How to Keep Going in Christian Ministry

I got this blog post in my email inbox this morning. It’s from “Practical Shepherding,” one of the most useful and, well, practical ministry blogs I follow. Well worth the (short) read:

One of my pastoral teachers and heroes, Bill Hughes, said goodbye to his beloved wife of over 60 years this past week who met her Savior in glory and is no longer suffering.  Bill spent most of his long and faithful ministry serving in Scotland.  Thinking about and praying for Bill this week reminded me of a simple, but profound truth I learned from him about how to endure through the constant struggles of pastoral ministry.  In an exposition of 2 Corinthians 4 I once heard Bill Hughes preach, he made this observation to answer the nagging question, “How do I endure through the difficulties of pastoral ministry?”

“Never forget the debt to mercy we owe.”

See what I mean?  Simple.  Stunningly true.  Yet, when measured against anything we might face as pastors, it produces endurance in every trial, struggle, and difficulty.  Bill instructed that when we remember who we once were and the amazing debt to mercy we owe to our Savior, we will be more patient, gracious, and merciful to even the most stubborn and petty of conflicts and complaints we experience in the church.  Likewise, if we forget who we once were  and presume upon this debt to mercy in the gospel, those same petty people and issues will eat us up and will destroy us and our ministry.

Dear brothers, if you find yourself discouraged, angry, wondering why some of your people do and say what they do and you can’t take it any more…do not forget the debt to mercy you owe.  It is a debt greater than you and I could ever payback.  It is a debt that should weigh heavier on our joyful hearts than the most difficult person in our church.  Apply this truth that I was so powerfully taught to me by this sweet and faithful man and see if you then find the hope and perspective you need for that struggling person or circumstance you face in your ministry.


What’s the main thing you need to be a pastor?

This both encourages and challenges me: the main qualifier for ministry is steady growth in love for God and others. Paul Woodson writes,

There is no one style of ministry that is productive and no one type of personality that represents good pastoral ministry. The sheer diversity of personality types among ministers is surely a sign that any particular personality type has little to do with the building of the Church. But the pastors whose ministries I particularly applaud (whether successful in the eyes of the world or not) are those whose love for the Lord Jesus is transparent and growing, whose ability to expound the Scriptures with devotion, clarity, practical application, and real unction is increasing, and whose love for people is not artificial or sentimental but self-denying and perceptive (this is essential to what is often called “pastoral care”), and whose desire to proclaim the gospel and work out its implications dictates the focus and priorities of their lives.

You can download this book, “Letters Along the Way” by D.A. Carson and Paul Woodson for free as a pdf by clicking here.

The criterion of embarrassment

How can a Christian answer the question, “Why, or how, do you believe the Bible is true? How do know it wasn’t just made up?” One of the most compelling answers I have to a question like that is the criterion of embarrassment.

The Criterion of Embarrassment

The criterion of embarrassment says that the writers of the Bible include “embarrassing” stories because they’re true stories. They want truthfulness more than they want to seal off the loose ends.

But a 5-minute google search of “criterion of embarrassment” will lead you to a few critiques. Not everyone is convinced that this criterion, or way of looking at the Bible, proves very much. These critiques point out the ways in which this criterion often gets misused and stretched. And it’s true. It has weaknesses and limitations. In order to explain what exactly the criterion of embarrassment is (for those who’ve never heard about it), and to address these critiques before moving on, I’ve given three qualification or limitations below.


