Preach, Pray, Love, and Stay
When I was interviewing with Capitol Hill Baptist Church before they called me to be their pastor, someone asked me if I had a program or plan to implement for growth. Perhaps to this person’s surprise (and perhaps to yours too!), I responded that I didn’t really have any great plans or programs to implement. I was just armed with four P’s—I would preach, pray, develop personal discipling relationships, and be patient. In other words, preach and pray; love and stay.
Maybe even more surprising to some, I said that I was happy to see every aspect of my public ministry fail if it needed to . . . except for the preaching of God’s Word. Now what kind of a thing is that for a pastoral candidate to say to a church? What I wanted to get across was that there’s only one thing that’s biblically necessary for building the church, and that’s the preached Word of God. Others could do every other duty, but only I was responsible and set apart by the congregation for the public teaching of God’s Word. This would be the fountain of our spiritual life, both as individuals and as a congregation.
God’s Word has always been his chosen instrument to create, convict, convert, and conform His people. From the very first announcement of the gospel in Genesis 3:15, to the initial word of promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3, to His regulation of that promise by his Word in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20), God gives life and health and holiness to His people through the agency of His Word. From the reforms under Josiah in 2 Kings 22–23, to the revival of God’s work under Nehemiah and Ezra in Nehemiah 8–9, to that great vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14, where God breathes the life of his Spirit into his dead people through the preaching of His Word, God always sends his Word when he wants to renew life in his people and assemble them for his glory. The way God works is through the agency of his Word. He even says as much in Isaiah 55:10–11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it (emphasis mine).
The New Testament witness to the primacy of God’s Word in his method is just as conspicuous: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). The Word sustains us: “In the beginning was the Word, and . . . in him was life. . . . And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 4, 14). Jesus, the Word made flesh, is ultimate life incarnate: “The word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (Acts 19:20; cf. 6:7; 12:20–24). The Word grows and fights: “And now I commend you to . . . the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). The Word is what builds us up and preserves us: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18). The Gospel, God’s clearest expression of His Word, is His effective power for salvation: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). God’s Word is that which creates faith: “[W]hen you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). The Word performs God’s work in believers: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two- edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). God’s Word convicts: “In the exercise of his will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). God’s Word gives us new birth. James advises a little later, “in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (v. 21). The Word saves us. Peter also claims regenerating power for God’s Word: “[F]or you have been born again not of seed which is perishable, but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. . . . And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23, 25).
There is creating, conforming, life-giving power in God’s Word! The Gospel is God’s way of giving life to dead sinners—and to dead churches (Ezek. 37:1–14). He doesn’t have another way. If we want to work for renewed life and health and holiness in our churches, then we must work for it according to God’s revealed mode of operation. Otherwise we risk running in vain. God’s Word is His supernatural power for accomplishing his supernatural work. That’s why our eloquence, innovations, and programs are so much less important than we think; that’s why we as pastors must give ourselves to preaching, not programs; and that’s why we need to be teaching our congregations to value God’s Word over programs. Preaching the content and intent of God’s Word is what unleashes the power of God on the people of God, because God’s power for building His people is in His Word, particularly as we find it in the Gospel (Rom. 1:16). God’s Word builds His church. So preaching his Gospel is primary.
Prayer shows our dependence on God. It honors him as the source of all blessing, and it reminds us that converting individuals and growing churches are his works, not ours (1 Cor. 2:14–16; 3:6–7). Jesus reassures us that if we abide in him, and his words abide in us, we can ask anything according to his will and know that he will give it to us (John 15:10, 16). What a promise! I fear it is so familiar to many of us that we are in danger of hearing it as trite. Yet we must hear it as that which rouses us from our sleepy prayerlessness and drives us joyfully to our knees.
What then should we pray for as we begin to work for the health and holiness of the church? (1) What more appropriate prayers could a pastor pray for the church he serves than the prayers of Paul for the churches he planted (Eph. 1:15–23; 3:16–21; Phil. 1:9–11; Col. 1:9–12; 2 Thess. 1:11–12)? Allow these prayers to be a starting point for praying Scripture more broadly and consistently. This is another way you can unleash the transforming power of the Gospel on the lives of church members. (2) Pray that your preaching of the Gospel would be faithful, accurate, and clear. (3) Pray for the increasing maturity of the congregation, that your local church would grow in corporate love, holiness, and sound doctrine, such that the testimony of the church in the community would be distinctively pure and attractive to unbelievers. (4) Pray for sinners to be converted and the church to be built up through your preaching of the Gospel. (5) Pray for opportunities for yourself and other church members to do personal evangelism.
