“Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks,” the temple officers reported to the priests and Pharisees who sent them to arrest Jesus (John 7:46 NASB), and how right they were! The preaching and teaching ministry of Jesus was unique; it was marked not only by authority (Matt. 7:28-29) but also by profundity. Jesus was able to make the profound things simple and the simple things profound. He brought the new out of the old, and that should be the goal of our own ministry. God wants His truth to penetrate our innermost being (Ps. 51:6) and not just rest lightly on the mind. Jesus compared true disciple to a person who “dug deep” and did not build on the shifting sand (Luke 6:48 NASB), and Paul prayed that Christ might “settle down and feel at home” in the hearts of His people (Eph. 3:17, literal translation). In the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23), the first two hearts described by Jesus did not receive the seed into the ground and therefore could not produce fruit. “They had no depth of soil,” said the Master (Matt. 13:5). Alas, a sign reading “No Depth of Soil” could be hung on the front of many pulpits or painted above the entrance to many sanctuaries.
These are days when it is easy to maintain a superficial ministry. People are mobile, and if they aren’t moving from city to city, they’re moving from church to church. The pastor can recycle his material – jokes and illustrations included – and nobody will be the wiser. Pastors are also mobile. When the barrel goes dry, they just pick it up, turn it over and move on. Even worse, so much free sermonic material is available these days, on computer as well as cassette, that lazy preachers can quickly find all they need to fill up thirty minutes each Sunday. It doesn’t worry them that they are both thieves and hirelings and not faithful shepherds (John 10:1-15) who are paying a price to minister to the flock. John Henry Jowett said, “Ministry that costs nothing accomplishes nothing.” But these hirelings not only rob from other preachers, but they also rob congregations of fresh ministry and themselves of the joy and blessing of digging into the Scriptures and leading their people into the rich green pastures of the Word.
“But we live in a superficial society,” they argue, “and our congregations can’t take anything too deep.” Yes, society today is superficial, substituting images for truths and clever slogans for basic principles. But pastors are supposed to be leaders, not followers. Many people were superficial in the days of Jesus and Paul, and these people had the support of religious leaders who taught them how to wash their hands, recite their prayers and cultivate a polite piety that would keep them out of jail but never get them into heaven. But Jesus and Paul still proclaimed the Word with clarity, authority and profundity, and that Word is still powerful (Heb. 4:12). A true message from the Word is like Ezekiel’s river (Ezek. 47): the young ones can wade in it and the mature ones can swim in it. We must make the simple profound and the profound simple.
The marks of a shallow ministry
Shallow ministry is usually routine ministry; it is predictable but not powerful. Shallow ministry is custodial ministry. It involves just keeping things going and keeping people happy. “As it was in the beginning, so shall it ever be! We shall not be moved!” The pastor and church leaders face no new problems because they face no new challenges, and they face no new challenges because they walk through no new doors and enter no new territory. Nobody or nothing rocks the boat, but the boat has a leak and is slowly sinking. Satan doesn’t need to attack a custodial ministry too much because it is already dying from within.
Church growth to the glory of God is the record of the conflict between open doors and closed minds. Read the Book of Acts. No sooner did Paul and Barnabas report that God was opening doors to reach the Gentiles than the traditionalists and legalists in the church tried to slam the doors shut (Acts 14:27-15:1-5). Dr. Oswald J. Smith used to say, “The light that shines the farthest will shine the brightest at home.” But shallow ministry provides only enough oil to sustain a dim light for those who know how to find it. When ministry has depth, the Spirit is at work and there is excitement among God’s people as they move ahead and trust God to do new things. There are new problems to solve, new people to train, new leaders to enlist and new sacrifices to make. That’s when God is at work!
Shallow ministry is promoted and protected by Christians with a file-card mentality who have a place for everything and everything is in its place, but nothing is happening. These leaders are on the defensive and permit no friendly questions or criticisms. The pastor is protected by his “fan club” composed of influential people who pay the bills and want nothing to be changed, and he surrenders. New folks who visit the church rarely come back. How unlike the churches we read about in the Book of Acts and in the epistles! “In our church, there’s no friction,” the board chairman reports – but that’s because there’s no motion! “Like a mighty tortoise / moves the church of God / Brethren, we are treading / Where we’ve always trod!”
Face the consequences
But churches are supposed to grow! The family of God must “bear children” and grow or it will cease to exist. Each local church is but one generation short of extinction (2 Tim. 2:2). But preachers are also supposed to grow and not merely carry on a comfortable ministry of maintenance. “Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you,” Paul wrote to Timothy, the pastor of the church in Ephesus. “Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all” (1 Tim. 4:14-15 NASB). The word translated “progress” means “pioneer advance.” It pictures people taking risks and moving into unexplored territory.
It’s bad enough that the shallow preachers don’t themselves mature, but it’s even worse that they keep others in the church from maturing. Like the false prophets in Jeremiah’s day, they diagnose the church’s spiritual condition superficially and optimistically and joyfully announce “Peace! Peace!” but there is no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). Like the church at Laodicea, the people are encouraged by the annual report (“rich…wealthy…have need of nothing…) but fail to realize that Jesus is outside the door trying to get in (Rev. 3:15-22)!
Is there a remedy?
Of course there is! Pastors who want depth in the congregation and its ministry must realize that there must first be depth in the lives of the leaders. We cannot lead people where we have never been ourselves. Spiritual revival means getting back to reality and abandoning the illusions that have blinded us and prevented us from receiving God’s best. It means being honest with God, with ourselves and with one another. It means washing one another’s feet (John 13:1-17) and also one another’s wounds (Acts 16:33).
When God’s servants are open to the Lord and His people, the fresh wind of the Spirit begins to blow and the atmosphere is alive with the presence of God. When preachers sacrificially spend disciplined time in the Word and prayer and sincerely seek the Lord, when they begin to read widely and not just the “approved books,” and when they start seeking the lost and the straying, then the Lord takes them deeper. They get rid of the wood, hay and straw and enrich their people with gold, silver and jewels (1 Cor. 3:10-15; Prov. 2). Then the Spirit begins to move, the opposition begins to grumble, and serious saints stop playing church – except, of course, for the folks whose comatose condition has been exposed by the new life around them, and they will probably find comfortable churches to attend elsewhere.
In The Set of the Sail, A. W. Tozer wrote about what he called “the devotional mood,” a phrase that describes the opposite of shallowness. “Holiness and power are not qualities that can be once received and thereafter forgotten as one might wind a clock or take a vitamin pill. The world is too much with us, not to mention the flesh and the devil, and every advance in the spiritual life must be made against the determined resistance of this trinity of evil. Gains made must be consolidated and held with a resolution equal to that of an army in the field.
“To establish our hearts in the devotional mood we must abide in Christ, walk in the Spirit, pray without ceasing and meditate on the Word of God day and night. Of course, this implies separation from the world, renunciation of the flesh and obedience to the will of God as we are able to understand it. And what is the devotional mood? It is nothing else than constant awareness of God’s unfolding presence, the holding of inward conversations with Christ and private worship of God in spirit and in truth” (page 129).
Call it what you will – “the devotional mood,” “revival,” “spiritual renewal” – the experience itself is desperately needed in the hearts of pastors and congregations today. God wants us to dwell in the depths and lay good foundations. The Spirit longs to reveal “the depths of God” to us (1 Cor. 2:10) if we will but admit our shallowness and cry out for His help and blessing.
Our Lord’s command to us today is, “Launch out into the deep!” (Luke 5:4 NKJV).
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Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).