A Pastor with a Passion for the Worship of God by all Peoples
An Interview with John Piper
For over 17 years John Piper has been the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis Minnesota. His tenure as pastor has been a spiritual and missiological journey in his understanding of the supremacy of God and His global kingdom. The vision that he has shared in his books is helping to establish a God-centered passion for reaching the unreached peoples. I talked with him recently about his message and the effect it has had on his church.
MF: How did you as a local church pastor gain a passion for missions and the worship of God by all peoples?
John: In the first sense it is God that begets that kind of passion according to His sovereign will, but he uses people. He used my dad profoundly. I grew up in a home where we prayed for missionaries every night. That had a fundamental impact on me. I went to Wheaton where Jim Elliott was a real hero. I went to Fuller Seminary where I took a course from Ralph Winter at the School of World Missions. But the decisive thing, though I would hate to underestimate all these decisive influences, was in 1983, three years after coming to Bethlehem Baptist, during our annual missions conference.
The church asked me for the first time to preach at one of the Sunday services during the conference. That is a dangerous thing to ask a pastor to do—to come to terms himself with whether he can mobilize his own people for something he is not that mobilized for. In seeking the Lord earnestly that fall, I was preaching the very sermons that became the book, Desiring God.
The Lord hit me over the head with the connection between my emerging “Christian hedonism” (the joyful enjoyment of God) and the global dimension of His glory. If in fact I love the glory of God and am pursuing joy in that glory and believe that His glory is most magnified when I am most satisfied in Him, then to be indifferent to whether that glory is known, loved, praised and prized among the nations is absolutely inconsistent. God just hit me that missions is the battle cry of Christian hedonism. From then on this passion has just continued to grow.
MF: How has your passion for the unreached peoples affected the mission outreach of your church? Has it led to an increase in giving and going?
John: Yes, I am sure it has; but I am hesitant to say that it is my passion that has been the only factor or even a key factor, but I am sure that it has been a factor. I think in 1983 we had a $91,000 missionary budget here, and today it’s $522,000 or 30% of our $1.5 million church budget.
In regard to going and sending, I think our people have a really heightened sense of the significance of both these roles. There are only three possibilities in life; to be a goer, a sender, or disobedient. I think our people know that.
The message that I preach has become more radical over the years. It started out radical and has gotten more radical. It is no accident that in my books, Let the Nations be Glad, Desiring God, and Future Grace, all have chapters on suffering. I have come to see more than ever that suffering as Jesus presents it in Matt. 24:9 is not only a consequence of the obedience of world evangelization, but it is a means of accomplishing world evangelization.
God has appointed suffering according to Colossians 1:24 as a means of completing the afflictions of Christ. This does not mean adding to His atoning merit, but rather carrying His afflictions in your own afflictions to the nations so that the nations can see what kind of Christ we are really offering and how much they are loved.
So, I am mobilizing martyrs these days. I tell them up front, “What I am asking you parents to do this Saturday at our church is to bring your children to the Muslim Awareness Seminar to instill in them a mindset that will enable them to die for Jesus someday. So don’t bring your kids if you don’t want that to happen.
MF: This seems so different from the usual church where they bend over backwards to be seeker sensitive and attractive. You are asking them to come and die, aren’t you?
John: Yes, but I don’t think it’s completely seeker insensitive, because I have the deep, deep conviction that we are wired for God and wired for radical living. Yes, on the surface people want to be stroked, but not deep down. Deep down, they want their lives to count. They want to do something big and significant that will make a difference.
There is hardly anyone offering people something worth living for. Nothing on television or in the news is worth living for. Nobody at the office is giving them something worth living for. Everything is just do your work, go home, eat, watch a little TV, putter in the garage, get up, eat, go to work, on and on. Along about 40 or 50 years of age, Boomera are saying, “Is this all there is?”
When you contrast calling people to come and die with calling people to just be entertained, it’s not that one is seeker sensitive and the other is not. You are appealing to two different levels of longings. I believe that I am tapping into something that people are desperately craving. And it is not just young people because I think Augustine was right when he said, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Thee.” They don’t find their rest in God until they are resting in His purposes—His big global purposes.
MF: Has this emphasis on missions led to an increase in the size of your church and its commitment to overall giving?
John: Yes, the church has grown about fourfold from the time I first came 17 years ago to around 1,200 members today. I think that there are a lot of radical givers out there, but I am not at all deceived in thinking that most are good givers. We are probably like most churches where 20% of the people carry 80% of the load in giving. Many are also giving to missions outside our church. We allow our missionaries to go knocking on doors outside our church budget.
