Tim Keller has said that “an idol is usually a very good thing that we make into an ultimate thing.” This can certainly be said of those who make an idol of ministry. Ministry is good. Every church member is called to minister. We are all to involve ourselves, in one form or another, in serving others and making disciples of Jesus Christ. But ministry, while good, must never be ultimate.
We all involve ourselves in ministry with good intentions. We want to serve others. We want to make disciples. We want to glorify God. Sadly, it happens too frequently that those efforts come to define us. We come to identify ourselves, not by who we are in Christ, but by what we do for Christ. We idolise the very thing that is meant to give shape to our service.
Perhaps no Christian has ever given himself more to servant-hearted, disciple-making, God-glorifying ministry than the apostle Paul. Having experienced God’s saving grace in an incredible way, he gave himself wholeheartedly to Christian ministry, preaching the gospel, discipling converts, planting churches, and training leaders. He went about this boldly and wisely. He contextualised his ministry in healthy ways and thereby ministered effectively for God’s glory. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some,” he wrote. But he did not do it for the glory. He did not do it for the ministry high. He did not do it (primarily) for the good of the people he served. “I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).
More often than not, Paul referred to himself as a servant, or sometimes a prisoner, of the Lord Jesus Christ. While he was always involved in gospel ministry—while, we might say, gospel ministry dominated his life—it did not define him. He saw himself primarily in relation to Christ, not in relation to his service to Christ. In everything he did, the “one thing” he pursued above everything else was “the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” He considered all else “loss” in comparison to that lofty goal (Philippians 3:7–16).
This is why Paul could find joy even in chains. Even when his ministry goals were stripped from him. Even when his freedom to evangelise and plant churches was taken away. Whether he was free to engage in ministry or chained to a Roman soldier, he knew he could pursue Christ and that was enough.
We are all tempted to idolise ministry. Here are three helpful questions to ask as you consider whether or not you have fallen prey to this temptation.
First, do I serve only (or primarily) for what you get out of it? The older son in the parable of the prodigal son complained that he had served his father for years but had never been celebrated like his younger brother had. He expected a reward for his faithful service. While we are certainly promised rewards for faithful service, we must be careful of making those rewards our pursuit. Rewards should be incidental compared to our pursuit of Christ.
Second, is my sense of purpose tied to my ministry? What if your ministry is stripped from you? What if, like Paul, you end up in the proverbial prison without the freedom to engage in the ministry for which you so long? Is your pursuit of Christ enough? Is your identity tied to him before your ministry?
Third, do you talk more about your ministry than about your Lord? Is every conversation about what you have done for Christ or are you as concerned to talk about what Christ has done for you? Your speech may well reveal what dominates your heart.
We are all called to faithful and fruitful service, but ministry must never become our supreme treasure. Ask yourself honestly today, has what I do for Christ become more important to me than Christ himself? Repent of ministry idolatry and make it your highest goal to pursue Christ himself.