Church life is a battlefield. The cities full of lost people are the ground to be gained against the enemy. At times, darkness threatens to close-in and snuff out the light. But the gospel is our weapon, and the church is the outpost of the new creation behind enemy lines. Church planters are the general, medic, or chef, depending on the day. This wartime image is biblical and exciting.
But there’s another battlefront—one that’s significant but easily forgotten. The pastor’s heart. Pastors serving in the darkest areas are at great risk. The battle around them is so dramatic that the battle within can be dangerously ignored.
So how can a pastor working in a hard place give due attention to his own heart? Here are three important ways.
1. Watch his life and doctrine.
The pastor must keep a close watch on his life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). His own soul and those who sit under his teaching depends on it. Sadly, every person reading this can think of a pastor who lost the battle within—abandoning the faith, following a mistress, or reaching into the church coffers. It is an urgent priority that a pastor attend to the state of his own heart as he ministers.
2. Put to death the sinful longing for praise.
The pastor must let go of his reputation if he will shepherd faithfully for the long haul. The pulpit is a platform, and sin and satan love to twist that platform from one of Christ-exaltation to self-exaltation.
In your mind’s eye, the self-exalting pastor may wear anything from skinny jeans and a v-neck tee to a bow tie and a high-end suit. Most-likely, he preaches to thousands in multiple services and enjoys the Christian-preaching-circuit fame. But this is not the only place you will find such pastors. Contrary to your expectations, you can find a self-exalting pastor in small churches in the slums, projects, and schemes. A small church can be enshrined as an idol just as much as a large one can.
The low-hanging fruit is to critique the pastor who has made the neighborhood his social media playground. The people of his church live in these broken homes, he simply posts them to motivate ministry donors and teams. The poor in his community are a commodity. They provide him with an endless stream of friends who live “normal” lives congratulating him on “really doing the Lord’s work.” He’s not trapped in that neighborhood like the people who attend his church, and he seems to minister in a way that always keeps his other world and friends informed and warm for him to make a comeback or a move-up.
A city like Detroit will see all too many of these pastors “slum it” for a few months or years before God mysteriously redirects his calling on the place his social media followers always lived. They were his real congregation all along.
It’s easy to critique such low-hanging fruit, but there’s more self-exaltation and self-vindication than meets the eye.
3. Remember whom he serves.
The apostle Paul offers revolutionary words in 1 Corinthians for every believer, especially ministers of the gospel:
“This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” (1 Cor. 4:1–5)
Paul knew the momentum in his own heart, and the heart of every pastor, to self-exalt or self-vindicate. Pastoring among the poor brings endless assaults on your identity. The church plant in the hood is slow-growing and plagued with struggles. Church members turn on you and begin to slander you to others. Your church falls out of the spotlight (and budget line) with some supporters.
Each of these struggles brings an implicit, at times explicit, accusation about you and your ministry. Are you really the kind of pastor we should support? Are you really being faithful with your time and energy? Are you as bad as the stories I’ve heard?
But Paul reminds the Corinthians that vindication and exaltation are not put to a vote. There is no human court that will determine your value and reward in ministry. The only verdict that matters will be passed by the Lord Jesus at the appointed time.
Comfort and Clarity
In this way, 1 Corinthians 4 offers tremendous comfort and clarity. Comfort because we know the Lord Jesus evaluates the heart and will not miss anything in rendering His judgment. Clarity because we have one simple expectation: faithfulness. We will not be compared with other pastors. We will not be measured by our network’s metrics for growth. No popular vote will be taken. The Lord will evaluate our faithfulness based on the responsibility He placed on us with the gifting He entrusted to us.
Many pastors never feel the comfort of this clarity. We mistake the evaluations of man for the measurement of our Lord. When people reject us or merely quit praising us so vocally, we panic. When opponents arise, we worry. When others succeed, we covet.
We explain the complexities of ministry among the poor and make sure everyone knows our struggles are due to our circumstances, not our limitations or weaknesses. We paint ministry in hard places in a light that protects us from any ‘drop in the polls’. In doing this, we reveal our need for the approval of the human court.
Others, perhaps specifically the strong-willed church planters among the poor, get their exaltation and reward from ‘sticking it’ to the court of human approval while chasing after the approval of one man; namely, themselves. They spend their energy trying to prove to themselves that they are truly serving the Lord. This is as tragic a mistake as chasing approval from others.
The pastor will not pursue faithfulness unless he entrusts his exaltation and vindication to the Lord alone. The pastor’s heart must settle in the confidence that only Christ delivers. The vindication that Christ guarantees through his sacrificial death must be enough. The exaltation of the humble, which we gain with the gloriously resurrected King, must be enough (Matt. 23:12). The heart that seeks exaltation and vindication elsewhere is in the cross-hairs of the enemy.
The pastor who trusts Jesus for a clear and final evaluation is free to weather the fluctuations of popular opinion. The pastor who rests his final verdict with Christ is liberated to treat his reputation as a small matter. The pastor who knows that the Lord will take all the facts into account—even the heart—enjoys security in handling accusations and attacks.
The pastor’s heart who rests in Christ’s final evaluation is free to be faithful and selflessly shepherd the sheep entrusted to Him. The pastor’s heart who releases the trivial pursuits of public approval or self-confidence is shielded by the work of Christ from the ploy of the enemy. The platform the enemy wanted to use to overtake him is once again a platform for the glory of Jesus Christ alone.