One of the most practical things you can do for your own personal prayer life, and for the prayer lives of other church members, is to assemble a church membership directory (with pictures, if possible) so that everyone in the church can be praying through it a page a day. Our church’s membership directory has about eighteen people on a normal page. We also have sections for members in the area who are unable to attend; members out of the area; one page for elders, deacons, deaconesses, officers, staff, and interns; a section that records the children of church members, supported seminarians, supported workers (like missionaries), and former staff and interns. We usually encourage people to pray through the page number that corresponds to the current day of the month (e.g., June 1, page 1; June 2, page 2, etc.).
Model for your congregation faithfulness in praying through the directory in your own devotional times, and publicly encourage them to make praying through the directory a daily habit. Your prayers for people don’t have to be long—just biblical. Perhaps choose one or two phrases from Scripture to pray for them, and then pray a meaningful sentence or two from what you know is going on in their lives at present. Get to know the sheep in your flock well so that you can pray for them more particularly. And for those you don’t yet know well, simply pray for them what you see in your daily Bible reading. Modeling this kind of prayer for others, and encouraging the congregation to join you, can be a powerful influence for growth in the church. It encourages selflessness in people’s individual prayer lives, and one of the most important benefits is that it helps to cultivate a corporate culture of prayer that will gradually come to characterize your church as people are faithful to pray.
One of the most biblical and valuable uses of your time as a pastor will be to cultivate personal discipling relationships, in which you are regularly meeting with a few people one-on-one to do them good spiritually. One idea is to invite people after the Sunday service to call you in order to set up a lunch appointment. Those who express interest by calling and having lunch will often be open to getting together again. As you get to know them, you might suggest a book for the two of you to read together and discuss on a weekly, every-other-week, or as-often-as-you-can basis. This often opens up other areas of the person’s life for conversation, encouragement, correction, accountability, and prayer. Whether or not you tell these people that you are “discipling” them is immaterial. The goal is to get to know them, and to love them in a distinctively Christian way by doing them good spiritually. Initiate personal care and concern for others.
This practice of personal discipling is helpful on a number of fronts. It is obviously a good thing for the person being discipled, because he is getting biblical encouragement and advice from someone who may be a little farther along, both in terms of life stages and in terms of his walk with God. So in this way, discipling can function as another channel through which the Word can flow into the hearts of the members and be worked out in the context of a personal fellowship. It’s good for the one who disciples as well, whether you are a paid pastor or a non-staff member, because it encourages you to think about discipling not as something that only super-Christians do, but as something that is part and parcel of your own discipleship to Christ. This is in large part why you as the pastor will be wise to publicly encourage members to get together for a meal during the week with an older or younger member and have spiritual conversations over books on Christian theology and living. Members need to know that spiritual maturity is not simply about their quiet times, but about their love for other believers, and their concrete expressions of that love. A healthy by-product of non-staff members discipling other members is that it promotes a growing culture of distinctively Christian community, in which people are loving one another not simply as the world loves, but as followers of Christ who are together seeking to understand and live out the implications of His Word for their lives. These kinds of relationships are conducive to both spiritual and numerical growth.
As a pastor, a healthy by-product of your personal discipling of other members is that it helps break down defensive resistance to your pastoral leadership. Change will always meet resistance. But as you open up your life to others, and as they begin to see that you are genuinely concerned for their spiritual welfare (2 Thess. 2:1-12), they will be more likely to see you as a caring friend, spiritual mentor, and godly leader; and less likely to misunderstand your gradual initiatives for biblical change as personal power grabs, self-centered ego trips, or overly critical negativism. Developing these kinds of relationships establishes their personal knowledge of you, which is helpful in nurturing personal trust of your character and motives, and in growing an appropriate level of confidence in your leadership among the congregation. It gradually breaks down the “we vs. him” barrier that sadly but often subtly stands between a wounded congregation and a new pastor, and is helpful in paving the way for biblical growth and change.
