The Hope of Heaven at the Beginning of Ministry
“What’s your vision?”
If you’re a new pastor, chances are you’ve heard some form of that question countless times.
Perhaps it’s been posed by existing members of your new church, anxiously wanting to know the direction you plan on taking them. Maybe it’s from potential members who’ve shown interest in joining the work with you but need to know the blueprint before signing on.
It could be the inquiry of partnering churches or parachurch organizations, promising money and manpower to help, if you answer the question correctly.
“What’s your vision?”
I can’t recall all the ways I’ve replied, but looking back after my first year of pastoral ministry, I’m certain many of my responses were inadequate. Why? Because they were far too short-sighted. While I may have communicated my hope for a long, faithful ministry at the same place with the same people, my vision still wasn’t cast far enough into the future. I should have set my sights on something more distant and more essential: heaven.
Brothers, at the beginning of our ministries, we need a grand vision for where it all ends. We need a vision of heaven.
Let me offer three reasons why focusing on heaven is indispensable if you’re a new pastor.
1. Focusing on heaven pokes holes in a new pastor’s pride.
Looking toward heaven reminds us that recognition and rewards are coming; which means we don’t have to clamor for them now.
At the beginning of ministry, almost every pastor feels out of his depth. Between preaching, planning, counseling, and administration, there are moments when you realize, “I’m not very good at this!”
What happens next?
Many of us try to conquer this sense of inadequacy by seeking external affirmations of our competence. We look for—and live for—people’s acknowledgement of our work. We want to know that they know they’ve made the right hire; their commendation is further confirmation of the congregation’s vote.
But ask yourself, “Why am I so concerned with what people think and say about me here and now?”
This mentality subtly betrays that we who preach about heaven, often live as if it doesn’t exist. We act as if this life is all there is, and so the praise of people becomes our highest prize.
But the Bible is clear that our labors should be centered on serving God, not ourselves—on his appraisal of us, not others’ (1 Thess. 2:4; Gal. 1:10). Amazingly, this reordering of priorities doesn’t rob us of recognition, it guarantees it.
At the end of our lives and ministries the approval and acceptance we once sought from people will be provided by God. The King himself will greet us and welcome us into his kingdom with these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . enter into the joy of your master (Matt. 25:21).
2. Focusing on heaven propels a new pastor’s ministry.
“I am engaged in personally-conducted tours to heaven.” That’s how Charles Spurgeon pithily summed up the work of his ministry.
What would you say your ministry is about?
If you’re just starting out, you might be tempted to list tasks.
“My ministry is about preaching the gospel and making disciples.”
But what drives you? What motivates your ministry?
A peak into one of Paul’s letters shows us a Spurgeon-like focus on the future fuels his work. This vision of the future might help fuel our ministries as well.
In Colossians 1:28, Paul sums up his ministry, saying, “Him (Christ) we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.”
At this point, it may seem like Paul’s ministry is merely task-oriented. But then he lays out his ultimate purpose: “So that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”
Paul labored in light of eternity. He preached and warned and taught not simply because those were duties in his job description, but because his ambition was to present the church before God one day. Paul knew heaven was real, and he wanted to help people get there, not as babes, but as mature believers.
That’s a corrective for me, perhaps for you as well. So much of ministry can focus on the urgent: helping a person get through a rough patch; wanting to see someone beat an addiction, or hoping someone might respond better to a difficult situation.
Some days and weeks feel like you’re playing a glorified game of whack-a-mole. As soon as you tackle one issue or accomplish one task, another pops up.
We need passages like Colossians 1:28 to remind us early on that ministry is more than getting folks through a tough week; more than pastoring people through a pandemic or a testy political season. Ministry is about preparing people to meet Jesus, so that we might one day stand with them, mature in him.
Can you picture it, when we stand together on the other side of glory with the people God has given us to pastor? We’ll have new, glorified bodies, but our memories will still be intact. We’ll remember the laboring we did through trials and tears, through temptations and tough conversations. Preaching. Warning. Teaching. All to see the saints to heaven. We’ll remember it all, and on the other side of glory the only commentary we’ll have is, “That was totally worth it!”
Brothers, let the vision of what’s to come propel your ministry now.
3. Focusing on heaven provides the lasting joy a new pastor needs.
Pastor, what would make you happy? What do you daydream about in the rare empty moments?
For many of us, it’s success—ministry success.
And in a new work, you have the unique point of view to be able to track such “success” (or lack thereof) directly back to you. Has membership increased or decreased since you began? Has giving improved or declined? Has excitement surged or waned?
The answers often determine our attitudes. But Jesus gives us something far less fickle to tie our happiness to. In Luke 10:20, the disciples return elated from a successful ministry trip, one full of new milestones. But Jesus redirects their joy. “Don’t rejoice in the phenomenal things you’ve done, rather rejoice in this: ‘That your names are written in heaven.’”
There’s really something to be happy about, Jesus says, but it has nothing to do with apparent ministry success. What should bring all of us joy—pastors and non-pastors alike—is that there’s a membership roll in heaven with our names on it, etched in the precious blood of Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the grave for us.
Have you just begun your ministry and realized how incredibly hard it is, how constant criticism can be, how slow growth—both numerically and spiritually—can seem? Are you tempted to despair, already considering walking away?
Hold on. On your worst day, or during your worst week, or after what may feel like the worst possible start to ministry you can imagine, there’s reason to rejoice, reason to hold out hope. Your name is written in heaven.
Dear brothers, set your sights beyond a mere few decades. Set your sights on eternity. Hold out heaven as the vision and fuel of your ministry—and labor on until you get there.