To Those in the Ministry
I have now been in the ministry for 37 years and, looking back, deplore the fact that I have made so many mistakes that could have been prevented, had I known better. On the other hand, by God’s grace alone, I have been blessed with a ministry which has been rewarded in the sense that I have been loved undeservedly by the various congregations where I have been; seen many people soundly converted and have joyfully watched so many Christians thriving spiritually under the ministry of the Word. Some months before my father died, he said to me, ‘I cannot understand why God has been so good to me.’ What he said captures what I feel today as well. God has been good to me.
As I contemplate God’s goodness, I am deeply indebted to those godly men and women who were mentors early in my Christian life and ministry. Most of them have already gone to glory, but their influence has left an indelible mark on my life for which I am exceedingly grateful. The Lord Jesus Christ placed them in my way and in writing this I wish to pass on to young and often struggling pastors those things which I believe are essential ingredients in any ministry which is owned of God.
While it may be the calling of some to exercise a ministry where there is little or no fruit, as in the case with so many of the Old Testament prophets, I do not believe that what the average pastor needs to accept as normative is a ministry consisting of endless struggles and little or no gospel success. In fact, meeting with so many pastors in the world in the last twenty years has confirmed my view that under normal circumstances the ministry should be evidenced by growth, both spiritually and numerically in a local church where a pastor practices his calling. It is with a view to assisting and encouraging other pastors that I write this, with a degree of trembling, because of the tremendous sense of responsibility with which I have to pass on the baton in the race in which we are all engaged as we move through life on earth en route to glory.
THE CALL TO THE MINISTRY
The average layman who has had an experience of the new birth will confirm the fact that there are many men in the ministry who quite clearly have never had a clear call to preach. These men attempt to preach, but their preaching either falls on deaf ears or seldom, if ever, affects anyone in the congregation for good to the glory of God. They have spent years engaged in academic theological education; they have qualifications for the ministry and they have been accorded a place in a church to exercise a ministry, but they have never been called by God to the pulpit ministry. It is not long before they take it out on the church, as in exasperation they attempt to vindicate themselves and to find fault with everyone except themselves. The problem, then, is that they have never been called by God to preach and teach the Word of God.
It is absolutely essential to the success of the gospel ministry that those who are engaged in such a ministry must know beyond any doubt that they have been called to serve Christ in this capacity and that their calling is clearly recognised by congregations to which they preach. The Apostle Paul states the case succinctly and clearly in Romans 10:15, ‘And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!”’ (ESV) It is interesting to note that in Scripture, many of the most anointed preachers put up a considerable resistance to the thought of a call to proclaim the Word of God. There was Moses, who did all that he could to get out of it. There was Jeremiah, who objected to God’s call and was perplexed that he should be set apart for such an honour. It would appear that Saul of Tarsus put up some resistance to the thought of being a messenger of Christ before he yielded. Far too many men have ‘entered the ministry’ thinking themselves to be suited for a work to which they were never powerfully called by God. The long-term negative effects and widespread damage done to the body of Christ, notwithstanding their sincerity and integrity, proves that the vital element missing in their lives is a clear and unmistakable call to the ministry. Charles Haddon Spurgeon and, more recently, Ivor Powell strongly recommended that anyone giving thought to the Christian ministry should actually flee from it until they are compelled by God to do what he calls them to do with no other option but to submit to his order. The body of Christ simply cannot afford to put up with men who would do far better and be far more useful in other occupations since the work of preaching was never meant for them.
The call to the ministry is first of all an inward sense of call. It is an irrepressible desire to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. It is the result of a prolonged and prayerful consideration of the call. Secondly, it is tested in the congregation of the saints amongst whom the candidate needs to be well-known for his godliness, his ability to teach and preach and his integrity. It is furthermore confirmed in spiritual and numerical fruitfulness amongst the people of God. If these three factors are absent, the person who ministers is intruding into an office God never intended for him.
