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The General Causes of Want of Success in the Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Pastoral Ministry

THE prophet’s complaint-‘Who hath believed our report?’ has applied to every successive Ministry in the Church. It was echoed in reference even to the Ministry of Him, who ‘spake as never man spake;’ who retained a listening multitude hanging upon his lips, and ‘wondering at the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth.’ It was again repeated under the Apostolic dispensation, clothed as it was ‘with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power.’ And it has ever since been expressive of the experience of faithful laborers in the Lord’s harvest. A young Minister indeed-speaking his message from the feeling of a full heart, and without an accurate calculation of the cost-may anticipate a cordial conviction and reception of the truth, as the almost immediate result. But painful experience will soon correct such unwarranted expectations. The power of Satan, the current of sin, and the course of this world-all combine to impress our work with the character of a special conflict. But, as complaint should lead to inquiry (and surely no inquiry can be more important), we will proceed to mark a few of the more general causes, that operate unfavorably upon our work.


A FEW remarks upon these preliminary topics will introduce the discussion of the general subject.

I. It may be laid as the ground of our inquiry-that the warrant of Ministerial success is sure. This indeed is involved in the character of our work, while it supplies the Spring to diligence and perseverance in it. In the spiritual, as in the temporal harvest, the field is prepared for the reaper’s sickle. The providential dispensations, also, appointing to the several laborers their work, have the same security of successful result-grounded-not upon any efforts of human wisdom, zeal, or suasion, but upon the ‘word for ever settled in heaven.’ Indeed every fertilizing shower is the renewed symbol and pledge of the Divine promise. Thus fruitfulness ever attended the labours of the Old Testament Ministers. It was the end of the ordination of the first Christian Ministers. It is the seal affixed to Ministerial devotedness. The terms of the promise are most express. The day of Pentecost exhibited a large display of its faithfulness ; and the apostles ever afterwards (whether preaching to persecuting Jews, or to blind idolaters) found the same seal of their apostleship, so that, wherever the Gospel was sent, and so long as it was continued, the work of success invariably proceeded.

Now, as bearing the same commission, we have the same warrant of success-the sure foundation of ‘the word of the Lord,’ which ‘endureth for ever.’ The Divine Sovereignty (to which we would bow with the most implicit and adoring subjection) is the righteous government of a faithful God. We must not therefore place his sovereignty in opposition to his faithfulness. A measure of success is assured to our work. Some seed shall fall on the good ground, as well as by the way-side, or upon the stony or thorny soil. ‘There shall’ at least ‘be an handful of corn in the earth on the top of the mountains.’ The purpose is beyond all the powers of earth and hell to defeat- ‘All that the Father giveth me shall come to me.’ The promise is sealed to the exercise of faith; though the distribution of it in measure is often marked by an unsearchable, but infinitely wise and gracious, appointment.

II. In marking the specific character of this warranted success, we may observe that visible success is various. There are some that plant-others that water ; some that lay the foundation-others that build upon it. Some are designed for immediate-some for ulterior, work. Yet all have their testimony and acceptance in the Lord’s own time and way. Success is not limited to the work of conversion. Where therefore the Ministry fails to convert, we may still be assured, that it convinces, reproves, exhorts, enlightens, or consoles, some one in some measure at all times. It never ‘returns to God void,’ when delivered in the simplicity of faith; nor will it, under the most unpromising circumstances, fail of accomplishing his unchangeable purpose.

But we must remember also, that present success is not always visible. Apparent must not be the measure of the real result. There is often an under-current of piety, which cannot be brought to the surface. There may be solid work advancing under ground, without any sensible excitement ; as we observe the seed that produces the heaviest grain, lies the longest in the earth. We are not always the best judges of the results of our Ministry. Mr. Scott thus encourages a clergyman from his own Ministerial experience: ‘My prevalent opinion is that you are useful, but do not see the effect. Even at Ravenstone, I remember complaining in a New Year’s Sermon, that for a whole twelve-month I had seen no fruit of my preaching; yet it appeared within the course of the next twelvemonth, that not less than ten or twelve had been brought to ‘consider their ways’ during that discouraging year; besides others, I trust, that I did not know of.’ The sick and death-bed often gladden our heart with the manifestation of the hidden fruit of our work. And though something is graciously brought out for our encouragement, yet much more probably is concealed to exercise our diligence, and from a wise and tender regard to our besetting temptations. Indeed who of us may not detect the principle of self mingling itself alike with depression and exultation, greatly needing our Master’s rebuke for our more valuable effectiveness? Under all our trials therefore, we must be careful, that no present apparent failure weaken our assurance of the ultimate success of faithful and diligent perseverance.

Symptoms of success are also frequently mistaken. They are at best but doubtful signs-if our people crowd to hear the word-if they love our persons-admire our discourses-and are brought to a general confession of sinfulness, or to a temporary interest in our message. Nor must we on the other hand too hastily conclude upon their apparent want of diligence in the means of grace, or of interest in our parochial system. Family hindrances or outward crosses may restrain the improvement of Christian privileges. The want of tact, the influence of retired habits, or the necessary demands of the domestic sphere, may impede communications with our plans; so that often ‘the kingdom of God,’ may be established in real ‘power,’ yet with little of outward ‘observation.’ The complaint of inefficiency may therefore sometimes be unwarranted, as the disappointment of a too sanguine mind; as the failure of efforts, calculated upon in our own wisdom, and attempted in our own strength; or the blast of expectations, indulged without due consideration of a Scriptural basis, or of individual or local difficulties.

