When two pastors meet for the first time, the same question always comes up: How big is your church? And I get it. How else is a pastor supposed to determine if he’s a success or failure? Pastoral ministry isn’t like sports, in which even the most obscure statistics (average yards per carry on third downs after 3:00 PM) are quantified and assigned value. Ministry isn’t like business either, with a bottom line that is either distinctly red or distinctly black. Ministry isn’t like manufacturing, which is often boiled down to the how many you sold and how much you made on each sale. No, ministry is much more nebulous. Earthly equations for determining a pastor’s success or failure are much more difficult to come by.
Because of it’s nebulous nature, some pastors desperately try to find some measurement or number that will help them determine if they are successful. They want to be assured they are doing a good job. So they turn to the size of their congregation, or the number of times their sermons are downloaded, or the number of Twitter followers they have, or the square footage of their auditorium, or the size of the church budget. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with these numbers, they usually aren’t a good indicator of whether or not a pastor is being faithful to preach the gospel. In fact, they can even be misleading, causing a pastor to think he’s a successful when he’s actually just popular (big difference).
So how can a pastor tell when he’s faithfully preaching the gospel? Here are several indicators. You know you’re preaching the gospel when…
You’re Less Impressed with Yourself
Before you can preach the gospel to others, you’ve got to be able to preach it to yourself first. You can’t lead others to drink from a stream you haven’t yet discovered yourself. How do you know if you’re preaching the gospel to yourself? One sign is that you’re less impressed with yourself than you used to be.
When we truly get the gospel, we start to realize that we’re not such a big deal after all. In 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, Paul says:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
God doesn’t operate like a professional baseball team. He doesn’t call the best and the brightest to the big stage. Rather, he calls the weak and lowly to salvation and then deploys them into ministry. If you’ve been called to ministry, it’s not because God needed you on his team. It’s because he delights in you and wanted you in his family. When we get our minds around this monumental truth, it allows us to quit trying to be impressive. God isn’t impressed with us, and we shouldn’t be either.
Do you feel less impressive as you go further into ministry? That’s good news! It probably means you’re preaching the gospel to yourself!
Your Church Gets Messier
If you’re faithfully preaching the gospel, God will cause unbelievers to be saved. When unbelievers are saved, they come to your church, and they bring their baggage along with them. Salvation never happens in a vacuum. Our sins and struggles and weaknesses don’t disappear the moment we’re saved. When an anorexic woman is saved, she is completely and totally forgiven, but the odds are good that she’ll continue to battle anorexia for some time. As a pastor, you have the privilege of wading into the mess and helping her walk out of it. When a serial fornicator is saved, his sins are immediately pardoned, but his libido isn’t turned off. As a pastor, you have the privilege of standing alongside him as he battles lust.
Don’t forget, when you got saved, you brought your mess with you (and you’re still a mess!). If your church is getting messier, don’t be discouraged. It probably means you’re faithfully preaching the gospel!
People Start Being Honest About Themselves
The good news of the gospel is that God accepts us as we are, not as we will be. In Christ, we are fully, completely, totally, and radically accepted. One-hundred percent of Christ’s righteousness is credited to us. Not fifty percent, not eighty-five percent – one hundred glorious percent. If you’re preaching the gospel in all it’s radical goodness, people will feel secure in Christ. If people feel secure in Christ, they can stop acting like they have it all together. If they are righteous in Christ, they don’t need to put on any sort of act. They, along with you, can be honest about struggles and sins.
When people start being honest about their struggles, things can get…complicated. When a person confesses same-sex attraction, or drug addiction, or an eating disorder, or intense anger, or chronic lying, or total hopelessness, it can create layers of awkwardness, social tension, and even division. As a pastor, you have the privilege of helping people work through the complications sin creates. Of helping people apply the gospel to same-sex attraction, drug addiction, and anger.
If your church is getting complicated because people are being honest about themselves, don’t be discouraged! It probably means you’re faithfully preaching the gospel.
Ministry isn’t a numbers game. It’s not about bigger, better, and brighter. It’s not about kicking butt and taking names. Ministry is messy. Ministry is complicated. Ministry is about becoming less impressed with yourself and more smitten with the Savior. But this is good news. Why? Because it allows us to get off the performance treadmill. It allows to stop feeling so lousy when we compare our church to other churches. When we’re really preaching the gospel, both to ourselves and to others, it sets us free. And it results in the kind of success that lasts for eternity!