A Greek manuscript of Matthew’s Gospel

  1. The criterion of embarrassment doesn’t argue that every embarrassing story is true. If this were the case, we could go to one of the “apocryphal” gospels (gospel of Judas, gospel of Thomas), find a really strange story about Jesus, and argue for it’s truthfulness this same way. But it wouldn’t work. Here’s why:

  2. The criterion of embarrassment is like a table top that supports conclusions only if it is supported by sturdy legs: the witness of the church. This is crucial. A story’s truthfulness can only be established if the eyewitness of the events themselves, the early church, already witnessed and fought for a story’s place in the scriptures. Once you combine #1 with #2, you get this principle:
  3. Stories aren’t necessarily true because they’re embarrassing, but embarrassing stories must have been true if they were deliberately included in the scriptures. Truthfulness and witness is at the foundation of this criterion. Not necessarily embarrassment. So you can’t go to an embarrassing story and say it’s true simply because it’s embarrassing. I could make up a lot of stories about Jesus and say they should be included because they’re embarrassing. But you can (and should) go to an “embarrassing” story, one that reflects badly on the disciples for example, and ask of it, “why is this here? Why wasn’t it taken out? Why was it defended?” That’s the strength of this criterion.

All that is pretty theoretical. So here’s a real example.

Peter’s Embarrassment

Peter was one of the first followers of Jesus and later became a major leader in the early church. When he followed Jesus and heard his teaching, he frequently misunderstood. Luke tells us about a time when Jesus asked his 12 closest followers:

And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.”

We know, from the end of the story, who Jesus claims to be: the Christ, the Savior of the world. His conclusion about himself is clear enough. But he turns the question on his followers:

 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” [Luke 9:18-20 ESV]

Peter seems to have the answer right. He seems to know who Jesus is. But later we find out that he actually doesn’t. When Jesus tells Peter that he (Jesus) will eventually be crucified by the Romans, this happens:

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him [Jesus], saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” [Mark 8:32-33 ESV]

Peter thinks that Jesus is out of his mind for all this talk about suffering, being rejected, and being killed. And he’s got it completely wrong. He’s totally misunderstood Jesus’ mission and message. And his mistake is now recorded in the Bible for us to remember, almost 2000 years later.

Why This Matters

This is an embarrassing story for the early church. They have to admit that one of their leaders didn’t really understand who Jesus was. There’s a lot of things you could make mistakes about and still be alright; but Jesus’ identity isn’t really one of those.

Is this really the guy that you want to head up your made-up/make-believe church? (In Acts, the “history book” of the early church, Peter is one of the major leaders) If you were making this all up, wouldn’t you smooth out this minor (…major) mistake of his?

You would. If you were making it all up. And that’s the point. If the church didn’t have such an overwhelming desire to be truthful and honest, they would’ve simply removed this story. But here it is.

When you consider the limitations above, and apply that important qualifier of “the witness of the church,” you can form a statement like, “I know that this story isn’t true just because it’s embarrassing, but why wouldn’t the church remove this embarrassing story if they could’ve? Why was it defended and included in the Gospels?”

I think the only conclusion to that question would be to say that it really is a true story. The criterion of embarrassment is a good reason to believe that the what we read in the Bible really, actually, happened.

McKiddie on Offline and Online Leadership

A word in season for many I think. Definitely for me. Eric McKiddie writing on how impactful leaders are offline influencers:

Eric McKiddie

Eric McKiddie

The social media landscape can make the average person wonder if he can make an impact in the world today. If you take a look at well-known pastors, you can’t help but notice they are prolific, not only in printed books, but in tweets, blog posts, and Facebook likes.

One might derive an invalid conclusion from this phenomenon, thinking, “If well-known pastors are making a big impact, and have a massive social media following, then if I’m going to have a big impact, I need a social media presence, too.” …

The difference between attention and impact
The social media climate has caused some people to confuse attention with impact. Many, pastors included, assume that if you have people’s attention, you will necessarily make an impact on them. While, it’s certainly true that you can’t impact someone without their attention, having their attention doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have an impact on them. This is good news for pastors who are neither interested in social media nor have the time to learn how to use it effectively.

How do offline pastors make an impact in a world that is crazy about social media?

Furthermore, how should pastors who are active on social media measure their influence for the gospel?

His answer? Sacrificial leadership.

A decade-long diet of well-prepared sermons and encouragement during times of need are the kind of things that impact people for the kingdom. Yes, a ministry like this will come at a cost to you. But if you are not willing do this, you don’t deserve a massive online following. You should not even be in ministry at all.

