I have heard it many times. In fact, much to my embarrassment, I have even said it. The statement goes something like this: “Not every pastor will be successful. Sometimes we are called just to be faithful where God has placed us.” A statement like this assumes that there is a dichotomy between a successful pastor and a faithful pastor, and that being faithful is at times the antithesis of being successful.
There is great comfort to thinking this way. For most of my time in the pastorate, I pastored small (under 75 people) churches. Both those churches were located in small towns (250 and 600 people respectively). Many years there would be little positive change in the number of people attending the church. A pastor in rural ministry realizes that their church is not likely to turn into a mega-church any time in the near future. As a result, we begin to condition ourselves to think that success is not what we were called into the pastorate for. Rather, we think, it is much more important to be faithful than to be successful as a pastor.
In some cases, thinking this way causes us to be become lazy in our responsibilities. When we do not anticipate success, we spend less time in the word of God and less time in prayer. We slap together a lesson rather than prayerfully seeking God for insight, guidance and understanding. Sometimes we even take a measure of pride in our faithfulness, and in some twisted way, look down our noses at more successful pastors, thinking to ourselves, “they might be successful, but we are the faithful ones.” We assume, in some cases, that they are successful because they have compromised the message of the cross, and in our false humility, we assume that we are not successful because we have held firm to the message of the cross.
But is all this true? Is there truly a dichotomy between successful and faithful? Can a called man, faithful to the gospel, be certain of success in the pastorate? That last question was the question posed to me as I attended the Rocky Mountain Bible Mission’s Shepherd’s Conference last week. The main speaker, Art Azurdia from Trinity Church, Portland, OR and Western Seminary, spoke on this very thing. His main text was John 15:16 which says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.’ (ESV)
There are a lot of things in that verse – the idea of sovereign appointment and the centrality of prayer – but I want to highlight one particular thing that hit me. Here it is: Jesus appoints people for ministry and then sends them out with an expectation of success. We are appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that abides or lasts. We are ordained to fruitfulness. The path of a pastor may be hard at times, but it is not futile. It is not meant to be empty of success. The question I need to ask myself is this: do I expect something to happen when I preach? Do I expect the gospel message to transform the lives and hearts of those listening to me? Jesus says I should. We don’t always know when or how success will happen, or what fruit will look like, but Jesus does say that those appointed to ministry should be both faithful AND successful.
Of course, in order for that to happen, we need to passionately believe what we preach. The passion comes out of our own encounter with the transforming truths of the Word of God. As Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “If there is no passion, you are not a preacher.” With God at work in our hearts, we will preach with a passion born out of spiritual desperation – a personal desperation in our own hearts and a desperation for the hearts of our beloved flock.
So the question I need to ask myself as I prepare a message, plan a Bible Study, lead a Sunday School class, or sit down with AWANA kids is this: do I expect something to happen when I help someone encounter God’s Word? I should, because God, through His gospel, is in the transformation business. He has called me to go and bear fruit that lasts. He has called me to His ministry, and He has called me, in His power, to be both faithful and successful.