Most people who have been involved in some form of long-term pastoring-teaching-discipling ministry will find themselves asking questions like: Has it been worthwhile? Have I been ‘successful’? Will there be any eternal fruit? Or even, have I been wasting my time? Whether these arise in moments of self-doubt or honest self-reflection, they can force us to pause and examine our hearts before God.

Most people who have been involved in long-term ministry will find themselves asking questions like: Has it been worthwhile?

We live in a world driven by results and we are programmed to think in terms of successful outcomes and productivity. But more than this, as Christians, we are also aware that Christ wants us to live fruitful lives (John 15). And whatever fruitfulness may look like in terms of Christian character or godly living, surely it includes the fruit of new and growing disciples. As Colin Kruse states:

When Jesus said the disciples were to ‘go’ and bear fruit, the ‘going’ most likely refers to their missionary endeavours. The ‘fruit’ they were to bear in their going would be new believers.[1]

Or as Jesus put it:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last … (John 15:16)

In addition, we are aware of the need to be good stewards of the gifts God has given us, for which we will one day be called to give an account. Are we using our gifts well? Will there be any ‘lasting fruit’ to show as evidence on that day?

The Realities of Ministering to People

The church growth movement has created anxiety for many people serving faithfully …

The rise of the church growth movement over the past 50 years has created expectations around ministry that have caused a greater level of anxiety for many people serving faithfully in pastoring-teaching-discipling roles in their churches. Of course, we all want to see our ministries flourishing and our people growing spiritually. And it’s wonderful when this happens.

However, a cursory reading of the New Testament shows that many people in the early church fell away, even with the best apostolic oversight. Consider these, for example, from the church at Ephesus:

  • Hymenaeus and Alexander had to be ‘handed over to Satan’ (1 Tim 1:20)
  • Phygelus and Hermogenes deserted Paul (2 Tim 1:15)
  • Hymenaeus and Philetus departed from the truth (2 Tim 2:17)
  • Demas ‘loved this world’ and deserted to Thessalonica (2 Tim 4:10)

And this was just one church!

The reality is that ‘when trouble or persecution come because of the word,’ some people do fall away (Matt 13:21). The ‘worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth’ do choke God’s word in some people, (Matt 13:22). Moreover, as we move closer to the Lord’s return, we should not be surprised to see that ‘the love of most will grow cold,’ (Matt 24:12). People do lose their first love for Christ (Rev 2:4) and become lukewarm in their faith (Rev 3:15-16). Though saddened, we should not be surprised when we see people like this in our churches today.

Loving people and helping them grow spiritually in the messiness of life is not a precise process or a quantifiable metric. At its best, there is no greater joy. At its worst, it can be fraught with great frustration, disappointment, and a sense of failure. Yet that is the complex matrix of relationships into which we are called to serve in gospel ministry. And anyone who has been involved in this type of ministry for any length of time must, by God’s grace, come to terms with this roller-coaster.

Keeping Things in Biblical Perspective

The well-known ‘Parable of the Sower’ (or better, ‘Parable of the Soils’) in Matthew 13 is a clear reminder to us that we have no control over where gospel seeds land or and what the response will be. These are all determined by God. And for all of us in gospel ministry—regardless of our best efforts and intentions and our desire to see ‘a crop yielding a hundred times what was sown’—it is very humbling to realise how little influence we actually have over the results of our ministry.

It is very humbling to realise how little influence we actually have over the results of our ministry.

Does that mean that our part doesn’t matter all that much? Of course not! Our part is absolutely vital. Our goal is clear, and our practical commitment to that goal is unwavering.

He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me. (Colossians 1:28-29)

But in the final analysis, it is God’s work to produce the growth. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, those who plant and water are ‘co-workers in God’s service’ and will be rewarded accordingly, but the fruitfulness (or otherwise) of their ministry is not their responsibility.

Most of us will be only too aware of this theological perspective. We believe it in our heads. But do we believe it in our hearts? Does it comfort us in the daily grind of gospel ministry?

Some Dangers to Note

When the theological radar is not working properly, there are two main dangers to guard against:

1. Pride

We should be thankful to God for evidence of his work through our ministries. What a joy it is to see people being transformed through the Word and the Holy Spirit! But how easily we find subtle ways of taking at least some of the credit and thereby rob God of his glory. The desire to be recognised and appear successful in the eyes of the Christian public can be so damaging to effective gospel ministry. Yet we see it everywhere in Christian circles!

2. Despair

Both pride and despair can stem from the same false view that our effectiveness is up to us.

How often have we been to pastoral gatherings (or even prayer meetings) where ‘success stories’ have been shared, and we’ve come away feeling crushed. Our distorted sense of self-pity and personal failure in ministry have only been reinforced. Why is everyone else doing so well while I struggle from week-to-week: watching while people fall away; watching the stats go backwards; wondering whether it’s time to quit?

Both pride and despair can stem from the same false view of success in ministry. We think that our effectiveness is up to us. When things go well, we claim the credit. When they don’t, we blame ourselves and feel that we’ve failed. If we think like this, ministry is likely to be emotionally exhausting.

Staying Positive

So how should we understand what it means to be ‘successful’ or ‘fruitful’ in ministry?

1. Keep a biblical view of success

Graphs and balance sheets are not God’s measure of evaluating the effectiveness of gospel ministry. Even when there is little objective evidence of growth, God is still at work.

2. Be thankful for small, unspectacular responses to God’s word

Positive spiritual feedback happens in lots of different, often unexpected, ways.

3. Rejoice when others are experiencing gospel growth

Remember that we are a small part of a bigger team of workers planting and nurturing gospel seeds, but all working to the same end and sharing together in the blessing of the harvest.

4. Stay connected to others serving actively in ministry

Mutual encouragement is such an important factor in sustaining long-term ministry.

5. Persevere patiently in all seasons of ministry life

The potential of the harvest may not be realised. But God calls us to faithfulness.

Like all farming, spiritual farming is generally slow, tiring, often frustrating work. The potential of the harvest may not be realised. But God calls us to faithfulness.

6. Keep praying and don’t give up

Prayer is a constant reminder to us that only God can change the human heart.

Only eternity will reveal whether our ministry is ’successful’. Only the Lord knows. It falls in that category of the ‘secret things’ which belong to him (Deut 29:29). And I, for one, am glad about that. It keeps me from pride and despair. It tells me to keep going; ‘strenuously contending (in gospel ministry) with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me’ (Col 1:29).

So be encouraged, brothers and sisters. It is worthwhile to spend yourself in the often unheralded work of a pastoring-teaching-discipling ministry. If that’s your God-given ministry, it won’t be in vain. And perhaps on the final day, there will be someone who will thank you for taking the trouble to seek out, love, and disciple a struggling fellow pilgrim who needed someone like you.

[1] The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale, p322