Don't assume. That's one thing well-known pastor John Piper said he learned the hard way.
In a brief interview with Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, Piper offered some reflections about his more than 30 years in ministry. The 66-year-old theologian will be transitioning out of his role as the main preacher at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis beginning Jan. 1, 2013.
He was asked by Driscoll, founding pastor of Mars Hill Church, what he had to learn the hard way in ministry.
Piper's response: "Don't assume that all fat people are gluttons. And don't use the word fat. There is a principle here. Learn from logic and experience not to associate things – especially in preaching – that don't necessarily go together."
In other words, he continued, "be hyper-vigilant to avoid and explode stereotypes."
"Not all single women want to be married. Not all boys like football. Not all homemakers like to cook. Not all messy people are lazy. And not all the obese are gluttons. There are glands and diabetes and a dozen conditions you never heard of that may account for things. Put your sermon through the counter-stereotype sieve."
Piper, who is one of the most influential preachers and one of the most popular Christian leaders on Twitter, has been preaching at Bethlehem since 1980. Though he has said that he could preach for another 10 years, he felt the church needed "fresh vision" and "fresh blood." After beginning a search process in 2011, Bethlehem overwhelmingly approved Jason Meyer as Piper's successor in May this year.
Writing, traveling and other projects are still in the works for Piper.
Reflecting on some of the risks he took while pastoring at Bethlehem, the Reformed theologian mentioned hiring a minister for students at a time when the church consisted only of seniors and proposing the removal of the requirement of teetotalism (abstinence from alcohol) for membership. The proposal passed – barely.
So what would Piper today tell a young Piper getting ready to enter into ministry?
The preacher quoted V. Raymond Edman, saying, "Don't question in the dark what God showed you in the light."
"Darkness comes. In the middle of it, the future looks blank. The temptation to quit is huge. Don't. You are in good company ... You will argue with yourself that there is no way forward. But with God, nothing is impossible. He has more ropes and ladders and tunnels out of pits than you can conceive. Wait. Pray without ceasing. Hope."
Looking to the near future, Piper described the theme of next year's annual pastors conference, hosted by his ministry Desiring God. "Brothers, we are still not professionals," based on a new edition of his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, is meant to convey that what pastors do is of the supernatural.
"The essence of what we are about is simply not professional, like raising the dead," he explained to Driscoll. "Of course, supernatural does not mean methodological stupidity."
While pastors should seriously pursue excellence, the aim "is for a kind of excellence that does not distract from God or the spiritual engagement with God in all our natural acts," he stated.
In a separate statement on his ministry website, Piper asserted that what are at the core of ministry are supernatural things – the things that are sustained by the Holy Spirit.
"Describing them as professional skews the very nature of what they are," he said.
The pastors conference is scheduled for Feb. 4-6, 2013, in Minneapolis.