Adverting also to subordinate benefits-‘Our manifestation of the truth, commends itself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.’ Here is a Christian standard of morals opposed to the principles of the world. Here is a Divine rule taking cognizance of the heart, charging guilt upon numberless items that before had passed as harmless, and thus laying the foundation for more evangelical conviction. Here is therefore the restraint and counteraction of much positive evil, and a large infusion of wholesome moral obligation, throughout the mass. Besides-as regards the Gospel-the constant dwelling on the Saviour’s name and work familiarizes him with our people, as a refuge, a friend in trouble. It is no small advantage in the storm to know where to seek for safe anchorage; and who can tell how many have found such a refuge in distress from the recollections of the Gospel hitherto neglected, but now applied with sovereign power to their hearts?

More directly also-Ministerial success must be viewed, as extending beyond present appearances. The seed may lie under the clods till we lie there, and then spring up. Of the prophets of old ‘that saying was true; one soweth, and another reapeth;’ they sowed the seed, and the Apostles reaped the harvest. As our Lord reminded them-‘Other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours.’ And is it no ground of comfort, that our work may be the seed-time of a future harvest? Or, should we neglect to sow, because we may not reap the harvest? Shall we not share the joy of the harvest, even though we be not the immediate reapers of the field? Is it not sufficient encouragement to ‘cast our bread upon the waters,’ that ‘we shall find it after many days?’ ‘In the morning’ (as the wise man exhorts us,) ‘sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand; for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that; or whether they both shall be alike good.’

It has been admirably observed on this subject-‘In order to prevent perpetual disappointment, we must learn to extend our views. To seek for the real harvest produced by spiritual labours only in their immediate and visible results, would be not less absurd, than to take our measure of infinite space from that limited prospect, which the mortal eye can reach; or to estimate the never-ending ages of eternity by a transitory moment of present time-It often happens, that God withholds his blessing for a time, in order that, when the net is cast in ‘on the right side,’ it may be clearly seen, that ‘the multitude of fishes’ inclosed are of the Lord’s giving; lest men should attribute their success to a wrong cause, and should ‘sacrifice unto their own net, and burn incense unto their own drag.’ We may add to this the recollection of the extensive results from ‘the day of small things.’ Only two souls appear as the immediate fruit of the vision of ‘the man of Macedonia;’ but how fruitful was the ultimate harvest in the flourishing Churches of that district! Our plain and cheering duty is therefore to go forward-to scatter the seed–to believe and wait,

Yet must there be expectancy as well as patience. The warrant of success is assured-not only as regards an outward reformation-but a spiritual change of progressive and universal influence. The fruit of Ministerial labour is not indeed always visible in its symptoms, nor immediate in its results, nor proportioned to the culture. Faith and patience will be exercised-sometimes severely so. But after a pains-taking, weeping seed-time, we shall bring our sheaves with rejoicing, and lay them upon the altar of God, ‘that the offering up of them might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.’ Meanwhile we must beware of saying-‘Let him make speed, and hasten his work that we may see it.’ The measure and the time are with the Lord. We must let him alone with his own work. Ours is the care of service-His is the care of success. ‘The Lord of the harvest’ must determine, when, and what, and where the harvest shall be.

III. But notwithstanding this justly warranted expectation, the want of Ministerial success is most extensively and mournfully felt. We are sometimes ready to believe, and to complain, that none labour so unfruitfully as ourselves. Men of the world expect their return in some measure proportioned to their labour. Alas! with us, too often, ‘is our strength labour and sorrow;’ and at best attended with a very scanty measure of effect; and we are compelled to realize the awful sight of immortal souls perishing under our very eye; dead to the voice of life and love, and madly listening to the voice that plunges them into perdition!

It may be well to state a few of the most decisive symptoms of this unfruitfulness. When our public services are unprofitable; when ‘iniquity abounds,’ and the mass of our people continue in an impenitent and ungodly state; when there is an unconcern among us for the honour and cause of God : when there is a general want of appetite for the ‘sincere milk of the word,’ and the public worship of the Sabbath, and the weekly lecture (if there be any,) are but thinly attended; when there are not instances of conversion in our Sunday Schools, and but few of our young people are drawn into the ‘ways of pleasantness and peace;’ when the children of deceased Christian parents, instead of being added spiritually to the Church, continue in and of the world: when small addition is made to the select flock, who truly commemorate the death of their Saviour in the Holy Sacrament-these and similar appearances may well agitate the question with most anxious concern-‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ Symptoms so dark and discouraging loudly call for increasing earnestness of supplication-‘Oh! that thou wouldest rend the heavens; that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence! O Lord, revive thy work!’

Among the more general causes of this failure, we may mark the withholding of Divine influence-the enmity of the natural heart-the power of Satan-local hindrances-and the want of clearness in the Ministerial call. Each of these will now come before us.