Dr. John Piper is an inspiration to a whole generation of young Bible teachers, and he is a man who personally means the world to me. On January 1, Dr. Piper will transition out of his role as Pastor for Preaching & Vision at Bethlehem Baptist, a church he has led faithfully (and will continue to serve) for over thirty years.
Recently, Pastor John was gracious to answer a few questions about what he’s learned, what he’s still learning, and the upcoming annual Desiring God pastors’ conference. For more from John Piper, visit Desiring God.
Mark Driscoll: What would John Piper today tell a young John Piper who is getting ready to enter into ministry?
John Piper: I would quote to him V. Raymond Edman: “Don’t question in the dark what God showed you in the light.” Darkness comes. In the middle of it, the future looks blank. The temptation to quit is huge. Don’t. You are in good company. You are in the pit with King David. He waited. “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction” (Ps. 40:1–2). God will do that for you. You will argue with yourself that there is no way forward. But with God, nothing is impossible. He has more ropes and ladders and tunnels out of pits than you can conceive. Wait. Pray without ceasing. Hope.
To that, I’d add: Outrun your people and your colleagues in thinking. That is, stay ahead of them in thinking through biblical implications of what is being said or proposed. Make a practice of thinking before a meeting. Think of as many implications of a proposal as you can. Think of as many objections to the proposal as you can. Think of good biblical answers to all those objections. Think of how much it will cost and how it will be paid for. Think of who might implement it. Think of the ways that it will bring joy—or temporary sorrow. Think about its relation to a dozen other things that people like or don’t like. Sit with your pencil in your hand (or your fingers on the keyboard) and doodle until you’ve exhausted the possibilities, or the time you have. Go to the meeting having thought more than any one else, and more deeply than anyone else. This is what good leaders do.
MD: What are some things in ministry that you had to learn the hard way?
JP: Don’t assume that all fat people are gluttons. And don’t use the word fat. There is a principle here. Learn from logic and experience not to associate things—especially in preaching—that don’t necessarily go together. Another way to say it is: be hyper-vigilant to avoid and explode stereotypes. Not all single women want to be married. Not all boys like football. Not all homemakers like to cook. Not all messy people are lazy. And not all the obese are gluttons. There are glands and diabetes and a dozen conditions you never heard of that may account for things. Put your sermon through the counter-stereotype sieve.
MD: What are some of the big ideas behind Desiring God’s upcoming pastors’ conference, “Brothers, We Are Still Not Professionals”?
JP: Professionalism has connotations that don’t serve us well in describing the ministry. The ministry is supernatural, or it is not Christian ministry. The natural things we do—preach, teach, counsel, write, organize, visit—are not in and of themselves ministry. Unbelievers do all those things. Even unregenerate pastors do those things, and they may do them with great professional skill. But all of that professional excellence would be utterly in vain.
The aim of this pastors’ conference is to press home and to flesh out the conviction that the heart of the ministry is supernatural and that our main aim and focus should be on that aspect of our work. There is no professional faith, no professional hope, no professional joy, no professional thirsting after God, no professional empathy with sufferers, no professional purity, or professional passion for the lost. You get the idea. The essence of what we are about is simply not professional, like raising the dead.
Of course, supernatural does not mean methodological stupidity. The people do need a place to park. The meeting needs to end in time to get some sleep. The sound system needs to work. But all of that sort of thing is pursued “by the strength that God supplies” so that God gets the glory (1 Pet. 4:11), or it is not Christian ministry. Professionalism doesn’t show us that.
Undistracting excellence is the way we talk about the natural wineskin of ministry that holds the supernatural wine. This means that we take seriously the biblical call to play your music skillfully and be apt to teach. But the aim is for a kind of excellence that does not distract from God or the spiritual engagement with God in all our natural acts. Both fumbling and finesse distract. This is why professionalism simply won’t work as a ministry aspiration. It is not the aim of professionalism to become transparent for the glory of Christ.
MD: As you reflect on your time as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist, what were some of the risks you took?
JP: I took a risk in hiring a minister for students. The church consisted of 300 gray heads when I came—virtually no students at first. But across the street were 55,000 students at the University of Minnesota. The less visionary folks said, “Students are here today and gone tomorrow—bad investment.” I said, “What a way to spread!” We called Tom Steller. Before long, the student ministry on Sunday morning was half as big as the rest of us. Tom is still with me at Bethlehem.
I took a risk less than two years into my ministry by proposing that the Church Covenant be amended to remove the requirement of teetotalism for membership. I’m a teetotaler. But to me, this came so close to Galatianism (the idea that, to be a complete Christian, you need circumcision) that I staked my ministry on it. Some of my supporters were shocked, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union chapter said the church had called a liberal who would take us down the road to unbelief. It passed, but barely. I’m still here and have not heard the charge of liberal in a long time.
MD: How have you gotten to know and see Jesus more this past week?
JP: I saw him show up this past Saturday night and fill me with joy as I watched my successor, Jason Meyer, preach the first in a series of Advent messages—the role I have played for 33 Advent seasons. I always love corporate worship at Bethlehem, but this was something more. Something spiritually intense. It as a very kind gift.
Also, I saw Jesus in Luke 10:13–14, where he said he knew what miracles it would take to bring Tyre and Sidon to repentance, but had decided not to do them. I paused with trembling again before his inscrutable sovereignty and said, “I’m not sure, Jesus, why you wouldn’t do this, but I trust that you are good, and you know what you are doing.”
And I saw him show up on Sunday with forgiveness and the grace to repent after I had turned away a man from our front door with anger. Jesus directed me to the picture of his patience in 1 Timothy 1:16: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience.” Then while driving in the car to a lunch with my wife and daughter, I confessed to them what I had done. Oh, the sweetness of the pain of repentance! I am an old pastor now, desperately in need of the old, old gospel.
The “Brothers, We Are Still Not Professionals” conference will take place this February 4–6, 2013 in Minneapolis.