Ministry Is War

“I have been a pastor for thirty years to American Christians who do their best to fireproof themselves against crisis and urgency. Is there any way that I can live with these people and love them without being shaped by the golden-calf culture? How can I keep from settling into the salary and benefits of a checkout clerk in a store for religious consumers? How can I avoid a metamorphosis from the holy vocation of pastor into a promising career in religious sales?” ~ Eugene Peterson[1]


“War Zones.” There’s a reason Paul Tripp gives this title to a chapter in his book Dangerous Calling. It’s because, in truth, ministry is war. Yes, ministry is one big “glory war,” but it’s also where pastors witness the war that rages for the hearts and souls of the people who fill their pews every week.[2]

Sometimes we pastors get discouraged when we don’t see freshly transformed souls entering our churches each month. At times we’re also disheartened by the slow pace at which people are growing. We wonder what’s wrong. Is it us? Is it our poor preaching? Is it our poor leadership? Doubtless those may be the reasons, but I think the late Jack Miller’s words written to a missionary are worth reading slowly and thoughtfully:

“Think of it this way: All the powers of hell and earth are ranged against the gospel and your ministry. They will not compromise. Therefore don’t expect it from them. Don’t expect the enemy to coddle you. He will continue to attack from every quarter.”[3]

It’s time for us to realize what pastoral ministry is. Yes, we preach. Yes, we pray. Yes, we visit and do soul-care; we counsel, we encourage, we lead, we rejoice, we weep, we agonize, we plead, and we persevere. But let’s not forget that ministry is war and we’re on the front lines. I immediately shouted “Amen!” when I read Owen Strachan’s definition of pastoral ministry: “Pastoral ministry is a local campaign in the broader war between the living God and the principalities and powers of the air (Eph. 6:12).”[4]

Is that your definition of ministry? Are you cognizant each day that this is what we’re up against? What should we keep in mind as we labor day-in and day-out? In particular, how do we move forward? After thinking and praying about it some, here’s the best I got.

Keep praying. I know faithful pastors pray for their people. But I simply want to encourage us all to keep praying. We’re helpless but not hopeless. You will never reach the place in ministry where you feel competent and in control. In fact, ministry will kill such desires.[5] As Zack Eswine reminds us, “There is nothing we can do in ministry that does not require God to act . . . Everything pastors hope will take place in a person’s life with God remain outside the pastor’s own power.”[6] Therefore, brother pastors, let’s keep praying.

Keep preaching. After serving in ministry now for three years, I am convinced that John Piper is right: “All genuine preaching is rooted in a feeling of desperation.”[7] Yes, prepare your sermon well, do your exegesis and study, look at the Greek and Hebrew. But preach to yourself first! Above all, keep preaching! Preaching is a lot like farming. You do the hard work, you labor, and then you wait . . . and wait . . . and wait some more. You are powerless to change people. The intractable human will is skillful in rationalization and clever at getting around the truth. Humans are an interesting lot: We’re “brilliantly creative” and “brilliantly destructive.”[8] We’re “caught between outward oppression and inward erosion.”[9] In sum, we need a heart transplant. Don’t be surprised when people run from Jesus. People aren’t capable of wanting Jesus without Jesus’s help![10]

 Keep visiting. When people ask David Hansen what he does as a pastor, he replies, “I read the Bible, pray and visit with friends.”[11] What could be better than that! Please understand: When I say “keep visiting,” I’m not necessarily talking about making a “pastoral visit,” I’m talking about offering your people the gift of friendship. We need to make small-talk with people, in hopes that they will invite us into their lives. Then we can come alongside them and assist them in navigating the harsh waters of life. This requires time and attention. We need to earn the right to speak into peoples’ lives.

With all that’s been said, it should be easy to tell why the pastor’s heart is a broken heart.[12] We’re often taken up with study and preparation so that we can offer nutritious meals (sermons) to our people. It’s easy to get discouraged in ministry. We need to remember that we’re in a war. Thankfully, the Lord is on our side and we know that victory is assured. We win.


[1] The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 41.

[2] With respect to the “glory war,” see Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 120.

[3] Barbara Miller Juliani, ed. The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller (Philipsburg: P&R, 2004), 62.

[4] Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 38.

[5] For more on this point see Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 21.

[6] The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 97.

[7] The Supremacy of God in Preaching, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 41.

[8] See, e.g., Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), ix.

[9] C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 23.

[10] Tim Keller, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (NY: Riverhead Books, 2013), 17.

[11] The Art of Pastoring: Ministry without All The Answers, rev ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 135.

[12] Scott Hafemann, “A Call to Pastoral Suffering: The Need for Recovering Paul’s Model of Ministry in 2 Corinthians,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4:2 (2000): 22-36. See esp. 32.


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