Leading a Ministry Without Miracles
by Dr. Robert M. Norris
Dr. Robert Norris is pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Bethesda, Maryland. Born
in Ebbw Vale, South Wales, he earned his bachelors degree at Kings College in London
and his masters and dual doctorates in History and Dogmatics at the University of
St. Andrews in Scotland. He has served pastorates in The City Temple in London and First
Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, Calif.
As we stand at the dawn of a new millennia, the Christian church faces challenges that are unique within her long history, and paramount within the church is the nature of its ministry.
In an age of increased skepticism, many congregations share unspoken fears as to their future. There is a clamor to remove all that might be a barrier to newcomers and to seekers. Pulpits are often filled with those whose sole purpose seems to be to win the adherence of numbers for the churches. Pastors, consequently are faced with such intense pressures, pressures to be successful, relevant, and orthodox, and all at the same time.
The strain upon ministers is reflected in a recent poll indicating that every month 1,300 pastors in the U.S. are either fired or forced to resign. The pressure to succeed and to produce an acceptable growth rate has driven many pastors to move constantly. The same poll suggested that nearly thirty percent of the ministers in the U.S. have been terminated at least once, and in the next decade the professional ministry may expect up to forty percent of its pastors to seek an alternative to full-time Christian service.
As we look amidst our frustrations and fears for guidance from the past and from the Word of God, one simple verse found in John's gospel reminds us of what we are about. Jesus had returned to the district beyond the River Jordan after having escaped from the Jews at Jerusalem who had attempted to seize Him and to silence Him. As He returned to a more welcoming group who had received the teaching of the martyred John the Baptist, He was faced with their eloquent testimony. That testimony, startling as it was in its own generation, offers to us an encouragement amidst the many demands and pressures of Christian proclamation to a modern society. There we are told, "many resorted unto Him and said John did no miracle, but all things that John spoke of this man were true."
Two things were true of John - two things that are important for the inner life of any Christian serving in a professional calling. First, "he did no miracle." John the Baptist gave no such outward sign from God. He was the heir of the prophetic office of Daniel, Elisha, and Elijah, all of whom had demonstrated, with the use of miracle, their calling and the benediction of God upon their ministry. That John was a part of the prophetic tradition is made clear from Matthew's gospel (11:13) where we are told, "the prophets and the law prophesied with John." His ministry closed an age and a system that had been inaugurated and sustained by miracles.
And yet, of John, we are told he did no miracle. He spoke to his own people in the light of the tradition from which he came, and also he spoke to them amidst their own expectations. Many would have been tuned to look for a miracle as attestation of his authenticity yet, John performed no such feat. Those who came after him in service and witness of our Lord Jesus Christ were able to demonstrate by the use of miracles that God was in their work. Peter, for example, was "a man approved of God by miracles, signs, and wonders" (Acts 2:22).
The Scripture makes it clear that miracle is not, however, irresistible in producing faith. There is no mechanical operation on the life of the individual made clear by miracle. We are reminded in our own generation, when many seek urgent and constant demonstrations of the supernatural power of God, that no mere external force or fact can subdue the human will, if that will is determined against spiritual action or thought. To be reminded that only God is able to change the heart, the mind, and the will of the individual ought to give a breath of confidence to beleaguered ministry.
Miracles do not compel internal sympathy and assent, they remain the prerogative of God. In our own generation while many plead for and long for revival, it remains the sole prerogative of God to bless His church with this unique unction. Only He, as He chooses and wills, can move by His Spirit in the ways of producing spiritual awakening. And however much we may long for it and however much we may look for a special movement of God, miracles remain within the freedom of God to move behind the veil of nature.
As a consequence, ministry cannot be built upon His unique movements, but rather upon the ordinary requirements that He has set to us. And this reminds us of the nature of our ministry. Amidst all the pressures, expectations, and desires of our congregation, we are reminded that as Christian ministers, there is a fundamental necessity to develop an inner life from which God's blessing offered by His Spirit may vet flow amid the constant demands to produce activity, program, and growth. The first priority of the Christian ministry remains the cultivation of that inner life, a life which finds encouragement outside of external, quantifiable results.
