Public Ministry and the Christian: Eight Principles

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).

By God’s grace, I converted to Christianity at age nineteen in 1976. The Lord led me to be a campus minister, an author, and then a professional philosopher. This ministry has been one of a public intellectual (if that doesn’t sound too pompous). That is, I’ve tried “to interpret the church for the world and the world for the church,” as Os Guinness put it concerning his ministry. Along these lines, I have been much occupied by doing apologetics and offering cultural critique. I am no exemplar in my ministry, and I have made many mistakes, but I have learned a few things along the way that might be helpful to those in similar situations.

  1. Beware of the quest for popularity at the expense of integrity. Too many public Christians cut corners morally or doctrinally. If you cannot build a ministry on biblical truth, then give up. Never water down or distort historic Christian doctrine for the sake of personal, church, or organizational gain. Francis Schaeffer rightly stressed the doctrinal “purity of the visible church,” which must be articulated in love and holiness before the watching world. (See his book, The Church Before the Watching World.) Nor can we afford to cut corner about our credentials.

    For example, you should never pad your resume to look more impressive than you really are. To be specific, you should not claim some affiliation with a prestigious institution if you that is not true. As someone with an earned doctorate from an accredited university, I also wonder about those who tout their doctorates when they have honorary degrees or degrees from unaccredited schools. If others refer to or introduce these folks as Doctor, that’s fine.
  2. Try to remain self-effacing and unpretentious, all the while being confident of your call and abilities in your chosen area of service. Self-motion took a quantum leap with the advent of social media. Everyone can promote themselves all the time to everyone, it seems. But remember the wisdom of Proverbs: “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). Jeremiah warns us well also:

    This is what the LORD says:
    “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom,nor the strong man in his strength,
    nor the wealthy man in his riches.
    But let him who boasts boast in this,
    that he understands and knows Me,
    that I am the LORD, 
    who exercises loving devotion, 
    justice and righteousness on the earth—
    for I delight in these things,”
    declares the LORD (Jeremiah 29:23-26).

    Finding the balance between bragging and properly asserting your credibility can be difficult to find. Walter Martin (1928-1989), the great counter- cult apologist and author of the seminal book, Kingdom of the Cults, used to speak of having to “pull rank” once in a while. That meant he might say something like, “I have been studying cults for thirty years, and I assure that what you think about Mormons is wrong.” Then Martin could refer someone to his writings to back it up. I was once speaking with a woman who insisted that yoga was “just stretching; it’s just stretching!” when I had just argued to the contrary in a public lecture. Thinking of Walter Martin, I said, “I have been studying religions, cults, and the occult for fifteen years, and I assure that yoga is more than stretching.” I’m not sure what effect this had, but it seemed right at the time.
  3. Wrap all your endeavors in prayer, asking God what to do, how to do it, and for his blessing on it. Don’t be ashamed to ask others for their prayers for you. It is not selfish if you are seeking first God’s kingdom in your pursuits. Paul, the great Apostle, often asked for prayer.

    Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should (Ephesians 6:19-20).

    And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should (Colossians 4:3-4).

    Before I speak publicly, I pray something like this: 

    Oh God, Thank you for this chance to minister. I pray that I might speak the truth in love to communicate the knowledge of what matters most to this group. Please bring the right people who can benefit from what I say,  May my talk edify people, extend your Kingdom, and push back the dominion of darkness. Please bless my mind, my brain, my voice, and protect me in all ways from any distraction that would take away from his message, whether it be obnoxious people or malfunctioning technology. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
  4. Be willing to refuse ministry requests and do not get too busy. Too many Christian leaders have burned out and crashed hard largely because they were running hard on fumes for too long. It is one thing to push yourself in God’s service and face fatigue. It is quite another to expect of yourself superhuman feats of ministry achievement. The role of the Messiah has already been taken and it is not you. The little book, Zeal without Burnout by Christopher Ash is helpful on this. I have burned out twice in ministry and I do not recommend it to anyone for any reason. God’s work in the world will continue with or without you (Acts 17:25). 