Read the full article here, and check out his great blog for pastors and leaders, Pastoralized.

Don’t Offer People False Hope

Real comfort is more thank thinking the right things in times of trouble. It involves having my identity rooted in something deeper than my relationships, possessions, achievements, wealth, health, or my ability to figure it all out. Real comfort is found when I understand that I am held in the hollow of the hand of the One who created and rules all things. The most valuable thing in my life is God’s love, a love that no one can take away. When my identity is rooted in him, the storms of trouble will not blow me away. …

This is the comfort we offer people. We don’t comfort them by saying that things will work out. They may not.

… Giving hope is more than convincing people that things will get better, or helping them decide what to do. Giving hope introduces them to a Person.

Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Handspg 151-152, 157.

Words Aren’t Enough

Image courtesy of


[12] Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, [13] bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. [14] And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. [15] And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. [16] Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [17] And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
(Colossians 3:12-17 ESV)

Paul is calling us to a state of Biblical readiness for the ministry opportunities he will bring as he changes us through the ministry of others. … Paul is reminding us that what we “wear” (that is, the character qualities we put on) to moments of ministry is as important as what we say. The list of character traits Paul gives us a summary of the character of Christ. Paul is saying, “If you are going to be involved in what God is going in others, come dressed for the job!

Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Handspg 135.

What Is the Church?

Paul Tripp, a counselor and pastor gives his perspective from years of experience:

instruments redeemers handsImagine a doctor coming out of an examination room to say to his receptionist, “Sick people, sick people, sick people! All I ever see is sick people! Why don’t healthy people ever come and visit me?” The church is full of people dealing with the effects of sin, people who are not fully formed into the image of Jesus Christ. The church is full of people who have lost their way and don’t even know it, who haven’t made a connection between their daily problems and the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. … The church is not a theological classroom. It is a conversion, confession, repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness, and sanctification center, where flawed people place their trust in Christ, gather to know and love him better, and learn to love others as he has designed. The church is messy and inefficient, but it is God’s wonderful mess — the place where he radically transforms hearts and lives.

Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Handspg 116.

Personality and Ministry Part 3: God Works through Means

I’ve wondered if this series of posts is nothing more than a sly cover — a way to weasel out of courageous/extroverted ministry. But after some reflection, I think it’s safe to say they are not. Here’s my short answer as to why that’s the case:

God usually works through a means

You and I see this everyday. And it’s so beautiful and common that we don’t even notice it. You might go to lunch with a person who is an unusually (yet wonderfully) attentive listener. The conversation is easy and natural, and you unravel your past week in front of them. You notice how they lean forward, calmly acknowledging your struggles and sincerely celebrating your successes. And you walk away refreshed because you sense that you were cared for. You’re sure that this person was a means of grace — an answer to your prayer that very morning for companionship in this desert-like season.

Most of us have had conversations like that. But only some have eyes to see God himself healing and building up a fractured heart during that time. It’s God’s goodness and kindness (sometimes his loving discipline) finding its way into our lives through his appointed means. And sometimes that means is another person. But it’s God’s work – it’s the Holy Spirit stirring up love in another person’s heart toward us.

God usually works through a means.

In relation to ministry, my point is this: no two ministers (anyone called by God to Christian ministry) will work out their calling in the same way because they must do so through their own unique capabilities. And this is always the case because God works through them.

If your hypothetical lunch partner approached the time together simply wanting to bless you with an attentive ear and heart, they probably didn’t transform into a pastor-robot as soon you started speaking. It’s more likely that they simply focused on you, and directed their skill of listening onto your conversation.

This is why the church has a variety of gifts: because when we use them, we do so within the constraints of our own person(ality). God works his will through the manifold means of the Church’s members. Eyes seeing. Ears hearing. Feet walking. Each in accordance with its design.

With his usual clarity, John Piper makes a similar point about Charles Spurgeon. How easy it would be, he says, to try imitate this incredible man.

He [Spurgeon] read six serious books a week and could remember what was in them and where. He read The Pilgrim’s Progress over 100 times.

