’t know the Lord.

Jeremiah faithfully did all that the Lord gifted and called him to do and that is why Jeremiah is an example of a man who had a successful ministry. Don’t let the modern ministry gurus sell you a sack of manure wrapped with gold wrapping paper. Successful ministry is not about numbers, not about popularity or fame, and not about ease and pleasure. Successful ministry is being faithful to obey the Word of God, for the glory of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, according to the gifts, calling, training, and opportunities that God has given you. You be faithful; let God determine the results.