The Keys To Successful Ministry
Doing church ministry is not easy. At least, it is not easy to do church ministry well . Just about any church can throw open the doors on Sunday, muster up enough volunteers, scramble to get enough money in the collection plate, and survive.
The trouble is, our Lord does not want His church to simply survive, He wants His church to thrive .
As we turn to our text today, I trust you will see some great principles for helping our particular church to thrive. For when we have identified the principles that made John's ministry so effective, we can begin to apply them to our own particular context.
No, John the Baptist was not a pastor of a church, but he was the leader of a very successful ministry. John did not preach to a trickle of curious visitors, rather, we see in verse 7 that John preached to "the multitudes ".
What made John's ministry so effective? Was it his appearance? Matthew tells us that John wore "a garment made of camel's hair, and a leather belt about his waist "(Mt. 3:4). We are not to picture this as the first century equivalent to a blazer from Harry Rosen. John's dress was not normative by any cultural standard.
Neither was John's diet normative. Matthew tells us that John's diet consisted of "locusts and wild honey "(3:4). This is not the ancient equivalent of a cheeseburger. If John was ordering this food at a restaurant, I suspect he would be asked, 'Would you like some flies with that?'.
It is safe to say then, that John's appearance and lifestyle was not the secret to his ministry's success. Why then, was John so successful? Why did "the multitudes " go to see him? Was this some kind of freak show? No. Luke tells us in verse 2 that "the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness ". Unless we know our Old Testament we may miss the full impact of that sentence, "the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness ".
This is the way most of the books of the prophets begin: "The word of the Lord which came to Hosea "(1:1), "The word of the Lord that came to Joel "(1:1), "The word of the Lord came to Jonah "(1:1), "The word of the Lord which came to Micah "(1:1), and so on. Luke is explaining that with the arrival of John the Baptist, the silence of God's prophets has ended.
People don't usually go out of their way to hear someone else's opinion. People don't normally get up early on Sunday to be told what to do. People want to hear a Word from God--and that is why they came to hear John preach.
Just like the prophets before him, the foundation of John's ministry was that the word of God had come to him . And what does one do when the word of God comes? You preach, of course. And so, in verse 3, we read that John was "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins ". God gave John a message, and John gave that message to the people.
We too have a word from God. No, we don't have some subjective revelation from God to share. All that we need to know and share is contained in the Scriptures. If we want "the multitudes " to come to us, we must hasten to preach God's message of salvation.
Don't be surprised by the empty pews. I'm not. Unless we all take responsibility and share the message God has given to us, we will never see the multitudes.The first key then, to effective ministry is faithfully sharing God's Word .
What else contributed to John's successful ministry? Was it that he operated out of a unique and prime location? No. He was in a dreadful situation. John did not work out of a large city church, he was not strategically placed in a suburban context with excellent visibility, freeway access, and abundant parking. John had none of those things that many 'seeker sensitive' churches insist we must have. Rather, John ministered in the Jordan wilderness .
There is no way to candy coat how unfavourable John's context was. John ministered in an unbearably hot, dry, uncivilized, and uninhabited context. If you think those pews are uncomfortable, try standing in a desert in Palestine and listening to a sermon!
You can just imagine what John's advisors would be saying, 'John how is this going to work? You dress funny, you eat strange food, you have chosen the worst possible place to work from, and you expect people to just come and hear you preach? '.
How do we account for John's success? If it is not his lifestyle, if it is not his location, what is it? Is it his ability to endear himself to people? It is one thing to rely on the Word of God, but John's approach to sharing the God's Word certainly does not fit the category of 'seeker sensitive'. If you doubt that, look at verse 7. Quite an interesting introduction to an evangelistic sermon, wouldn't you say?
'Hello everyone. Good to see you here today. It is a great privilege to address you. Now, you know that you are a brood of vipers, don't you? I have one question for you: who warned you to come scurrying out here on your bellys?'
What is John doing here? John is using sandpaper--the real rough kind. John uses sandpaper to rub the multitudes raw: "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And also the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire "(v.8, 9).
What is John's purpose for using this sand paper message? John is preparing the surface for the gospel so that it will stick . John's message is intended to communicate to the people that their situation is dire.
Please don't misunderstand me. I hope you won't leave here today, go knock on your neighbour's door and greet them with, "You brood of vipers ". At the same time, I hope you can appreciate the need to use sandpaper. It is necessary to make the gospel stick.
John's message fits the situation. If you are in a burning building, would you greet people in the hallway, sit them down, and carefully explain to them the 4 advantages of leaving the building? No! Your message would be, 'Let's get out of here! Let's flee from here!'. John's message of urgency reflects the seriousness of the situation.
So you see that the first principle to effective ministry actually has two prongs: First, we must be faithful in sharing the message God has given to us. Secondly, sharing that message also requires that we communicate the urgency of the message .
The second principle we find at work in John's ministry is genuine humility . In verses 15 and 16, we see that John goes to great pains to establish his inferiority. The people were wondering "as to whether (John) might be the Christ ", but John quickly dismisses their speculation by pointing to "One who is coming who is mightier than I ". John insists that he is "not fit to untie the thong of His sandals ".
Though John was bold in preaching God's message of repentance, he was extremely humble when talking about his own relative importance. John's message is constantly, "I am not ", "I am not ", "I am not "(Lk. 3:16; Jn. 1:20, 21), while Jesus' message is "I am "(Jn. 8:58).
The third principle to effective ministry is plain to see from the life of John. The third principle to effective ministry is personal integrity . John has the integrity to deliver the message as he received it. He does not water down God's Word. He does not confuse his listeners with irrelevant illustrations and funny anecdotes. John simply 'tells it like it is'.
John, quite obviously, is not concerned about being popular. Don't let any preacher tell you otherwise. It is not as if people in John's day enjoyed being called a "brood of vipers "--they didn't.
And John did not simply demonstrate personal integrity in the desert either. For some Christians, our integrity is reserved for Sunday church, and we think that we are free to compromise God's holy standard when we are at home or at work.
John, apparently, had the opportunity to speak to Herod--the tetrarch of Galilee. This could have been a great opportunity for John. He could have won Herod's favour and advanced his message even more. But what did John do instead? Verse 19 and 20, "But when Herod the tetrarch was reproved by (John) on account of Herodias, his brother's wife, and on account of all the wicked things which Herod had done, he added this also to them all, that he locked John up in prison ".
What John said in the desert, he also said in the palace. That's personal integrity.
John was indeed an effective minister for Christ's kingdom. Multitudes came to hear him preach. And the multitudes responded to his preaching by confessing their sins and by undergoing John's baptism of repentance.
In John's day, God's Word came specifically to Him. Not to the Pharisees, not to the multitudes, but to him. In our present context, however, God's Word comes to every Christian--not in some quiet voice--but through the Bible.
Every Christian, therefore, is charged with the responsibility of faithfully sharing the salvation message--with all of its urgency. And like John, we are charged with sharing the message with genuine humility. We are charged to live a life marked by personal integrity--what we commonly call 'practicing what we preach'.
We should not scratch our heads and ask, 'Why do we have empty pews?'. I can assure you, that outside of God's special providence, the 'unchurched' feel no urgency to join us. They are content to 'get things done around the house'. They are content to drink coffee at Cheers/Tim Horton's.
If we want the multitudes to come to us, we must bring them a message from God. We must bring them a message from God, out of lives marked with genuine humility and personal integrity . I charge you then--in the name of Jesus Christ--as individuals, and as a church, to make this your goal. Amen.