The False Heaven of a Successful Ministry

by Jared C. Wilson January 13, 2016

"Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly" – 1 Peter 5:2

Pastoral ministry is not the most lucrative of occupations, except when it is. On average, pastors are not paid enough. But very few of us have any grounds for complaint. In general, if it’s riches you’re after, ministry is likely not your first choice, unless you’re gunning for a time slot on TBN.

But there are times when we are not exercising our pastoral duties for any reason other than to pay our bills; this is pastoring for shameful gain, no matter the dollar amount.

Shameful gain doesn’t have to be about money, though. There are lots of things we can be shameful in our hopes to gain. It could be attendance numbers, pledge cards, altar call respondents, prestige, power, book sales, Twitter followers, blog subscribers, pats on the back . . . The list is endless.

Several years ago some friends and I planted a church in Nashville, Tennessee. God did not give us tremendous numerical growth. We were faithful to his calling, best as we understood it, but his plan was not for our increase. As the pastor of this church, I often took this very personally. I come from the land of the Bible Belt, where megachurches are flowing with soy lattes and money. There is a Six Flags Over Jesus on nearly every corner, and here we were, a little missional church plant, commemorating many Sunday services with more people in our band than in the pews.

It was a struggle on a soul level for me each week as our music would begin. I would make my way out to the foyer to pray. I would beg God to send just two more people, just one more, before I had to get up to preach. It wasn’t the Bible Belt or megachurchianity that made me seek my validation in attendance; it was my own flesh. And there was the whisper of the devil, tickling my ear with his forked tongue, accusing me of my worthlessness, which only made me seek my worth in wisps and fog all the more.

I’m in a different place pastoring a different church now. Ironically enough, though I left a town of nearly 1.6 million for a town of nearly 1,000, my church is about eleven times the size of my previous church. In six years we quadrupled in size. We continue to grow, and Lord willing, we will continue to grow. By the most common of church measurement standards, things are good. But the struggle never leaves.

The dirty little secret underneath the desire for shameful gain is this: there’s never enough.

One of the most helpful things I’ve ever read on these matters comes from a pastor named Justin Anderson who realized the dream. “I’ve seen the “promised land,” he wrote, “and it’s just ok.”

Refreshing is what that word is. Anderson elaborates:

For the last couple years, I have been living the dream. Our church has seen explosive growth, people be saved, baptized, and join groups all the time. We have four campuses, thousands of people, and a great staff. Finally, all the toil of church planting has paid off and the prospect of megachurch stardom was a reality.

Most of us want some version of this in ministry. I finally reached the promised land, and I can report that it’s just OK. Don’t get me wrong: there were parts that I loved, but at the end of the day there is always more to do, always another idea, hill to climb or battle to fight—it never ends.

There is much wisdom here for all of us, big church or little church, succeeding or struggling. There is wisdom here for pastor and laity alike.

Too often we envision “successful ministry”—this vision may look different from person to person, church to church—and pour our energies and affections into seeing that vision become a reality, assuming that once we finally “arrive,” things will be better, easier, finally and ultimately fulfilling. This is, functionally, idolatry. It is a creation of a false heaven, not simply false in its falling short of the real Paradise but false in its inclusion of talent, acquired skills, and grit to reach.

Don’t settle for the false heaven of a “successful ministry.” Because real success is faithfulness. Big church or small church, growing church or declining church, well-known church or obscure church—all churches are epic successes full of the eternal, invincible quality of the kingdom of God when they treasure Jesus’ gospel and follow him. Jesus did not give the keys of the kingdom with the ability to bind and loose on both sides of the veil only to those who’d reached a certain attendance benchmark. So do well, pursue excellence, and stay faithful. God will give you what you ought to have according to his wisdom and riches.

The reality is, as Anderson is able to reveal from that fabled other side, there is no promised land until the promised land of the real heaven. We always think things will finally be . . . well, final when we get “there,” wherever “there” is for us. But there is no there. There’s only here. Because once you get there, there becomes here, and there’s a new there. On and on it will go until our discontentment with ourselves is shaped by the contentment found in Christ and our yearning for thisworldly “theres” is conquered by the vision of the everlasting “there.”

A vision of the everlasting riches of Christ is the antidote for pastoring for shameful gain.

from The Pastor's Justification