The importance of the call to the ministry cannot be underestimated, particularly since we live in a day where, on the one hand, there are far too many ministers and, on the other hand, far too few. There is an abundance of ministers who, due to the absence of a call from God to the ministry, should not be where they are and, on the other hand, far too few who are genuinely called by God to care for his flock. A divine call to Christian service and to preaching in particular is an essential element to gospel success.
THE POWER OF SCRIPTURE IN THE MINISTRY
I have never yet met a useful and effective minister who did not major on a good intake of Scripture every day. I have discovered that many younger ministers hardly read their Bibles, and it is then not surprising that their ministries are largely ineffective.
Some years ago, I listened to an American preacher who was visiting South Africa and who testified to the dramatic change and improvement in his ministry after a ministers’ conference. When attending the conference he listened to one speaker after another making a variety of suggestions as to how to make the ministry more effective. He was unimpressed until an elderly man who was still engaged in youth work got up and had the audacity to chide the other speakers for having missed the mark! He asked them why they had not taken note of the significance of Joshua 1:8: ‘This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.’ He insisted that only a good dose of the Bible every day in the life of a pastor will render him fruitful in Christian service. The American pastor went home stirred and challenged. He began immediately to read 40 chapters of Scripture a day! At the time of his speaking here in South Africa, he had scaled down to 30 chapters a day and was determined never to make it less than that. Yet within days of his beginning to read the scriptures so extensively, his congregation noticed a marked difference in his preaching. There was depth and there was authority. There was fervour plus wisdom and conviction. The church began to grow. Hundreds became thousands and the man has never looked back on a ministry that changed from being really average if not stale, to dynamic and rich in biblical content.
I am fully aware of the fact that it is not only the copious reading of Scripture that makes a difference, but the in-depth study of verses in the Bible particularly intended for exposition to the congregation. I am also not insistent that there is only one method for the study of Scripture. The famous evangelist D. L. Moody spent hours and hours each day studying the Scripture with a concordance as he worked his way through topics in the Bible. Yet, even he testified to the fact that it was Scripture that gave him the authority and the power to preach the message of the gospel to so many thousands of people.
How did the early church experience the dramatic growth that it did when we are told, according to Acts 6:7, ‘And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith’? It was because the leaders of the church refused to get involved in a major crisis and rather insisted (according to Acts 6:4) that they would devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. Two things were prioritised on their daily programme and that was prayer and the Word of God! If you were to review yesterday’s activities, how much time did you give to these two important elements in the Christian ministry? I suggest that anything less than five to six hours is quite insufficient. Take note of the following: George Müller, after having read the Bible through one hundred times with increasing delight, made this statement:
I look upon it as a lost day when I have not had a good time over the Word of God. Friends often say, ‘I have so much to do, so many people to see, I cannot find time for Scripture study.’ Perhaps there are not many who have more to do than I. For more than half a century I have never known one day when I had not more business than I could get through. For four years I have had annually about 30,000 letters and most of these have passed through my own hands. Then, as pastor of a church with 1,200 believers, great has been my care. Besides, I have had charge of five immense orphanages; also, at my publishing depot, the printing and circulating of millions of tracts, books, and Bibles; but I have always made it a rule never to begin work until I have had a good season with God and His Word. The blessing I have received has been wonderful.
There was a time when I used to use M’Cheyne’s daily Bible reading chart whereby reading four chapters from the Bible each day enables you to read through the Bible once a year and the New Testament and Psalms twice. I have felt that this is insufficient and believe that if I am to discharge my duty well before God, there has to be much more than that.
Pastor, isn’t it time you and I became like the Puritans? They read the Scriptures so thoroughly and thoughtfully that it was of these men that Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, ‘If you prick them anywhere, their blood runs Bibline.’ Read their sermons and see how saturated they are with verses from Scripture. They did not have the concordances we have and yet they acquainted themselves so extensively with the content of the Bible that they knew where to find verses appropriate to the themes they were dealing with. Is it not time for those in the ministry to become like that?
