Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century. He pastored the Westminster Chapel in the heart of London for nearly three decades, and by the end of his ministry he was one of the most influential ministers on earth. But before Lloyd-Jones was a great preacher, he was an accomplished physician. After earning his medical degree, he came under the tutelage of Lord Horder, caregiver to His Majesty, King George V, and enjoyed one of the most promising medical careers in all of England.
In considering God’s call to ministry, Lloyd-Jones wrestled with his “physician’s dilemma”—giving up medicine to pursue preaching. Ultimately, it was a war of desire, and his desire for ministry won out:
“We spend most of our time rendering people fit to go back to their sin! I want to heal souls. If a man has a diseased body and his soul is all right, he is all right to the end; but a man with a healthy body and distressed soul is all right for sixty years or so and then he has to face eternity in Hell.”
From his book, “Discerning Your Call to Ministry,” Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Jason K. Allen offers insight on ministry, calling, and Christian education.
Are you willing to surrender?
A generation ago, “surrendering to ministry” was a common phrase in evangelical churches. It was certainly common in my childhood church. Most every sermon ended with an invitation to surrender to ministry. This immediately followed our pastor’s appeal to follow Christ, be baptized, or join the church.
As a boy, the phrase “surrender to ministry” both mystified and unnerved me. It sounded as though one was embracing an unwanted life, a call to a distant land for an undesired work. It seemed like a call one intuitively resisted—as long as possible—until finally buckling under the Spirit’s pressure and embarking on a life of ministry that, albeit noble, would be marked by sacrifice and hardship.
In hindsight, I do not think that is what my pastor meant, nor do I think that is what the New Testament implies. As I found in my own life, surrendering to ministry is not caving to an unwanted vocation; it is embracing what becomes increasingly irresistible: gospel ministry.
In other words, if by surrendering to ministry we mean engaging in an undesirable work, then jettison that phrase now. But if we mean surrendering to minister as unto the Lord and self-consciously choosing to forgo other life opportunities, conveniences, and ambitions, then surrendering to ministry is a good, healthy phrase. In fact, I am convinced “surrendering to ministry” is a phrase the church needs to recover and ministry-posture the church needs to cultivate. Every faithful ministry begins with a surrendered life, and that submissiveness shapes every aspect of one’s ministry, including why, where, and what one preaches.
What surrender entails
Surrendering to ministry rightly establishes the pastor’s motivation. After all, the pastor’s incentive should not be material gain, the applause of men, or any other earthly enticement. Rather, the preacher should, like the apostle Paul, know in his heart, “If I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).
To surrender to preach the ministry is to be so gripped by God’s call, and so moved for His glory, that one shares Jeremiah’s burden: “If I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” (Jer. 20:9).
The urgency with which one preaches may ebb and flow based on a multitude of factors, including the receptivity of the congregation, the preacher’s spirituality vitality, and the tenor of the text itself. But, for the man rightly surrendered to ministry, the “why” of the ministry is settled—it is for Christ and His glory.
Additionally, surrendering to ministry includes a determination to follow God’s call wherever it may lead. This may include a willingness to leave family and friends, go to a distant place, and undertake a new work. After all, Jesus reflected, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).
Too many ministers are perfectly willing to follow God’s call as long as it does not lead out of their hometown. Such kingdom restrictiveness is alien to the New Testament and stymies one’s availability to be used by God. Practically speaking, you can know if you are limiting God’s call if you’ve already placed—perhaps even unconsciously—limits on where you are willing to serve Christ.
A willingness to go wherever includes a willingness to minister to whomever. There are churches across the land poised for anything but numerical success. Challenging demographics, an unreceptive audience, or a dilapidated neighborhood might make God’s call unattractive, but if it is God’s call, it is a glorious one—regardless of the zip code. After all, struggling churches and dying communities need ministers, too. God typically calls more to a people than a place. If God calls you to minister to a church in a challenging area, are you willing to go?
Surrendering to ministry also means operating under the authority of God’s Word. Most especially, this relates to the act of preaching itself. The role of the preacher is not to cobble together anecdotes with human insights and then sprinkle in a couple of Bible verses to produce a “homily.” The faithful preacher tunes his ear to the Spirit of God, not the critic’s grumble. His finger is on the text, not in the air, gauging the wind. His voice is given to preaching the Word, not peddling shallow sermons for shallow people.
Too many pastors are textual acrobats, contorting their preaching to avoid Scripture’s sharper edges. Such preachers have become adept at explaining away difficult texts and dodging confrontational verses. From the earliest days of ministry you’ll have to guard your heart from pleasing anyone other than the Lord. Fearing combative personalities, overreacting to legitimate criticism, or stubbornly desiring man’s approval can all compromise your message and disorient you from paramount loyalty: loyalty to the One who called you—God Himself.
Two stories of surrender
The Bible offers no better case study of surrendering to ministry than the Old Testament prophet Jonah. God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, and preach repentance so the people there might be saved. It’s crystal clear that God was concerned about the why, where, and what of Jonah’s message.
Tragically, Jonah resisted God’s call in spectacular fashion. When God called Jonah, he was in Israel. God instructed him to go to Nineveh, which was about 550 miles east of Jerusalem in what is now modern-day Iraq, but Jonah did the exact opposite. He struck out for Tarshish, located in modern-day Spain, some 2,000 miles in the opposite direction!
Why did Jonah resist God’s call to preach repentance to the Ninevites? The Ninevites were the sworn enemies of the Israelites. The last thing Jonah wanted was to see the Ninevites repent and escape God’s impending judgement. In fact, Jonah actually confessed that he fled to Tarshish because he knew God was “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
God’s ministers are not spiritual free agents. We are not ecclesiastical entrepreneurs who strike out on our own and minister in accordance with our own desires. As Jonah’s sin was running from God’s appointed place of ministry, a more common twenty-first-century sin might be running to a preferred place of ministry.
On the contrary, aspire to be like John Piper, who went to Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1980 despite a small, aging congregation in dilapidated facilities located in a transitional neighborhood. He sensed God’s call, followed it, and has been used by God like few others in our generation.
A number of years ago I faced a similarly challenging decision. A church reached out to me about helping them through a season of challenge and transition. I felt God’s leading to serve the church, but several friends sought to dissuade me. I vividly recall one friend telling me, “Stay away. That church will ruin your resume. It’s a troubled congregation in a troubled part of town. Billy Graham couldn’t grow that church. You’ll have plenty of great opportunities in the years ahead. Don’t settle for anything less than God’s best for you.”
Though well intended, that counsel was altogether unhelpful and disorienting. For a while it confused me, until I remembered that God’s will for my life is God’s best for my life. By enlarging my circle of wise counselors, reflecting on the church’s needs, and my wife and I seeking the Lord and gaining His peace, it became clear that God was indeed calling us to that church.
The bottom line is, if you had a million lives to live you could not improve upon the life God has called you to live and the ministry to which He has called you. Don’t settle for second best by choosing the path of least resistance or the ministry that promises the best payout. Seek God’s will and surrender to it.
These days the phrase “surrendering to ministry” seems a vestige of the previous generation of church life. This is more than unfortunate; it is unhealthy, and the church is the big loser.
Surrendering to ministry means you’re willing to go to anyone, anywhere, anytime. But don’t be confused; as you surrender you will enter more fully into God’s joy and blessing. A surrendered life is integral to a healthy ministry.
– Reprinted by permission