Tim Keller

Posted on The Resurgence

June 26, 2012

All the causes of either visible or pending failure stem from a failure to cultivate the inner life. Look at the list of the causes of fruitlessness. They are the results of failing to know ourselves, failing to believe the gospel, and forgetting the truth of God’s word. Thus, we must cultivate the work of the inner life.

Inner Life over Outward Ministry

It’s important to begin by saying that often ministry failures can be traced to a lack of true calling to the ministry—which is a subject for another article. Apart from that foundational flaw, however, most ministry failure stems from a neglect of the inner life and communion with God. Secondary problems, such as a minister’s insufficient training or misguided approach, usually do not become full-fledged failures unless they are accompanied with—and thus magnified many times over—by failures of inner life and character. So while it may create problems if a young minister imposes an inappropriate model on a church, it probably won’t be disastrous unless he begins to interpret opposition as a threat to his identity of a successful minister, in which case he would respond with insecurity and drive people out needlessly.

Character over Gifts

Christian leadership is mobilizing God’s gifts to accomplish God’s goals in God’s way. Leadership involves developing our strengths in order to articulate the vision, persuade people to follow, and keep them all working together.

The main thing a Christian leader needs above all these, however, is spiritual maturity.

Scottish minister Robert Murray M‘Cheyne was reputed to have told other leaders, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.”

Before his death in 1843, M‘Cheyne preached his last sermon on The main thing a Christian leader needs above all these, however, is spiritual maturity. 

M‘Cheyne preached his last sermon on Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” He went home to bed with a fever and died a week later. After his death a letter was found in his bedroom, part of which read:

I hope you will pardon a stranger for addressing to you a few lines. I heard you preach last Sabbath evening, and it pleased God to bless that sermon to my soul. It was not so much what you said, as your manner of speaking, that struck me. I saw in you a beauty of holiness that I never saw before. You also said something in your prayer that struck me very much. It was ‘Thou knowest that we love Thee.’ Oh, sir, what would I give that I could say to my blessed Saviour, “Thou knowest that I love Thee!”

What a wonderful, enduring testimony of what is most needed in a pastor! 

The Negative Example of the Corinthians

In 1 Corinthians 13 we see a clear example of the need for Christian character over Christian ministry or giftedness. The church in Corinth was a growing congregation, blessed with abundant gifts in tongues,teaching, generosity, and social concern, yet the remaining verses reveal all the ways in which the Corinthian church was ungodly. They were impatient and proud envious, critical, rude, jealous, self-absorbed, and egotistical. prophecy

The danger is that we can look to our ministry activity as evidence that God is with us.

Not only did Paul point out these issues as the underlying causes of their problems—he went so far as to say that it was possible to have all of these gifts in a dynamic church and yet be “nothing.” Most commentators agree that a literal interpretation is necessary, that Paul is saying it is possible to do miracles by the power of God and have revelations and not even be a Christian! We see this in the case of Judas the disciple, who evidently did perform miracles but was one who didn’t truly know Jesus (Matt. 7:21–22). In other words, it is possible to do ministry through the power of God without any grace in the heart or without knowing his true love that “never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).

This is also why Jesus said, By their fruits ye shall know them” rather than “by their gifts.” Love, joy, peace, and humility cannot grow and flourish when our hearts are far from God, but teaching, evangelism, counseling, and leading can. The danger is that we can look to our ministry activity as evidence that God is with us or as a way to earn God’s favor.

Cymbals and Gongs and Seeking Favor

The reference in 1 Corinthians 13 to gongs and cymbals probably refers to pagan worship at the temples of Demeter and Cybele, in which a loud show of noise and commotion was used to attract the favor of the gods. According to Paul, it is possible to do Christian ministry in the same way. If we are remembering the gospel, if we are rejoicing in our justification, then our ministry will be a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the result will be acts done in love, humility, patience, and tenderness.

But if our hearts are not solely centered in the saving work of Jesus and if we are not speaking the gospel into our hearts regularly, we will by default seek to control God and to attract his favor with our “clanging cymbals” of service, noted by the telltale signs of impatience, irritability, pride, hurt feelings, jealousy, and boasting (1 Cor. 12–14). We will identify with our ministry and make it an extension of ourselves. We will be driven, scared, and either too timid or too brash. And perhaps, away from the public glare, we may be engaging in secret sins.

How Are You Doing?

We must beware of identifying with our ministry and making it an extension of ourselves. Until we see this, we may be successful in the short term but may begin to see the telltale signs of fruitlessness: cowardice, hypocrisy, indulgence. We are clashing our cymbals, and the results are the noise of hurt feelings, a critical spirit, consuming anxiety, and persistent joylessness in our work.

As we have seen, engaging in Christian ministry will make you a much better person or a much worse person than you would have been otherwise. You will not remain static; you will be growing and changing. And thus, the question of “How am I doing?” does not have to be a pestering plumb line but can serve as a personal reminder to pursue godliness, cultivate fruitfulness, work diligently, trust completely, and preach confidently.