There are a lot of questions about the Word of God, everything from its authorship, its nature, its inerrancy, its authority, its reliability, its sufficiency, to its purpose. But for the man who is entrenched in the vocational ministry of the Word—preacher, pastor, evangelist, missionary, [or] or teacher—there lies in his bosom a burning question concerning the efficacy of God’s Word. Is the ministry of the Word, when conducted the way that God intends, ever in vain? To put it simply, many struggle with the question, “Is the ministry of the Word truly effective?”
This question can’t be swept under the rug because it has led many otherwise faithful ministers to the point of quitting. The Francis Shaeffer Institute of Church Leadership has recently reported that 35-40% of ministers last less than five years in the ministry, and that between 60-80% of ministers will no longer be in their vocation ten years later. Many ministers of the Word throw in the towel for various reasons. Do your own Google search and you’ll find that one of the top reasons why men are not persevering in the ministry is discouragement. And such discouragement stems from questioning whether or not their ministry is truly making any kind of a significant impact on the people to whom they preach and minister.
I am thankful that from the very beginning of my seminary education, my disciple-lab mentor asked me to read R. Kent Hugh’s book, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, (it was the very first book I read in seminary, alongside Christian Living Beyond Belief by Cliff McManis!). It has served to protect my heart against the discouragement from apparently unsuccessful results. Humans, after all, tend to measure success by visible results.
That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, when it comes to practical occupations. Doctors measure their success based on the increasing health of their patients. Teachers measure their success based on the aptitude and competence of their students in a particular subject area. Marketing teams measure their success based on the volume of inquiry into and sales of their product. To measure success by tangible outcome is not a bad thing. It’s just that such a paradigm can’t exactly be translated into the ministry of the Word.
When it comes to Bible proclamation, the results are as diverse as a botanical survey. I remember one pastor who told me that, in his first ministry experience, the youth group he pastored grew from tens of students to hundreds of students within a year. That’s exponential growth even greater than Australia’s rabbit growth curve! But when he began a church plant in another state (where he is currently pastoring), the last 10 years have shown little “fruit.”
The results of preaching the Word, in some ways, seem to be ever so unrecognizable in their pattern—a nightmare for statisticians looking for correlative patterns. In other words, it appears that the immediate (and perhaps even long-term) results of his preaching have been inconsistent at best. You preach to one group of people, and they grow. You preach those same sermons to another group five miles away, and they die! This is a source of tremendous frustration, confusion, and discouragement for many. And thus, there are many ministers silently struggling with whether or not they even belong in the ministry. To solve this question, we need to go back to what the Word of God says about its own efficacy.
To say that the Word of God is effective is to say that the Word of God (when ministered correctly) will always accomplish what God desires it to accomplish. The parenthetical is important. For instance, if I ask someone to place a MacArthur Study Bible underneath his pillow every night, the only “impact” he will experience is a sore neck. That’s because this is not a proper way of ministering the Word of God. But when it is indeed rightly ministered as God designed—preached and taught accurately by those whom he has commissioned—it will always accomplish its decreed purpose. This is what it means to say that God’s Word is effective. Hear again the words of Isaiah 55:10-11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return without watering the earth and making to bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and the bread to the eater; so will My word which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.Isaiah 55:10-11
What God has purposed for his Word to accomplish is in his sovereign decree, and that purpose may differ from that of the minister proclaiming that Word. As a pastor, I preach for two purposes: the salvation of souls and the edification of the saints (2 Tim 2:9-10; Col 1:28-29). We preach for the holiness of people. I don’t know a godly preacher who preaches with the goal of hardening people’s hearts or turning them away from the Scriptures. It’s for this very reason that seeing such a result is heart-breaking to any minister.
However, God has a sovereign decree or “desire” (as this verse says) for each person to whom the Word is preached, each event when the Word is preached, each location where the Word is preached, and each generation to whom the Word is preached. For some, that purpose is salvific; God has decreed for that person to be saved and regenerated through the preached Word. For others, the purpose is revelatory; God has decreed for that person’s true character and colors to be revealed through the preached Word. And for yet others, the purpose is hardening; God has decreed that the preaching of the Word will result in the hardening of the hearts of certain people. Whenever the Word is preached, these three purposes are accomplished.
Such is precisely the reason for unpredictable results. Survey the Bible for proof. When Elijah preached, he turned the hearts of people back to God. When Isaiah and Jeremiah preached, the people hardened themselves toward God. When Ezra preached, the people were edified and worship was restored to the community. When Peter preached at Pentecost, thousands came to faith. When Stephen preached before the council, he was stoned.
All of these men were faithful preachers and proclaimed the message of God to the people whom God intended. The outcome was different from one preaching event to the next. The same sun that softened the wax also hardened the clay. But in every case, the desire and will of God for that particular proclamation was accomplished. World history was moved; redemptive history was advanced.
As ministers of the Word and as a church that supports the proclamation of the Word, we must realize not only that results will differ based on God’s sovereign (and unsearchable) decrees, but that the true effect of the Word of God as God desires will be seen over the course of time. We must be careful not to judge the effect of our ministry by the immediate results or feedback. The impact of the ministry of the Word—its efficacy—is seen over the course of the long haul. Our duty, then, is not to focus on the results. God will take care of that, and we must be careful not to measure our “success” based on them. When it comes to the ministry of the Word, our duty is to be faithful. We must faithfully live according to the Word, and we must faithfully proclaim it.