    So, take regular Sabbaths and enjoy relaxation in the good things of God. Allow close friends to tell you when you should slow down. Perhaps you can delegate some of your work to others. When Jethro say how overtaxed Moses was in judging the people, he convinced him to delegate some of his work to others (Exodus 18:13-27). I recently recommended that an editor contact one of my students to write the article that the editor asked me to write. I had a lot to write as is and didn’t want to get overwhelmed.
  5. Be careful not to envy those who are achieving more success in ministry than you are, even if you think you are more capable than they are. I struggle with this. Jesus rebuked Peter when he was overly concerned about the ministry of John.

    Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. He was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper to ask, “Lord, who is going to betray You?” When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow Me!” (John 20:20-23).

    The point was not for Peter to muse over the ministry of John or to compare yourself with John, but to follow Christ, come what may. God has your own path marked out for you and it is not the same path as anyone else’s.

    Paul could even rejoice when the true gospel was preached by those with bad intent.

    It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18).
  6. Be well prepared for every public outreach, whether sermon or lecture or radio show or podcast. Never BS your way through anything for any reason in any situation. Godly people don’t bluff nor do they rely on their winsome personalities instead of banking on knowledge that needs to be known. To be studious is a divine command for public communicators of the Christian message. As Paul writes to Timothy, a young pastor:

    In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us (Titus 2:7-8).

    Or as James warns every teacher: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
  7. By all means, keep short accounts with our holy God. Confess your sins to him regularly and to trusted others who can encourage you to follow Christ with more integrity, zeal, and wisdom (1 John 1:8-10). No Christian leader should think that because his ministry is going well that he can overlook besetting sins get a pass from God. God wants a pure bride, not a compromised one with an impressive resume and a big head. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18; see also 8:13, 11:2).

    Arrogance and egotism often succeed in politics, business, entertainment, and even the church. But such should not be named among God’s leaders, the ones who follow and make known Jesus, the one who humbled himself to come from heaven to earth to rescue his sinful creatures from futility and damnation (Philippians 2:5-11; John 3:16-18).
  8. The Christian leader must be above reproach in all things, but especially in matters of money, sex, and power (1 Timothy 3:2Titus 1:6–7). There should not even be a hintof financial impropriety, immorality, or power mongering. Christian leaders are first of all servants (Ephesians 5:3). Jesus said:

    You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 25:25-28).

         Paul instructed Timothy to “watch his life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). In an age of constant cover ups, plausible deniability, demagoguery, damage control, image manipulation, and spin, spin, and more spin, we must walk the narrow and sometimes lonely path of integrity before the face of God. We must cultivate the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning and end of wisdom.

Ministry Defining Moments

Some events solidify your understanding of who God made you to be. They crystallize a sense of mission and personal meaning. When the shepherd boy, David, killed the Goliath, the Philistine giant, David’s ministry was defined by zeal for God and courage. His reputation was grounded in his God-given abilities.

Another such moment was when Saul of Tarsus encountered a sorcerer named Bar-Jesus, who was trying to stop Saul from preaching the Gospel, Saul stared him down, got him out of the way, and won the leader to Christ (Acts 13:1-12). From now on, in the Book of Acts, Saul is known as Paul and takes the lead in the nascent Christian mission to Jew and Gentile. Again, his reputation was grounded in his God-given abilities.

For me, as a teacher and writer, two ministry-defining moments stand out. In the spring of 1977, I wrote an apologetic letter to the editor of the University of Oregon newspaper. One of my professors, an embittered religious studies scholar named Jack Sanders, wrote a letter in response saying I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I should have known better since I had taken his class on ancient religion. I then realized that my Christian witness would be contested by people in authority. I wrote another letter. My calling as a defender of Christianity began to be grounded in my God-given abilities.

In about 1981, I was preaching on a passage in Malachi at Orchard Community Church. During one point of the message, I sensed that a lot more was going on than what I had prepared to say. The Holy Spirit was applying the text in a palpable way. That changed my preaching forever, as did commendation from the congregation on my preaching. My preaching were further grounded in my God-given abilities.

There are more, of course. But consider events in your life that have shaped your identity as a Christ-follower. Ask the Holy Spirit to continue to reveal to you the truth of your calling and his glory in your calling. Perhaps you need a ministry-defining moment. Seek God. Seek the well-being of his church, for whom Christ died. See the expansion of his Kingdom. May God ground your ministry as you find your God-given abilities and a place and time to use them.