He added 14,460 people to his church membership, and did almost all the membership interviews himself. He could look out on a congregation of 5,000 and name the members.

He founded a pastors’ college and trained almost 900 men during his pastorate.

Spurgeon once said he had counted as many as eight sets of thoughts that passed through his mind at the same time while he was preaching. And he often prayed for his people as he preached to them. He would preach for 40 minutes at 140 words a minute from a small sheet of notes that he had worked up the night before. The result? Over 25,000 copies sold each week in 20 languages, and someone was converted every week through the written sermons.

What do you do when you stand before a man like this? Courageous but desperate imitation is my gut response. Piper crafts a metaphor to illustrate how dangerous simplistic comparison would be in this situation,

If you try to make your Minnesota hill imitate a mountain, you will make a fool of your hill. Hills have their place. So do the plains of Nebraska. If the whole world were mountains, where would we grow bread? Every time you eat bread say, “Praise God for Nebraska.”

(Read the article here)

CC Image courtesy of Macpedia on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Macpedia on Flickr

Remember that God works through ranges of people, whether mountainous or level. I look at the ways (the means) that God works through other people, and I rejoice. Praise God that there are extroverts! I need those hills! And so do others. But I am a valley through and through. And that’s okay. God will work his will through my folded and falling landscape. God will work through this means he has given me.

Personality and Ministry: Part 2

Even if it’s become an out-dated evangelical buzz word, “fellowship,” captures the idea of an essential New Testament teaching: True Christians will actively seek out the fellowship of other Christians. The NT might allow for different expressions of this fellowship, whether it be corporate gatherings, small groups, Bible study fellowships, etc. But we must gather. We must associate with one another. Because of the way we see the early church conducting their lives as well as the numerous and inescapable commands concerning this issue (organized in the graphic below), we’re not really left with any room to question if we’re to be involved in other Christians’ lives. The right question is not, “should we?” But “how should we?”

Spread across the entire New Testament are approximately 40 “one another” passages that explain how this interaction should be expressed. Verbs like “love” “instruct” “greet” “accept” and “forgive” show what the affirming work looks like. But on their heels follow commands to “submit” “rebuke” “admonish” and “teach” one another. Both initially restorative and eventually restorative interactions must happen. This is a realistic and full-orbed perspective on relationships. So here are two related observations that I think might help to get the discussion going in the right direction:

Every Christian is called to

  1. have relationships within the local church
  2. have those relationships exist within certain parameters (the one anothers are a good place to start).

It’s not just leaders who need to ask these questions (although that is the angle I’m coming from). The question, “how will I interact with other Christians?” is laid on all who joyfully follow Jesus Christ. But the question, at least in my experience, is never that simple. And that’s because I myself am a human being with certain dispositions that makes a clear and reasonable command unfortunately cloudy. I bring my sin (rebellion against God) into the equation.

So, it’s simple: fulfill the “one anothers.” And it’s not simple: fulfill them as a person marred by sin with other people who are marred by sin. We now know we must “get in each other’s lives,” as my pastor says. How, therefore, are we to do this in light of our sin-permeated efforts? And closely related, are there refractions of glory in our individually blemished dealings with people?

Trevin Wax on why we gather as a church

Trevin Wax, being brilliant as usual:

I had to apologize to my son recently.

We were on our way to church one Sunday, and he said, “Dad, I think I know all the Bible stories now.”

“Really?” I said. “All of them?”

“Just about,” he replied. “And I know all the songs we sing in church too.”

“That should make it easier for you to sing along,” I said.

“I don’t know why we keep going over the same stories and singing the same songs. Don’t they think we’ve got it down by now?”

“I’ve been studying the Bible and singing songs for a long time, Timothy. And I get something new from God’s Word every week.”

By this time, we were getting out of the van and walking towards the worship center. That’s when he said, “I don’t think we need to go to church every week. Why don’t we just wait until there’s something new to learn?”

He goes on to provide a stunning answer. I commend the article to you. Read it here.