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
It was Martin Luther who said, ‘Prayer, temptation and meditation make the ministry.’ If by meditation he meant reading the Scriptures, which I have already referred to, then the other matter of prayer is equally important. There was never an effective servant of the Lord anywhere in Scripture who was not deeply committed to prayer. This is so much so, that even many of their prayers are recorded for our benefit. I do not know of a single successful minister of the gospel in our time who does not spend hours in prayer every week.
When I refer to the time spent in prayer, I am not for a moment thinking of clock-watching when you pray, for that can only tend to pride. However, to be properly engaged with God in communion in both reading the Scriptures and praying takes time. Jesus once prayed all night and, according to Mark 1:35, he rose up very early in the morning to pray. If Martin Luther said that the day he did not spend two and a half hours in prayer was a day that was ill-spent, it is not to be thought that he had a legalistic approach to the matter of personal prayer. That godly man and reformer had so much on his heart that it took him that amount of time to incorporate in private prayer all the elements of prayer which are essential to prayer. Private prayer consists of worship, confession of sin, supplication and thanksgiving. At a
conference for ministers in America, it was discovered that most of them did not pray for longer than five minutes a day! This is absolutely shocking! No wonder that so many of their ministries are dry and arid, fruitless to the extreme.
Why then does it take up so much time? It is because, if all the characteristics of proper prayer are carried through, then private prayer is going to take time.
A preacher must always reflect on the extent to which he has been blessed and used in recent hours and days. This must be turned into thanksgiving to God who alone is the author of grace and those favours which make the ministry such an exhilarating experience. We must never be guilty of being unthankful. Since we sin continuously, we need to have a great sensitivity to our failures and we should confess them, frankly, to God against whom we sin so often. In supplication we lay before him all our needs. I have written into a small notebook all the things I wish to bring to the Lord when I spend time in private intercession. It consists of several pages and these include the names of all the members and adherents of the church which I pastor, including their children. I pray for them each day because I sense that I need to do so if I am to be a faithful pastor. Samuel the prophet did not want to sin in not praying for the people. We sin if we do not pray for those whom God has put under our charge. It is unimaginable that anyone should be in the ministry who is not prepared to bring the names of all the people for whom he is responsible regularly to the throne of grace. This is absolutely essential.
The wisdom of rising early before the day’s activities actually begin has helped me immensely over the years. Furthermore, when I pray, I pray aloud in my private devotion. Charles Haddon Spurgeon has helped me enormously in this regard. The following quotations from his sermon on Mark 1:35 are a great encouragement to practice this discipline:
Certainly, our Lord Jesus Christ rose up early and went alone in the dark to pray, because he loved to put prayer first of all. He would go nowhere till he had prayed. He would attempt nothing till he had prayed. He would not cast out a devil, he would not preach a sermon, he would work no cure, however necessary, however profitable, until first of all he had drawn near to God. Take thou good heed unto thyself, my brother, that thou follow the same rule. Look no man in the
face till thou hast seen the face of God. Speak thou with none till thou hast had speech with the Most High. Go not to thy labour with thy loins ungirt with the girdle of devotion, lest thou fail therein. Take not thou to running till thou hast in prayer laid aside every weight, lest thou lose the race. We cannot, we must not, think of entering upon a day or upon an enterprise, without first saying, ‘Bring hither the ephod: let us ask counsel of the Lord!’ We can do nothing without our
God; let us attempt nothing without him. So the Saviour rises a great while before day, and gets alone with his God, that for him prayer might perfume the morning’s dew, and sweeten the first breath of the dawn.