When I arrived at Capitol Hill Baptist, I waited three months before preaching my first Sunday morning sermon. I simply attended. I had asked for this time in conversations that were held before I arrived. When I explained my reasons, they agreed. It showed respect for the congregation, it gave me time to learn what they were accustomed to, and it showed them that I wasn’t in a hurry to change everything. I realize not all of us have the luxury of waiting three months to preach after our arrival; but if it’s possible, I’d recommend it.
The best way to lose your place of influence as a pastor is to be in a hurry, forcing radical (even if biblical) change before people are ready to follow you and own it. It would be wise for many of us to lower our expectations and extend our time horizons. Accomplishing healthy change in churches for the glory of God and the clarity of the Gospel does not happen in the first year after the new pastor arrives. God is working for eternity, and he has been working from eternity. He’s not in a hurry, and we shouldn’t be either. So it is wise to show care for the congregation and concern for the unity of the church by not running so far ahead of them that people start falling behind. Run at a pace that the congregation can keep.
Of course, there are some things you might need to change rather quickly. But as much as possible, do these things quietly and with an encouraging smile, not loudly and with a disapproving frown. We are indeed to “reprove, rebuke, exhort.” But we are to do it “with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). Make sure the changes you want to implement are biblical (or at least prudent!); then patiently teach people about them from God’s Word before you expect them to embrace the changes you’re encouraging. This patient instruction is the biblical way to sow broad agreement with a biblical agenda among the flock of God. Once this broad agreement is sown, change is less likely to be divisive, and unity less prone to fracture. As you work for change, work also to extend genuine, Christian goodwill toward people. “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). Make haste slowly . . . and kindly.
The key to displaying and actually having this kind of patience is to have a right perspective on time, eternity, and success.
Most of us think only about five or ten years down the road (if that). But patience in the pastorate requires thinking in terms of twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty years of ministry. This puts all our difficulties into perspective. Are you in it with your congregation for the long haul—twenty, thirty, forty years—or are you figuring on “moving up the ladder” by taking a bigger church in five or ten years? Are you building a congregation, or a career? Stay with them. Keep teaching. Keep modeling. Keep leading. Keep loving.
If you’re a young, aspiring pastor who has yet to receive from a church an external call to preach, choose wisely. No one can predict the future or see all possible outcomes. But it may be less than wise to accept a call from a church or location that you couldn’t imagine staying with longer than a few years. Go where you can envision contentedly putting down roots for the rest of your life, and commit.
As pastors, one day we will all be held accountable by God for the way we led and fed His lambs (Heb. 13:17; James 3:1). All our ways are before him. He will know if we used the congregation simply to build a career. He will know if we left them prematurely for our own convenience and benefit. He will know if we drove His sheep too hard. Shepherd the flock in a way that you won’t be ashamed of on the Day of Accounting. “Do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality” (Col. 3:23–25)
If you define success in terms of size, your desire for numerical growth will probably outrun your patience with the congregation, and perhaps even your fidelity to biblical methods. Either your ministry among the people will be cut short (i.e., you’ll be fired), or you will resort to methods that draw a crowd without preaching the true Gospel. You will trip over the hurdle of your own ambition. But if you define success in terms of faithfulness, then you are in a position to persevere, because you are released from the demand of immediately observable results, freeing you for faithfulness to the Gospel’s message and methods, leaving numbers to the Lord. It seems ironic at first, but trading in size for faithfulness as the yardstick for success is often the path to legitimate numerical growth. God is happiest to entrust His flock to those shepherds who do things His way.
Confidence in the Christian ministry does not come from personal competence, charisma, or experience; nor does it come from having the right programs in place, or jumping on the bandwagon of the latest ministry fad. It doesn’t even come from having the “right” graduate degree. Much like Joshua, our confidence is to be in the presence, power, and promises of God (Josh. 1:1-9). More specifically, confidence for becoming and being a pastor comes from depending on the power of the Spirit to make us adequate through the equipping ministry of Christ’s Word. “Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:4-6). And how does the Spirit make us adequate? What instrument does he use? It’s not a program. It’s Christ’s Word. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, [why?] so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17; cf. Jer. 1:9; Ezek. 2:1–7; 3:1–11). The one thing necessary is the power of Christ’s Word. That’s why preaching and prayer will always be paramount—no matter what fad tops the charts. Stake your ministry on the power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16).
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Editor’s Note: This article is a lightly edited reprint of chapter 1 of The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Crossway, 2005).