The church has also grown spiritually. People have commented that what they taste at Bethlehem first is just a big God. God is supreme, God is glorious, God is worthy. Then, depending on the kind of people they are and the calling they have, it filters down into how that gets fleshed out, whether their lawyering or doctoring or teaching gets transformed or whether they are uprooted from where they are and are plopped down in the middle of Kazakstan.
This has happened several times to ordinary families in our congregation. God got ahold of one family with four kids and a $70,000 job with the telephone company while living in the suburbs and, boom, they began to pray like crazy and do ministry around here. And today, with no theological training beyond what they got here, they are working in a church in Kazakstan, giving their lives away for missions. That is the kind of radical uprooting that God has been doing in people’s lives.
MF: In emphasizing missions and the supremacy of God, do you ever find much opposition in the church, or that people feel you are emphasizing it too much?
John: Not in a long time, but I can remember a day when that happened very significantly. I will tell you how I think the Lord nipped it in the bud. In 1983, when we began to drive this thing with all our might, there were numerous ones who felt called to the city here who began to feel like second- class citizens. They said, “All you talk about is world missions, unreached peoples and frontier missions. What about Minneapolis?
In thinking on this, it hit me suddenly that when you distinguish domestic ministry (which is everything from ministry to the homeless, to evangelism, to education, to crisis pregnancy, etc.) from frontier missions, you are talking about domestic ministries being that which is the training ground for frontier missions and is exported by frontier missionaries.
So what I began to say was, “Look, all you people who are committed to local ministries, if you care about the homeless or saving AIDS victims here, what about peoples in which they don’t even have a Christian base from which to develop ministries? Do you sense any inconsistency, feeling like you have this big concern for AIDS victims here but not in Uganda?” I pointed out that we are in this together, that you people who are radically sold out for Jesus here in the city are the best breeding ground for frontier urban missionaries overseas. When they go, they go to plant there what you are doing here. That seemed to pull the plug on a lot of tension because it really elevates the role of domestic ministries. Frontier missions is the exporting and adaptation of domestic ministries to a culture where they don’t even have a chance to get started.
MF: Many pastors see missions as a competitor for the funds available for local ministry and are afraid to give too much to missions. How do you respond to these fears?
John: I think it is crazy. I can’t imagine God saying, “Well, you people have really gotten yourselves in a pickle by giving too much to my global cause.” That is just inconceivable to me. I don’t know of a single church that has gotten into trouble because of excessive missions giving. I don’t know where that thought would even arise.
You just can’t outgive God. If you pour your life and your money into His global cause, my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in Christ Jesus. In 2 Cor. 9 it says, “God is able to supply you with every blessing in abundance in order that you may have enough for yourselves and an abundance for every good work.” So if you give yourself away to every good work, including the global ones, it is just the Lord’s way to supply your needs at home.
What keeps people from giving is not a sense that we have given too much to the global cause, but we’re selfish. If people look at their church and they say, “We’re just blessing ourselves and were just doing dinky stuff to make ourselves comfortable, then they are liable to hold their money back, and send it to a worthy work like Wycliffe or something. But if they see a church pouring its life out for others besides their own number, then there is something in the heart that rises to say, “Well if we need new carpet, I’ll pay for it.”
MF: What would you say to a pastor who wants to make his church a more missions-focused or biblical church? Where should he start?
John: He should start with God and the Bible. He should read the Psalms. He should get his computer turned on and type in the word nations in his Bible concordance and just start reading the Word of God and discover that God has a passion for His fame. He does everything for His glory. And He is utterly devoted to making His power known among the nations. When that vision of God, that biblical emphasis gets a hold of a pastor, it will in time get a hold of the people. It is almost impossible to take it the other direction.
The harder question, if you had asked, is how does a group of lay people turn their church around? Because if the pastor is indifferent to missions, then all I can say is pray hard. Find a few people of your own ilk and burn the wires to heaven that God would burden this guy and feed him some good books to read and hope that he will catch onto it. If it is not coming through the pulpit, it is an uphill battle forever for the poor lay people who want to see things happen.
My general approach to helping people get excited about missions is to talk about something other than missions. If you talk about missions, they already have their minds made up. They think it’s boring or it’s guilt producing. Instead, I talk about the greatness of God and His global purposes and before you are done it’s missions. I think that’s something that pastors need to see for themselves and they need to do for their people.
We need to get to know the magnificence of God and the greatness of God and His purposes. Why did God create so many different colors, shapes and sizes of people? An answer is because His glory is such that it will never receive appropriate response unless it gets refracted into all those different languages, cultures, shapes, sizes and colors. It’s all about God’s glory.
MF: Do you believe that the American church is beginning to gain a vision of God’s glory among the nations as a motivation for missions?
