Regaining an Understanding of True Ministry

I have a friend who says God is calling him to start a church. While I generally applaud those who claim to be following the Lord’s call on their life, I can’t honestly do so in this case.

Let me explain…

I’ll call my church planter friend Gus (not his real name). I’ve known him many years, so I’ve had frequent opportunities to observe his track record. As you can tell, I have serious concerns about his plans to start a church, primarily because I think Gus misunderstands the nature of true ministry.

“Ministry” appeals to Gus for all the wrong reasons. Instead of recognizing that ministry means laying your life down for others, he sees it as a way to get people’s admiration and accolades. Instead of looking for a place where he can serve, he’s looking for a platform where he can show off his gifts. To put it bluntly, he’s a narcissist rather than a servant leader.

My friend Doug Stringer presents an apt word picture of the kind of motivation a genuine leader must have in God’s kingdom: “Rather than being like so many leaders who reach for thrones to build their kingdoms, we should aspire to be like our Lord Jesus, who reached for a towel to wash people’s feet.”

Gus, like many aspiring leaders today, sees ministry in terms of what he can do in public. Glamorous things like preaching or prophesying. But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how true greatness comes about. In fact, Jesus explicitly warned His disciples about that kind of twisted perspective on leadership:

“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45 NLT).

These weren’t empty words for Jesus. Shortly before His arrest and crucifixion, He set an example for His followers by washing their feet – a menial task that only a lowly servant would ordinarily do (John 13:1-17). In case they would miss His message in doing this, Jesus explained:

“Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you” (vs. 12-15 NLT).

What a crucial lesson for anyone aspiring to leadership! Before someone is given a pulpit or a microphone, they need to be given a towel and a water basin to see if they’re willing to be a servant.

Paul, the Bondservant

Understanding this foundational leadership principle, Paul begins the book of Romans like this: “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle…” (Romans 1:1 NKJV). Although he didn’t shy away from declaring his calling as an apostle, he recognized that the starting point of any ministry is becoming a bondservant of Jesus.

Here are some red flags that should concern us about anyone aspiring to plant a church or ascend to some other prominent ministry role:

  • Beware if their teachings typically center on themselves rather than on Jesus and their listeners. Pay particular attention if the most frequent words in their messages are I, me, and my.
  • Notice whether they are willing to help their friends when they are in need – or whether they usually excuse themselves because of having more “spiritual” things to do.
  • While it’s likely that they love to preach and hand out advice to people, it’s a serious warning sign if they don’t also exhibit a willingness to be accountable and receive input from others.
  • Narcissistic leaders generally display a troubling pattern of broken relationships – yet they never accept any blame for their role in the breakup.
  • Often dysfunctional leaders claim to be motivated by God’s love in everything they do, yet they display outbursts of anger and irrationality toward those who disagree with them.

So what do you think? Would you be willing to join a new church pastored by such a leader? Even if they are gifted, they will lead their church to inevitable shipwreck unless they let God deal with their emotional wounds and character flaws.

If such a leader would somehow get their new church off the ground, their narcissism would cause it to be centered around themselves rather than Christ. Of course, if you’re cynical about the condition of the American church today, you may retort that most churches are overly centered around their pastor. That’s an interesting perspective and probably should be addressed in some future blog.

I certainly don’t want to make light of any of this. Leaders like Gus are troubled souls who need our prayers. But perhaps their story should be a warning to any of us who aspire to a new role in ministry: Do we have the heart of a servant, or are we just striving to exalt ourselves?

If you have a hard time answering this, perhaps an additional question will help, based on Jesus’ commentary in Matthew 6:1-4: How much of your ministry takes place behind the scenes, serving people when no one is watching? If your ministry only takes place on a stage – or on Facebook Live – you probably haven’t been doing real ministry at all.

Jesus’ Inaugural Message

I admit, I can’t find much enthusiasm for planting new churches these days, especially if they’re going to look like carbon copies of all the other churches. Don’t we have enough gatherings like that already?

However, things could get exciting if our ministry begins to reflect the mission statement Jesus set forth in His first public sermon. In an age of pandemics, racial tension, civil unrest, and huge political divisions, think of how powerful His message is for our world today:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come” (Luke 4:18-19 NLT).

Jesus was quoting an excerpt from the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61, which goes on to say in verses 3 and 4:

“To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory. They will rebuild the ancient ruins, repairing cities destroyed long ago. They will revive them, though they have been deserted for many generations.”

I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of Holy Spirit empowered ministry I want to have. Not necessarily a pulpit and a microphone, but regular opportunities to share Good News with the poor…proclaim release to captives…help blind people recover sight and oppressed people find freedom…all the while declaring to that “the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

Today our culture is crumbling and our cities are burning. Countless people are in mourning, wondering if there’s any hope.

What a great opportunity this provides to let people know about a wonderful exchange made available through the cross of Christ. With a life surrendered to Jesus, they can have a crown of beauty instead of their ashes…a joyous blessing instead of a life of painful mourning…festive praise instead of their current despair and hopelessness.

Friends, this passage includes a great promise that our culture can still be transformed. By the power of God’s Spirit, He wants to use us to “rebuild the ancient ruins, repairing cities destroyed long ago.” Even though “many generations” in America have drifted from His pathways, there’s still time for a mighty spiritual awakening to reverse our errors.

Instead of cursing the darkness, it’s time to light some candles. Now is the time to arise and shine, for the future is in our hands.