Church leaders: realistic idealists

Here’s a thought I’ve been musing over: leaders in ministry need to be realistic idealists. Primarily, we need to be idealists because we are gospel people. We are people of God’s word who seek to do all we do through the lens of Scripture. However, secondarily, we also need to be realistic. We need to remember that we operate in a fallen world, full of sinful people, where the first heaven and the first earth have not yet passed away, and when God has not yet made everything new (Revelation 21). Let’s explore what this looks like in our ministries.

Being an idealist in ministry

In ministry we must be idealists. I can’t stress this enough! If we are people of God’s word, and if all Scripture is profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that God’s people are equipped to do good work (2 Tim 3:16-17), then surely the leader is driven by biblical ideals and high expectations. 

For example, the apostle Paul’s aim in his ministry to his flock was not to produce half-baked disciples of Jesus. His aim was for all to reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of Christ, becoming full-grown when measured by Christ’s fullness (Eph 4:13). Again, the apostle’s aim for people was not to present everyone lukewarm in Christ but mature in Christ (Col 1:28). If we are biblical idealists, then what we want for our people is for them to be like Christ to the glory of God. Indeed, if we believe in the doctrine of sanctification and the kingdom living Jesus proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount, then our aim is to move our people ever closer to being like Jesus (2 Cor 3:18; Rom 8:29; Matt 5-7).[1] That’s hard work (and occurs only as God’s Spirit works in them)! But that is the ideal for our people—to be like Christ. Thus, when I meet with my Bible study leaders or my youth group leaders, this is the aim we articulate for our ministries—to see people transformed to be like Jesus. And we know this is the ideal, and we know this is not possible in this life, but because it is the biblical ideal, that is what we strive to do in all our ministries.

The same is true for all our ministry practice. All that we do should be formed theologically by the ideals of Scripture. From the music we sing to our use of sound and lighting, from the purpose of our small groups to the style of our liturgy, we do it all theologically. Sure, it takes a lot of work to think through everything we do biblically. Yes, sometimes it truly doesn’t matter and it may come down to a matter of wisdom. However, if we are people of the word then we hold firm to the ideals of Scripture, and all that we do is driven by and tested by our biblical convictions. 

What’s more, we don’t budge from those ideals. If our ideals and convictions are shaped by the Scriptures, then we don’t forfeit them when things don’t work out. This is the warning an idealist in ministry needs: the warning of pragmatism. Too often we can be too quick to change our good, biblically driven practice simply because it doesn’t seem to be working. Granted, sometimes ministries need to be tweaked when they fail to progress. But we must hold to our biblically principled practices.

Being realistic in ministry idealism

The ideal is exactly that: an ideal! If the ideal for the disciple of Jesus is to be like Christ, the reality is that we will never be perfectly like Jesus in this life. Similarly, while the ideal is that we do not neglect meeting together (Heb 10:25), the current sad reality is that of the ‘twicer’.[2] The problem of sin remains very real (1 John 1:8).

Now don’t hear me wrong. Remember what I said above. We cannot budge on the ideals. Our aim is to be like Christ, to the glory of God. To remain content as we are is to ignore those parts of Scripture that call for growth in the Christian life (Col 1:9-12; Phil 1:9-11). And as far as meeting together goes, surely our minimum aim is to meet together every Sunday, once during the week in small groups, and lots of other times informally (we are a family after all!).[3]

However, we need to be realistic. Ministry is hard, slow and long-term. Change takes time. To go in guns blazing, mowing down every single person who stands in your way, expecting everyone to instantly jump on board, does not help build the body of Christ’s maturity.[4] I know a brother who charged in like this, in light of his biblical ideals. Problem was, he hadn’t convinced his leaders of those ideals yet. Sure, he tried to show them from the Scriptures why he was implementing the changes, but he was unrealistic about how quickly they would adopt the changes. He thought it was clear-cut, but they needed much more time to understand the biblical view, and in turn refused to sit under his leadership.

Different people are at different points in their walk and at different levels of maturity in Christ. Leaders need to meet them where they are at and grow them to further maturity. Even Paul, when dealing with the messed-up and ‘fleshly’ Corinthians, still thanks God for them and proceeds to teach them (1 Cor 3:1-9). His desire is not to shame them but warn them, and to come to them gently, not with a rod (1 Cor 4:14, 21). 

If we fail to be realistic about our ministry ideals, there are at least two issues that can result. Firstly, we can become disgruntled and fail to love and care for the sheep. When people don’t grow as quickly as we want them to, we might find them irritating and useless rather than loving them and trying to help them grow. And secondly, if we fail to be realistic, then we just might give up on the ideals! This goes back to the point I made above. We become tempted to do away with our good, biblically driven ministries because they are not yielding the fruit we envisaged.

There is a sense in which we must expect the fruition of our ideals in ministry in this world to be limited. Our ideals are God’s perfect plan, and while they are still relevant now they will not be realized until the New Creation. That is the tension of the now/not yet and our current place in salvation history. At those times when compromise in the name of results calls, we should instead thank God that he is faithful and will bring his work in us to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9; Phil 1:6).

There is obviously much more to say, but that is my working hypothesis: a church leader needs to be a realistic idealist. Primarily the leader is an idealist, because we are gospel people of the word, but simultaneously realistic about the ideals, for we are operating within a fallen world full of sinful people. Change and growth take time, and if we fail to remember that we get frustrated and tempted to give up on our biblical ideals.

In the end, it is because we love people that we are realistic idealists. We know that God’s ideals are best for our people—their families, their workplaces, their marriages, in the way that we do church—and so we persevere in teaching them the ways of our Lord Jesus. And because we are realistic about the fallenness of our world, and indeed of our own sin and failures, we are patient with those who are under our care, praying for them day and night to be evermore like our Lord and Saviour, looking forward to the day when we will see the perfect realization of God’s great ideal.  


[1] And of course, we should have the same aim for ourselves!
[2] This is the ‘regular’ who comes twice a month to the Sunday gathering. See my previous article on the ‘twicer’.
[3] Obviously there isn’t space here to argue these assertions, and there may be some scenarios where weekly church attendance cannot be the norm. However, some have suggested, in light of the reality of the busy modern life, making the Sunday gathering a fortnightly or monthly occurrence. This to me seems to be a pragmatic rather than biblical approach.
[4] Again, don’t hear me wrong! There is a place for this approach, albeit gently, if some kind of false teaching or ungodly practice needs immediate correction.