The successful pastor preaches and teaches the entire Word of God without compromise (2 Timothy 4:1-2), so He calls people to repentance just as to faith. He does not water down the Gospel or let any contemporary issue usurp the Gospel in priority. He does so winsomely and does not set out to offend people, but he understands that the Gospel is inherently offensive.
His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
-Matthew 25:21, ESV
Last time, we concluded our look at the pastoral office and its relation to church conflict by looking at the downfall of three high-profile Christians: Mark Driscoll, Rob Bell, and Ravi Zacharias. We talked of lessons learned from these situations, like the importance of accountability, the danger of valuing numbers and giftedness above character, and the need for safeguards to prevent misuse of authority. But we did not talk at all about the root cause. We will now examine this and then provide the remedy: a definition of pastoral success that comes from Scripture not society.
Were Mark Driscoll, Ravi Zacharias, and others like them just a few bad apples, or was there something more going on? When unethical behavior is unearthed in any organization, people often say that the perpetrates were just a few bad apples who do not represent the values or culture of the organization. But I am reminded of a lesson on ethics from a leadership course I took years ago. The instructor first pointed out that apples can go bad because they are in a bad barrel: their behavior was facilitated or even encouraged by the culture of the organization. As I observed in my leadership paper, W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, and Myron Tribus all noted that the vast majority of quality problems in organizations come from the system and not the individual. The instructor was suggesting that this can apply to ethical failures as well. This should come as no surprise to Christians, since we know that all people are sinful, so organizations are made up of people who are sinful. Therefore, every organization has the potential to be a bad barrel, so it takes extreme leadership vigilance to keep the barrel from turning the apples rotten. But the instructor took the analogy a step further by saying that the barrels may be bad because of a bad barrel maker. This means that the organization creates or facilitates bad behavior because it was created and shaped by a bad culture in a broader sense. In that case, a few bad apples may be indicative of a much larger societal problem.
Are people like Mark Driscoll and Ravi Zacharias bad apples because their organizations enabled their bad behavior? If so, did their organizations enable their bad behavior because of our culture? I would answer “yes” on both counts. Both ministries were built on the men rather than the Gospel, so they were tempted to tolerate behaviors in those men that they wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else. These bad apples were facilitated by bad barrels. But I would argue those bad barrels were the product of a bad barrel maker: a Christian culture that overemphasizes fame, massive churches, and emotional experiences. This is the result of a consumerist view of the church, so they are merely responding to the market. This is not to say that Mars Hill or other such churches abandoned the Gospel to cater to consumerism, but they did understand that a large proportion of the people who attended, listened online, and donated did so primarily because of Mark Driscoll or those like him. So when such pastors disqualify themselves by their behavior, they are often not confronted because it is seen as preferrable to silently endure their errors rather than risk the downfall of the ministry by exposing them. But God promised that the truth will come out in the end (Luke 8:17), bringing about the downfall they fear. The foundation of such churches may still be the Gospel, but the way they build on those foundations cannot stand the test of hard truth:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
-1 Corinthians 3:10-15, ESV
Mars Hill and similar churches build upon the foundation of the Gospel with the wood, hay, and straw of personality, skilled delivery, catchy and emotionally engaging music, and various other things that either intentionally or unintentionally cater to the consumerist Christian. This model may produce short-term growth, but it is not the way that God builds His Church, so it will ultimately fail. Therefore, this model that is viewed by so many as the pinnacle of successful ministry is actually the opposite. To truly evaluate successful ministry, we need to view it the way God does—and He has a very different definition of success than we do.
God’s Definition of Successful Ministry
What is the definition of successful ministry from God’s point of view? It is to labor to build the Kingdom of God in the way that He has ordained that it be built, which Jesus described in His teachings on the Kingdom:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
-Matthew 13:31-33, ESV (cf. Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19)
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
-Mark 4:26-29, ESV
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
-Luke 17:20-21, ESV
The point is clear: Jesus will build His Kingdom slowly and gradually. Like a mustard seed, it starts small but steadily grows until it cannot be ignored. Like leaven, it appears insignificant at first, but through small and often unnoticed acts of faithfulness it will permeate and ultimately take over the entire world. Like seed in general, it grows in ways that we cannot understand. It is the tiny stone of heavenly origin that toppled the statue then grows to be a mountain filling the whole earth in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2). Its growth is often imperceptible, but that does not mean it isn’t there. As we discussed here, the Kingdom is built over many generations.