Note: This article is excerpted from our Training Tool Healthy Leadership.
A few years back, I decided it was time to act. I was in seminary, daily hearing the call to go and take the gospel to the cities and the nations, and I finally decided it was time. I began making contacts in a city I felt God was leading me to, and my wife and I made a couple of trips out there to try to picture life and ministry in this great city. We met with pastors and even went through interviews with local churches. I was fervently running hard after the mission of God, chasing the dream of building his kingdom among the unreached.
And the whole time I was growing colder in my relationship with Christ and my family.
What's Most Important
Luke records a time when Jesus went over to the house of two women, Mary and Martha. We are told that Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching while Martha busies herself with preparing the house. Martha gets annoyed with her sister's inactivity and complains to Jesus, "Don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" (Luke 10:40).
Jesus responds, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but … Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (10:41).
It hit me: I was Martha. My joy had shifted from my relationship with God to my work for God. I had grown discontent with certain areas of my job and my relationship with God felt cold. I saw serving God by moving to a new city as a way to get the excitement and fulfillment I was looking for: a new place, a cool city, an unreached people, and churches that could use my experience and knowledge. I was passionate, but it was passion for the work of Christ—not my relationship with Christ.
God designed us to enjoy his mission and his work, but he never intended it to become a substitute for himself. John Piper once described the need to enjoy Christ above all else saying, "Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It's a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don't want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel."
Psalm 73:25-26 says, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." The psalmist is saying that we must keep in mind that God is the goal of our salvation. It's out of our delight in him that we desire to serve him and share with others. And even though we are to delight in him, we are prone to delight in our ministry effectiveness instead.
What Your People Need Most
In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul instructs church leaders to "watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." In other words, the greatest thing you can do for the people you lead is to keep watch over your own relationship with Christ. Similar messages are throughout the Bible. Proverbs tells us to guard our hearts because everything else flows from them (Proverbs 4:23), and Christ himself told us that our mouths speak what's in our hearts (Matthew 12:34). As we seek to guide people to the Spring of Life, we must be sure that we're already there drinking from it ourselves. Only then will we be able to lead others.
More than a great orator, more than someone who's around all of the time, more than a leadership expert, your people desperately need you to be leading out of your own vibrant and healthy relationship with Christ. Your primary focus needs to be on the fruit of the Spirit, not the gifts of the Spirit. Who you are is much more important than what you do.
Additionally, we see in Martha's story that hard-working, motivated, get-things-done people especially need to guard themselves and keep watch on where their satisfaction is coming from. I heard a story once about a college student notorious for his reputation with women. During his early college years, he slept with as many girls as he could. For him, it was about the conquest, the power he had. Eventually, through a series of relationships, this college student came to Christ. But he didn't just attend the campus ministry meetings. Instead, he joined the leadership team at the ministry and at the local church. If there was an event at either, he was there. Rather than be a Christian "partway," he threw everything—and every moment—he had into it. People surrounding him began to notice this pattern and had a realization: the same young man who was interested in the conquest of women had simply changed his conquest to doing for Christ. Though God was at work in his life, his heart needed to be transformed. He simply was playing out the same patterns with new goals.
Success for someone in ministry is uniquely associated to God's success in the advancement of his kingdom. It's more difficult to distinguish between my work and God's work—and my glory and God's glory—than it is in the rest of the work we do on a daily basis. To keep yourself in check, and to make sure that you're keeping the focus of your ministry on Christ, ask yourself these questions on a regular basis:
- How would you feel if God chose to bless and use another church/ministry/small group in your area more significantly than yours?
- Do you find yourself being regularly critical of group members, fellow leaders, or other ministry leaders?
- How do ministry successes and failures affect your relationship with God?
- How is your prayer life?
- Do you often feel like you aren't getting enough credit for your ministry work and successes?
- Do you live in anxiety and busyness over your ministry work, or are you able to experience freedom as you leave the results and fruit of your labor to God?
- Are you working to grow the fruit of the Spirit in your life, or are you more focused on the gifts of the Spirit?
Continually asking these questions of yourself can help you keep watch over your heart and your motivations in ministry. The reality is that you may be able to sustain a successful ministry apart from Christ for a while, even years, without even those closest to you knowing you are operating in your own strength and dying inside. But eventually the walls will crumble. You won't be able to keep it up. There will be a lapse. Perhaps you'll lash out at someone or fall into sin. Regardless, you will eventually fall.
Abraham Kuyper said, "Phariseeism is like a shadow—it can be deepest and sharpest closest to the light." Christian ministry can be a blessing and a curse. It's a thrill to be used by God to advance his kingdom and heal broken people, cities, and nations through the power of the gospel. The danger is that we often allow the gospel to transform everything around us without ever allowing it to fully change our own heart. God is the goal of the gospel. Fight hard to find your joy in Christ alone, and allow your ministry to be the result of your joy—not the source.
— Brandon Hudson is the pastor of student small groups at The Summit Church in North Carolina; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.
- When have been more like Martha than Mary? Why do you think you acted that way?
- Overall, how did you respond to the questions in the article? Are you at danger for making your ministry an idol?
- What one or two steps can you take this week to return your focus to Christ rather than your work for him?