“He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). Appropriating this truth into our thoughts, hearts and actions is one of the greatest challenges every believer faces in life. No sooner does it start to sink into our minds that our lives begin to reveal–in a multitude of ways–that we must relearn it all over again. These are, after all, the most significant words a man or woman can utter in all of human experience. This is no less true in the realm of Christian living as it is in Christian ministry. Pastors have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy writing and speaking about ministerial growth, ministerial effectiveness, ministerial influence and ministerial multiplication, while very little has been written on ministerial decreasing. “He must increase, I must decrease” was the purpose statement of the ministry of the forerunner of the Redeemer. It will do us good to briefly consider how this functioned in the life of John and now serves as a model for pastors today. Consider the following:
We must learn to be content to be treated as social outcasts. John was satisfied to obey God when He called him to live in the wilderness and to eat locust and wild honey. John wasn’t padding his resume or working his way up the corporate ladder of ministerial success. Most of us who minister in our materialistic Western society will never be as free as John with regard to ministerial ambition and desire for human praise. However, one of the main parts of a ministry of decreasing is not seeking great things for yourself in ministry.
The Apostle Paul explained that his own ministry was “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Cor. 11:27). Paul was not looking at the ministries of those who were socially admired. Rather, he said “we dare not classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Cor. 10:12). This is so much more easily acknowledged intellectually than it is put into practice. I far too often catch myself looking at others who seem more successful with a comparative eye to achieve more in ministry. Just as all of us are quite skillful in carrying out our sin, so we can be skillful in convincing ourselves that we are not seeking societal achievement and human praise.
We must learn to be content to have congregants move on from us. As Jesus was beginning His public ministry, John pointed to Him and said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The first two of Jesus’ 12 disciples were those who had first been with John (John 1:35-37). John was content to have two of his best disciples move on in ministry for the glory of Christ. It is all too common for ministers in our day and age to be greedy for members–courting them out of other biblical churches by promising them positions and benefits. In reality, the end goal for such ministers is to benefit their own ministry. Sheep-stealing in all of its subtle and subversive forms is antithetical to ministerial decreasing. On the contrary, John was happy to see those who had been with him turn away to follow Christ. A man who has adopted a mindset of ministerial decrease will rejoice when men and women he has pastored move on to help another congregation or church plant which has more need for their labors.
We must be content to be persecuted for Christ. Count Zinzendorf once captured the essence of the principle of ministerial decrease when he wrote: “The missionary must seek nothing for himself: no seat of honor, no report of fame…He must be content to suffer, to die and be forgotten.” Only those who adopt a mindset of ministerial decreasing will be willing to be imprisoned and killed for the sake of the Gospel. Those who are ministering out of a desire to build a platform, start a movement or model ministerial effectiveness will never walk through the door of suffering that Christ often calls His people to walk through. John wasn’t willing to cave into cultural pressures in order to escape persecution (Mark 6:17-28). He wasn’t relying on ministerial sophistication in order to engage Herod and avoid the offense of the Gospel. A mark of a true ministers (as it is a mark of a true Christian) is that he will be willing to suffer for the One who first suffered for him. The one who stooped to wash the disciples feet–thus acting out the service that He would render in laying down His life to wash the souls of His people–taught us that it is enough for a servant to be like his master (John 13:13-17).
Every pastor or church members actively engaged in ministry must ask the Lord to make this the ever-present cry of his heart and the mark of true ministry. Doing so doesn’t mean that we will be ineffective, complacent or stagnate–even in the eyes of others in the church. In fact, it is only as we learn the spiritual blessing of striving for ministerial decrease that true increase of the glory of Christ will rise in our ministries and the lives of those for whom we are seeking to provide spiritual care. Jesus must increase and we must decrease.