While it is true that there are and ought to be moments of encouragement within any ministry, moments when we recognize how the Word of God has made impression upon the souls of others, the real encouragement is to be found in the fact that God Himself is at work, and consequently we are driven in prayer; praise, and fellowship to find the reality of His life worked out in us.
The second important lesson taught by that verse lies at the core of the Christian message. It was unique about John the Baptist, that "all things that John spoke about Jesus were true, and many believed upon them." We may see few miracles and we have no control over the exercise of those miracles; however, it becomes the task, and ought to become the chief delight of ministers, to expound and teach the Word. Preaching does not become irrelevant. Quite to the contrary; preaching ought to be the effective tool in God's hands in building His church, and drawing non-believers to Himself. As a consequence, the nature of that preaching, far from being worldly and necessarily as a first call, ought to be other-worldly direct, practical, enabling Christians to live as pilgrims on a journey.
Rabbi Duncan, the great Scottish evangelist, says that much preaching may be best described as "telling others how to make shoes instead of making them; as if they were describing the process of shoe making to those who sought to be shod. You tell about the leather; the rosin, and the awl; while it is a rough road for bare feet and cold, that you must traverse constantly." His point was that so much of preaching becomes a simple, technical activity or a means of application without understanding the truth and the divine logic of the Scripture.
The minister today must learn the clear and well-defined conception of the message that he has to give. Like that of John the Baptist, the call is first to repentance, then the coming of the kingdom of Heaven, and above all, the exaltation of the person and the work of the coming King. Today in a generation unsure of the Bible and its teaching, the human soul requires a very sure and clear presentation of truth accompanied by duty. The preacher must point unerringly toward Jesus Christ the Lamb of God; all sermons that are absent of that are unconsecrated. Indeed, no sermon is worthy of the name that does not have an eye to the glory of Christ, for it is His person and work which must always have preeminence. Once this is established, then and only then will there be the appropriate homage of intellect and heart.
At the same time, John reminds us that ministers today must learn the singleness of purpose that characterized his own ministry. In an age when ministers are expected to be "Jacks of all trades," where we are encouraged and often demanded to use up our mental energy moral aim, and available time to concentrate upon programs and activities, we find in John a challenge to that thought pattern, for in him there is a concentration upon the preparation of the way of the Lord. The Psalmist has said, "with my whole heart have I sought Thee." John, emulating this, was able to dispense with the necessity of miracle, knowing that his whole soul was bent upon carrying out the will of God as best it could be discerned.
To understand and to do this requires fortitude, which most ministers find difficult. Indeed, when pressed to accomplish every unspoken expectation, desire, and demand, when pushed to meet every need, amidst the confusion of demands and priorities, John says the lives of the ministers of the crucified One should stand first and foremost for the marks of the nails, and so proclaim His deathless sacrifice. That calls us to preparation for the strength to know what we say is, first of all, true.
A third lesson that is derived from John's example is that of the need for consistency. He was a preacher of repentance, of high and elevated views of God and His justice, and of the impending providence. He lived that out in the very practical details of his life. As a consequence, the effect on Herod, who had attempted to produce a pagan luxury within Jerusalem, was such as to stand out in stark contrast to a world view lived in the face of a constantly watching society. The life of John the Baptist reflected the reality of his commitment to another world - the world of the spiritual, the low and the exalted. Each one of us must demonstrate by life, action, and thought the same modeling of an other worldly, spiritual ministry, or else, the consistency demanded of life and of witness will fail to measure up to the challenge of the message entrusted to our care.
Perhaps it would be a fit conclusion to each ministry if at the end of our earthly pilgrimage the epitaph on every headstone of a faithful preacher of the Gospel might be simply the one written for John: "He did no miracles, but all things that he spoke of this man were true.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 1