Subtitle: “The dangerous draw of pragmatism.”

This week, we continue with our focus on where we derive our primary identity from…our ministry or from Christ.

Last week we looked at the first two “dashboard lights” that signal that our identity is being derived from our ministry rather than from Christ. Today we look at numbers three and four.

Third Dashboard Light:

My primary focus becomes “pragmatism” rather than what I believe is right and best.

In other words, I become far more concerned with “what works,” than with what is “right”. I begin to compromise what Scripture says and what my own personal convictions are.

We find ourselves preaching on things that we believe will bring “growth” even when we know that it may not be what is best in God’s eyes. We begin to compromise, not only what we say from the pulpit, but also what we don’t say but should say.

For example: We may talk a great deal about heaven, but conveniently never mention hell and its eternal reality. We begin to run every sermon through the grid of “Will this sermon make people want to come back to my church?” Rather than “Is this sermon pleasing to God?”

When Christ is our core identity, we live to please God, not man.

When pragmatism is in the driver’s seat, a person begins to compromise their convictions and possibly their integrity for something that will make their ministry “appear successful.”

Now I realize that there is nothing wrong with being pragmatic in a general sense. But when pragmatism gets put in the driver’s seat in our ministries (rather than God and His holy Word), dangerous things can begin to happen!

One of the best books on ministry leadership that I have ever read is a book by Kent Hughes, entitled: Liberating Your Ministry From the Success Syndrome. I read this back in the late 80’s when it first came out. I always have several copies on hand that I give out to pastors on a regular basis.

In it, Hughes writes the following:

“To me, success in the ministry meant growth in attendance. Ultimate success meant a big, growing church. Certainly there is nothing wrong with the wise use of any of the above principles [he had just talked about various ‘church growth principles’]. They should be part of the intelligent orchestration of ministry.

However, when the refrain they play is numerical growth – when the persistent motif is numbers – then the siren song becomes deeply sinister: growth in numbers, growth in giving, growth in staff, growth in programs – numbers, numbers, numbers! Pragmatism becomes the conductor. The audience inexorably becomes man rather than God.

Subtle self-promotion becomes the driving force. When success in the ministry becomes the same as success in the world, the servant of God evaluates his success like a businessman or an athlete or a politician.

Years earlier, when I began the ministry, my motivation was simply to serve Christ. That was all. My heroes were people like Jim Elliot, whose motto – “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose” – was part of my life. All I wanted was the approval of God.

But imperceptibly my high Christian idealism had shifted from serving to receiving, from giving to getting. I realized that what I really wanted was a growing church and “success” more than the smile of God. Subconsciously I was evaluating nearly everything from the perspective of how it would affect church growth.

I realized that in the extreme such thinking reduces people to “beef on the hoof” – a terrible thought. It also enthrones a relentless pragmatism in church planning. And if this happens, it can erode the noblest ideals. It can even corrupt one’s theology.”

Because here in America we “celebrate and elevate” churches that are large and growing, we can begin to feel that if we are not doing the same, we are somehow a “failure.”

The reality is: just because a church is large and growing does not necessarily mean that they are doing “biblical ministry.” It does not necessarily mean that the pastor is “more godly” than the pastor down the street who shepherds a flock of 100 instead of 10,000.

We tend to equate numerical growth with “godliness” and “God’s blessing”…when in fact the pastor down the street who faithfully and biblically leads and shepherds his flock may be more pleasing to God than the pastor of the local mega-church. The reality here in America is that less than 2% of all churches are larger than 1,000 people. 98% of all churches are not considered “mega-churches.” Based on the latest statistics, approximately 80% of all churches in the United States have less than 100 to 150 people in them on any given Sunday.

Now, lest I be misunderstood, I am not in any way trying to disparage pastors of large churches. I have many personal friends who pastor some of the largest churches in the country, and they are truly men of integrity and are certainly godly leaders. What I am saying is: just because a church is large does notautomatically mean that the pastor is “godly” and leading his church in such a way that brings a “smile to the face of God.”

Fourth Dashboard Light:

My passion for God begins to wane and I cover it up (hide it) with my professionalism in ministry.

This is where we become downright dangerous in ministry. We’ve lost our passion. We’ve lost our zeal. We’re simply going through the motions. But let’s face it: if you’ve been in ministry long enough, it’s pretty easy to simply go through the motions without most people ever knowing that our heart is cold and calloused. We know the appropriate spiritual phrases that will make us sound spiritual. The beginning point of change is repentance.  It’s taking an honest inventory of our hearts and confessing our callous coldness and asking God to re-light the fire in our souls.

If we want our people to have genuine passion for God, if we want our people to pursue Christ as their supreme treasure, then we need to have Christ as our supreme treasure. We need to have a genuine passion for God. Howard Hendricks said it well: “You cannot impart what you do not possess.”

Those are the FOUR warning signs that I would suggest tell us that our identity is misplaced.

On the other hand, when our identity is rooted squarely in our relationship with Christ (and not in our ministry), I believe THREE things become obvious:

Number 1: We become secure individuals who have nothing to prove and nothing to lose.

Number 2: We care far more about what heaven thinks than with what earth thinks. Our audience truly becomes God rather than man.

Number 3: We freely acknowledge our inadequacy to produce anything of lasting value apart from Christ.

We’re not threatened by admitting that “we are hopeless and helpless” in life and ministry apart from Christ. We’re not threatened to admit, “I have nothing to offer of any significance apart from Christ.” We’re not afraid to admit that “we are not adequate in ourselves for this task of pastoring!”

John Piper, in his excellent book (which I recommend every pastor read!),Brothers, We Are Not Professionals – subtitled: A Plea to Pastors For Radical Ministry, writes the following:

“I was amazed once to hear a seminary graduate say how adequate he felt for the ministry after his years of schooling. This was supposed to be a compliment to the school.

The reason this amazed me is that the greatest theologian and missionary and pastor who ever lived cried out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). Not because he was a bungler, but because the awful calling of emitting the fragrance of eternal life for some and eternal death for others was a weight he could scarcely bear.

A pastor who feels competent in himself to produce eternal fruit – which is the only kind that matters – knows neither God nor himself. A pastor who does not know the rhythm of desperation and deliverance must have his sights only on what man can achieve.

But brothers, the proper goals of the life of a pastor are unquestionably beyond our reach. The changes we long for in the hearts of our people can happen only by a sovereign work of grace.

God does all His gracious work in such a way “that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:29),which means He usually does it in answer to prayer.

Apart from prayer, all our scurrying about, all our talking, all our study amounts to “nothing.” For most of us the voice of self-reliance is ten times louder than the bell that tolls for the hours of prayer.”

Pastors and leaders, may you be encouraged and take heart in the fact that no matter what our “culture” may be saying about your ministry, what matters most is “the smile of God.” Pursue His smile, pursue His pleasure more than all else!

“…so that in everything he [Jesus] might have the supremacy.” (Colossians 1:18)