John: I do. And I think it is happening mainly through worship. I see a remarkable worship-awakening happening through the songs of Scott Wesley Brown, Dave Hall and others. There seems to be a movement where the music is picking up on the theme of “Our heart, our desire is to see the nations worship You.” So if that is the goal, that the nations would worship God, then our own worship can be the fuel for missions.
God has done a worship awakening around the world. It is absolutely phenominal what He has done. That is becoming, it seems to me, a springboard for a lot of energy for pursuing the worship of the nations. I think we are on the front end of that as people think it through. From what I sense, those like me with strong Reformed links are beginning to get it also.
MF: What do you think are the chief obstacles in the church to this kind of vision?
John: Television. There is in the air an absolutely relentless message from every corner that “you should be comfortable, do yourself a favor, minimize pain, maximize pleasure, reward yourself; the one with the most toys wins.”
Hardly anybody is saying, nor can almost anybody conceive, the message that he who loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s finds it. And so the message that the greatest life is the life of suffering, sacrifice and risk is almost inconceivable in the modern American church.
The human heart has not changed, but what’s changed today is the media’s relentless message. Two hundred years ago the heart was just as selfish and just as bent on pleasure, but they lived with pain constantly. There were no pills to fix everything. So they had a little more backbone and character. They had no radios, no televisions, no glossy magazines and a lot more conversation with people in the town.
Whereas today, the same wicked, selfish, autonomous human heart is being confirmed hour by hour in its worst inclinations by the media. Your whole life should be devoted to getting bigger and nicer things. It’s materialism and worldliness that is coming at us in such a barrage that hardly anybody has the guts to turn it off, be quiet, be still and know that God is God.
MF: What do you feel is missing from the typical worship service today, and what can pastors do to bring the true worship of God back into their churches?
John: I don’t get to many worship services besides my own, so this is based on a very small sampling, but what I miss most is seriousness, or what Thomas Chalmers called blood earnestness. What you see in many churches today is what I would call “worship light.” Even when the words to the songs carry some spectacular freight, the people don’t seem to be feeling it. We have hearts that have not been met by the weight of glory. The word glory in the Old Testament, kahod, means weight. David Wells is right when he says, “God rests lightly on the church in America today.” And that is most obvious in worship where to be friendly, happy, breezy, smiley is the goal.
I remember watching a pastor preach on Hell. I thought, this is awesome, somebody is going to address this unspeakable horror of Hell. He did it in the most anemic way. He always had this plastic little smile on his face like, “I know I am going to talk about something weighty here, but I don’t want you to think I am too serious. Don’t get bent out of shape here.” I wanted to say to him. “Weep, would you weep?”
So, I just say there is a seriousness to joy. I said to my people a few weeks ago, “You know I am a Christian hedonist. You know my whole life is devoted to joy. But what we are going to pursue in this church is the kind of joy that helps you die well, endure torture, and helps you say, ‘I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.’ This is a deadly serious joy that we are after here.” Words like intensity, authenticity, earnestness, seriousness, those are the things I miss in a lot of services. I think it all comes from radical God centeredness. If you are radically God-centered, if He is big enough, you just can’t be trivial about Him.
MF: Tell me about your Desiring God Ministries and what you hope to accomplish through this ministry.
John: The mission statement of the church here of which Desiring God Ministries is a part says, “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.” The sub-mission statement of that little department is, “We exist to spread the message that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” That sentence sums up all that I have written and what I preach.
Desiring God Ministries is the resource arm of the church that takes all the royalties from the books and plows them back into distribution. So the goal of the ministry is to get as many people as we can listening to and reading those truths. We believe that exposure to the truths of the supremacy of God in all things will produce people who love the glory of God and therefore love the mission of God. We try to price things at a level that will cover our costs. (See the resources on page 14.)
MF: What would you like to say to the church in America today?
John: The Word of God says, “Be still and know that I am God, I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth, the Lord of Hosts is with us.” We’ve got to slow down and be quiet. We’ve got to look into the Word and look up into the sky and let the Lord say with His book of nature, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” We need to slow down to see the greatness of God in His works and in His Word. Let it have the transforming effect to free you from the world. Psalms 16:11 says, “Thou dost show me the path of life, in Thy presence is fullness of joy, at Thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.”
Once you hear that, believe it and experience it, and your heart is satisfied in God, the nerve is cut by which the world rules your life. You become a dangerous person. Nobody can threaten you with loss anymore. You’ve found the fountain of life. He said, “I’ll never leave you, nor forsake you.” So you can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper, I will not fear, what can man do to me.”
You become the most radical, dangerous kind of person in the world when you find out that God is God and He has promised never to let go of you, but to work for you and to pursue you in goodness and mercy and crown you with life if you’ll just love Him, rest in Him and let Him work as you move toward the nations.