From Pragmatism to the Gospel

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In early 2008, I was in my tenth year of pastoring a church that had a strong past but needed revitalizing. Things weren’t going well. I’d tried a number of approaches based on leadership strategies I’d read encountered through books and seminars.

I was the epitome of a pragmatic pastor. I had good theology, but I was unable to translate that theology into how I pastored.

I was discouraged and on my way to quitting.

An Encounter with Jack Miller

I began to read The Heart of a Servant Leader by Jack Miller, a former pastor and seminary professor. In 1970 he concluded that his church members and students weren’t changing and that he didn’t know how to help them. He quit and spent the next few weeks too depressed to do anything but cry.

He gradually realized that his motives were wrong. He had been motivated by a desire for his own glory rather than God’s. He repented of his pride, fear of people, and love of their approval. His joy returned. He rescinded his resignations, took his family on an extended sabbatical to Spain, and studied the missionary promises of God.

This marked a turning point in Jack’s life and ministry. Not only did he go back to work with a renewed sense of purpose, he also had a new freedom to live and work only for God’s glory…But Jack never forgot how far he had drifted from his focus on God’s glory, and he never forgot how that affected his life and ministry. So, in his mentoring of leaders, he often returned to the theme of God’s glory. He knew that if they did not start in ministry with the right motivation they would eventually end up as he did—full of anger and bitterness. (The Heart of a Servant Leader)

I was fascinated by Miller’s story. I devoured the book, a collection of letters he’d written to pastors and missionaries. I wanted to experience the same kind of turnaround in my life and ministry.

Nothing changed in the church, but I began to change. I asked one of our leaders, “What’s changed around here?” “Nothing’s changed here,” he replied, “but you have.”

Charlene, my wife, felt skeptical. She expected me to move on to a new leadership strategy. I didn’t. I had finally moved past an overemphasis on technique and had rediscovered the centrality of the gospel in my life and ministry.

What I Learned

I learned three lessons in 2008.

First, I discovered the importance of my own experience of God’s glory and love. I could preach about these truths, but I wasn’t living in light of them. I thought the church needed fresh leadership strategies. What the church needed — what I needed — was to rediscover the riches of the gospel.

Second, I finally repented of a fixation on pragmatism. For sure, it’s helpful to learn good leadership skills and best practices. What the church needs most, though, is not better leadership and best practices, but a better appropriation of the gospel. I had to learn to stop chasing fresh fads, and to instead guard old truths we’ve been given to protect.

Finally, I learned that I needed role models. I needed Jack Miller’s example. We learn best from embodied truth: from people who not only believe the truth, but show us what it looks like.

Jared C. Wilson defines gospel wakefulness as “treasuring Christ more greatly and savoring his power more sweetly.” I began to experience this in 2008, and my prayer is that I will continue to grow in my gospel wakefulness for the rest of my life and ministry.

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