By all accounts, John the Baptist’s ministry should have been a massive failure. He preached hell-fire, wore bizarre attire, and insulted the religious elite when they came to hear him preach (Matt. 3:1-11). John should have read some church growth books. Someone really should have come alongside John and showed him how to better attract people and preach to their felt needs. Despite all this, people from “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the vicinity of the Jordan were flocking to him” (Matt 3:5).
So what can we learn from John the Baptist in terms of our ministries? It is important that we recognize the unique nature of John’s ministry, He was called by God to prepare the way of the Messiah, so don’t press these too far, but here are three ministry don’ts we see from examining the life of John the Baptist:
- Don’t think your ministry is indispensable. John was open about the temporary nature and influence of his ministry, “the One who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals” (Matt. 3:11)—“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). One of the biggest mistakes we can make when we experience a little bit of ministry “success” is to start thinking that Christ’s kingdom is somehow dependent on our efforts. If anything other than making much of Jesus becomes the focus of your ministry, you’ve lost sight of what matters. Don’t forget that you, like John, aren’t worthy to touch Jesus’ feet and the good news of the gospel is that Jesus freely offers to wash yours (John 13:1-10).
- Don’t sweat your appearance. John the Baptist’s chosen attire puts your graphic tee and combat boots to shame, the guy wore leather and camel’s hair. Depending on your perspective, John the Baptist is either way hipper than you are or way less fashion conscious. Truthfully, John’s attire would have evoked images of prophecies about Elijah (Mal. 3:1; 4:5-6), but nonetheless, John the Baptist’s chosen attire is probably evidence that we worry about appearance more than we should.
- Don’t sugar-coat God’s Word. As you teach the Bible, let the Bible speak for itself. Even more than John the Baptist, Jesus had hard things to say. There is no easy way to say “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Matt. 3:7). You should also note, however, that you are not John the Baptist and those you are ministering to are not Pharisees, so you probably don’t need to be as harsh as John! John the Baptist, however, is a great example of someone who didn’t let his audience dictate his message. He proclaimed the message God sent Him out to proclaim and when Jesus began His public ministry, he gladly faded to the background, knowing that the Lord had called him to make Jesus’ name great and not his own.
The “success” of John’s ministry cannot be explained in human terms, God had chosen John to prepare the way of the Lord, to call people to repent in light of the fact that the messiah was coming and the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Today, we know that Jesus has come and He has paid the penalty for our sins and secured our eternal future through His death and resurrection. So follow John’s lead by refusing to make your ministry about you—make it about Jesus, let yourself decrease and Christ increase!