By Juan R. Sanchez
It was my first pastorate. I was filled with hopeful anticipation. I had assumed if I preached the Word faithfully, unbelievers would come to faith in Christ and believers would grow in the grace and knowledge of Him.
Much to my surprise, the reality was different than my ideal. The Word cuts both ways. It not only builds up; it also tears down (Jeremiah 1:9-10).
As pastors, it’s right to desire a fruitful ministry. Jesus promised us that the harvest is plentiful (Matthew 9:37). He reminded his disciples that the time of sowing and reaping was now (John 4:35-38).
He promised that the gates of death would not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18). And he taught us to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:10).
Faithful ambition leads us to labor in the Lord’s harvest, trusting that Jesus will build His church.
At times, though, our motivation for gospel fruitfulness may stem from sinful ambition. How may we know the difference between ambition that is faithful and that which is sinful?
Consider the end for which we are laboring. Are we working for God’s glory (Matthew 6:9) or our own (Matthew 23:1-12)? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Allow me to offer five self-examination questions to help us guard against the temptation to labor for a gospel fruitfulness that is rooted in selfish ambition.
1. Is my desire for gospel fruitfulness driven by a desire to exalt Christ’s name or my own?
The apostle Paul was ambitious for gospel fruitfulness. He asked for prayer for success in spreading the gospel (Colossians 4:3-4). He rejoiced when those prayers were answered (Philippians 1:12-13). To what end, though?
To the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Paul’s ambition for gospel fruitfulness was driven by his passion for God’s name to be made famous, not Paul’s.
Pastors, we must continually guard against the temptation to preach Christ that we may become famous.
Pastors with fruitful ministries are the ones who get the conference invitations and the book contracts. They get called to pastor the large, influential churches in the important metropolitan cities.
Is your ambition faithful or sinful? As yourself, Do I seek credit for ministry successes? Do I get upset when my ideas or ministry wins aren’t recognized? Pastors, let the Lord exalt whom he desires. We will exalt the Lord!
2. Do I approach my time in personal Bible reading and prayer as a means for communion with God—or as a means to advance my ministry?
The apostle Paul reminds us that “we are not competent in ourselves to claim anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God. He has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant…” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6).
When we understand our pastoral inadequacy, we become desperate. As pastors, our desperation should drive us to ask God for grace, to hear from God in his Word, and to plead with God to do a work in his people, including us.
When our ministry is driven by selfish ambition, though, even our prayer time and Bible reading become means for personal success.
In prayer, we ask God to bless us and our ministries. In Bible reading, we’re continually looking for that message that will attract people.
Pastors, what do our prayers say about our desperation? What does our time in the word say about our needs?
3. In my pursuit of gospel fruit, do I compromise gospel faithfulness?
Throughout Scripture, God emphasizes character over competency. We’re impressed with outward appearances, but God looks at the heart. It’s no wonder Paul spells out for Timothy the qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.
The temptation to compromise faithfulness for fruitfulness isn’t new.
In a church divided over celebrity preachers, Paul reminds both the church and the preachers that the only work that will endure God’s judgment is that which is built on the foundation of the gospel (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Pastors, there’s no reason to compromise faithfulness for the sake of fruitfulness. Remain faithful. Jesus will build His church.
4. Am I willing to fulfill my ministry in hard places or only where it will be safe, comfortable, and successful?
One of Paul’s ambitions was to preach Christ where He was not named (Romans 15:20). To advance the gospel, Paul was willing to go to hard places – those places that had no gospel witness.
Pastors, are we pursuing safe, comfortable ministry in cities and suburbs where we’re almost guaranteed success because of the transient nature of our culture?
Or, are we willing to fulfill our ministry in hard places where, more than likely, no one will ever know our names?
5. Am I willing to allow wise counselors to speak into my life and hold me accountable?
This last question is critical—it undergirds the previous four questions. Will you go beyond a self-assessment and let real, live, flesh-and-blood people speak into your ministry?
It’s hard to ask these questions and answer them honestly, so invite wise counselors in your life who love you enough to ask these hard questions together and not just tell you what you want to hear.
Juan is the senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church and the author of The Leadership Formula: Develop the Next Generation of Leaders in the Church.