I suppose, too, that our Lord loved to be alone that he might pray aloud. It is not necessary to pray with the voice: it is sometimes highly undesirable that you should pray aloud; but yet, as a rule, you will find it greatly advantageous to yourself to use your voice as well as your mind in prayer. I speak what I have often proved. I am accustomed to pray without uttering a single sound; but I find a relief and a stimulus in occasionally ‘crying aloud.’ In a lone spot where I shall not be heard, I find it an intense delight to pour out my heart aloud, using words and exclamations whereby the spirit expresses itself with freedom and force. I think that the Saviour, who was intensely human, felt much rest in the unrestrained pouring out of his heart and soul before his Father. He was supremely human as he was certainly divine; and I do not doubt that it was a comfort to him to arouse the hills with his praises, startle the glens with his groans, and put a tongue into every bush and tuft by his strong cryings and tears. All nature was akin to him, and the desert places were meet chambers for his great soul, wherein as in his own house ‘the holy child Jesus’ might speak with the Father face to face. I commend to you who would attain to high communion with the Eternal that, as often as you can, you get so far afield as to be able to pray aloud, and use the unrestrained voice in prayer. ‘My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O God.’ David continually speaks of crying with his voice unto God. It is not essential; but it is often helpful.
The tremendous value of having at least one day a week in prayer and fasting has been a source of great help in the ministry. In fact, looking back over nearly four decades of pastoring and preaching, the most fruitful times in my ministry were those years when I would spend two days a week in prayer and fasting, and experience the most wonderful mercies and favours of God in the salvation of lost sinners and in the building up of the people of God.
I strongly recommend that at least one book on prayer be read every month. Andrew Murray’s books on prayer are heart-warming and soul-stirring. There are many others too that are a help.
In addition to personal and private prayer, it is the pastor’s duty to encourage proper prayer meetings, separate from the Bible Study. Corporate prayer was never meant to be latched on the end of a Bible Study when people are often in a hurry to get home. There is a biblical basis for corporate prayer and this ought to be practised by the entire church on a weekly basis. It is unimaginable to think of congregations which do not meet regularly for prayer as the early church did.
We receive not because we ask not (James 4:3); it is up to us who are in the front ranks of the Christian ministry to be exemplary in our commitment to private and corporate prayer. Without it the ministry will fail miserably.
TAKE UP AND READ
I do not know what would have happened in my life had I not been given the encouragement to read, which older ministers urged me to do when I was young. It is and shall always be a discipline. You have to make yourself sit down and read, and you have to apply yourself rigorously to this task. It is most significant to think of the Apostle Paul, conscious of his imminent martyrdom, wanting to spend his last few hours on earth reading, for that is what prompted his plea to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:13: ‘When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books and above all the parchments.’
John Piper has given invaluable advice in regard to the matter of reading:
For your own soul and for the life of your church, fight for time to feed your soul with rich reading. Almost all the forces in our culture are trivialising. If you want to stay alive to what is great and glorious and beautiful and eternal, you will have to fight for time to look through the eyes of others who were in touch with God. Here are a few suggestions that have helped me.
We think we don’t have time to read. We despair of reading anything spiritually rich and substantial because life seems to be lived in snatches. One of the most helpful discoveries I have made is how much can be read in disciplined blocks of twenty minutes a day.
Suppose that you read slowly, say about 250 words a minute (as I do). This means that in twenty minutes you can read about five thousand words. An average book has about four hundred words to a page. So you could read about twelve-and-a-half pages in twenty minutes. Suppose you discipline yourself to read a certain author or topic twenty minutes a day, six days a week, for a year. That would be 312 times 12.5 pages for a total of 3,900 pages. Assume that an average book is 250 pages long. This means you could read fifteen books like that in one year.
Or take a longer classic like John Calvin’s Institutes (fifteen hundred pages in the Westminster edition). At twenty minutes a day and 250 words a minute and six days a week, you could finish it in twenty-five weeks. Then Augustine’s The City of God and B. B. Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible could be finished before year’s end. This astonishing discovery freed me from the paralysis of not starting great, mind-shaping, heart-enriching books because I lacked enough big blocks of time. It turns out that I do not need long periods of time in order to read three masterpieces in one year! I needed twenty minutes a day, six days a week.
Several other thoughts made the discovery even more exciting. Is it too hard to imagine disciplining yourself to set aside twenty minutes early in the morning, twenty minutes after lunch and twenty minutes before you go to bed to read on various topics for your soul and mind? If not, then think what you could read! Thirty-six medium-sized books! John Stott says that an hour a day is an ‘absolute minimum for time for study which even the busiest pastors should be able to manage.’
Many will achieve more. But the minimum would amount to this: every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon or evening; every month a full day; every year a week. Set out like this, it sounds very little. Indeed, it is too little. Yet everybody who tries it is surprised to discover how much reading can be done within such a disciplined framework. It tots up to nearly six hundred hours in the course of a year. (John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century)
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean we should limit our reading to quick shots one or two times a day. But if you will use severe discipline to make regular short appointments with a given book, you can live in another great mind more than you thought you could – beyond the more extended times you set aside for study and sermon preparation. (John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals)
If you want to know the reason why so many pastors’ preaching is dry and uninspiring, take note of John Wesley’s rebuke to another preacher:
What has exceedingly hurt you in the past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is want of reading. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was 7 years ago. It is lively, but not deep: there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and the daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it; anymore than a thorough Christian. Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire a taste which you have not: what is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant . . . Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life: there is no other way: else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul: give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you.
Never in the history of the church is poor attention to reading as inexcusable as it is today. More good books are available to pastors and their people than has been the case in ages past since the time of the apostles. So much good material is available which gives excellent substance for preaching and for learning. If you fail to read, you will fail to effect a fruitful ministry. That is an indisputable fact.
THE NEED TO LOVE
It is surprising that the importance of loving God’s people is not brought to the attention of pastors more frequently. This is God’s great attribute, for it was because of his love for the world that he gave his only begotten Son for our redemption. Jesus taught the importance of love again and again. His words ring out loud and clear: ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:34-35). It is clear from the letters of the Apostle Paul that he loved the churches he wrote to. Writing to the Philippians he says under oath, ‘For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 1:8).
How can we expect the people of God to love one another if we do not love them with the love that reflects God’s agape love? Agape love is love which is practical. Pastors demonstrate their love for the people who have been placed under them by praying for them, caring for them, visiting them, bearing with them in all their weaknesses and infirmities, rebuking them in love, and encouraging them wherever and whenever possible.
It is tragic to think how few pastors will tell their congregations from the pulpit that he loves them, and that he loves them all! I learned this lesson from a colleague in England, and when I do have occasion to tell the people from the pulpit that I love them, the response is almost overwhelming. If pastors do not give proof of the love of God in their hearts, how can they expect their church members to love one another?
THE NECESSITY OF PASTORAL VISITING
I have noted with alarm that in recent years younger ministers do not deem it an essential part of their ministry to visit people in their homes in order to share the Word of God with them, catechise them, talk with them and pray for them. It seems as if the thought is that the pastor’s principal responsibility of preaching and teaching invalidates the need for visiting the people. The Lord’s indictment against the shepherds of Israel clearly points to a situation where the people of God were not sought after and visited where they lived: ‘The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them’ (Ezek. 34:4). In an average congregation, all the people, members and adherents, may easily be visited over a space of time, and every pastor needs to pursue this objective energetically, heartily and lovingly.
YOUR LIFE PREACHES ALL THE WEEK
I close with the urgent plea of Robert Murray M’Cheyne who was so mightily used of God and who, though he died as a young man of only 29 years of age, left a spiritual legacy from which Scotland and people all over the world are still deriving enormous benefit. He said,
Study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this, for your sermons last but an hour or two – your life preaches all the week. If Satan can only make a covetous minister a lover of praise, of pleasure, of good eating – he has ruined his ministry. Give yourself to prayer and get your texts, your thoughts, your words from God. In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be success. It is not great talents God blesses, so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awesome weapon in the hand of God.
There is much more that could be said about the ministry. I have shared these thoughts because to me they are of fundamental importance. We need to have them brought to our attention time and again. We live in a fallen world and if we are going to be engaged in a massive rescue mission of those who have been led astray by Satan, we are going to have to be what M’Cheyne said a minister ought to be.
Taken with permission from Preaching and Preachers, May 2014. Pastor Martin Holdt went to be with the Lord in December 2011 – see here.