by Cory Hartman
The late John Madden, football coach and legendary broadcaster, coached the Oakland Raiders to eleven wins and one tie in games they played on ABC’s weekly feature Monday Night Football. But it was his sole Monday night loss he couldn’t forget.
The Raiders fell to the Buffalo Bills on September 16, 1974 in a barnburner that saw three lead changes in the last two minutes and ended on a missed field goal try on the game’s last play.
That night Madden ran into ABC announcer Howard Cosell in the parking lot. “That was a great game; you gave us quite a show,” said Cosell.
Madden’s terse reply: “Show, my –––. We lost a game.”
Losses hurt. Many elite competitors say they hate losing more than they enjoy winning. Many ministry leaders have the same competitive fire, but ministry delivers a lot of losses, and worse, it’s hard to find clear, lasting wins.
Leaders aim to win in 2022. But before you set your goals—even before you celebrate 2021’s wins or grieve its losses—look at winning the right way. The New Testament has a lot to say about winning—even that we’re supposed to win. But leaders lose, whatever the surface-level outcome, whenever they forget the six truths of real winning.
The ministry mistake: We may want to win, but we hesitate to name who we’re competing against. Deep down, the opponent we’re actually striving with is some combination of last year’s numbers, an appealing church in town, a powerful person or family who’s resisting our efforts, a preacher or ministry model leading people astray, and everywhere people put their disposable time.
The gospel truth: Our opponent is much more aggressive, powerful, and deadly than these. It’s the Evil One, the devil, Satan. He and his demons infest the world we live in and influence it to make evil seem good and good seem evil. He’s a liar, a sinner, and a killer (John 8:44; 1 John 3:7), and his unwitting children—our neighbors—are, in big and small ways, liars, sinners, and killers (1 John 3:10–15).
The encouraging word: This is very bad, but it’s crucial to know. You can’t win if you’re targeting the wrong opponent or playing the wrong game.
The ministry mistake: The consequences of losing our competitions truly hurt. When we feel like we can’t succeed, we can feel purposeless, then worthless. Criticism cuts deep. It’s agony to lose people we care about to their other pursuits or another church. But these are actually low stakes compared to the real contest.
The gospel truth: Whenever Jesus and the apostles talk about winning, here’s the losing they compare it to: being injured, cheated, and harassed, being sick and disabled, dying, and entering judgment under God’s righteous anger—all things the devil is working to increase.
The encouraging word: Our ministry losses genuinely hurt, but those competitions look like children’s games compared to humanity’s bigger struggles. When you’re fighting for your life, losing a game of checkers doesn’t bother you as much.
The ministry mistake: We want to win personally, we want our church to win, and we want God’s church to win everywhere. We want our efforts to bring about these wins or at least contribute to them.
The gospel truth: Jesus Christ is the real winner. He puts out the verdict for victory (Matt. 12:20). He destroys the devil’s works (1 John 3:8). He nullified Satan’s accusations against us (Rev. 12:10). He defeated death (1 Cor. 15:54–57). He beat the world (John 16:33). He will crush whatever ruler might try to fight him and hurt us (Rev. 17:14). He does all this without our help.
The encouraging word: Winning isn’t up to you. It isn’t about you. Working, yes—winning, no. Winning is about him. He doesn’t need or want you to get wins, because he already got them. Accepting him as the winner is a blow to the ego but bliss to the soul.
The ministry mistake: Whenever we want to get a win, by nature the outcome is in doubt. We want to win, we make plans to win, we may even have confidence we’ll win. But we won’t know whether we’ve won until the week, year, or decade is over and we compare what we see with the standard we’ve chosen. In the meantime, a host of factors determine whether we’ll get the win we want.
The gospel truth: Jesus shares his win with us if we trust him, and his win is totally secure. It’s already won and can’t be lost, no matter what happens from now on. We could be losing in every way imaginable in this world—by trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword—and yet we’d still be winning over it all, because nothing in the present or the future, high or low, can ever separate us from God’s love for us in Christ (Rom. 8:35–39). By our trust in what God said, by our testimony to the truth, and by Jesus’ blood, we have already beaten the Evil One, and we’re beating the world right now (1 John 2:13–14; 5:4–5; Rev. 12:11). Even if God temporarily gives evil people a win over us, even to kill us (Rev. 13:7), in the end we’ll take the win right back (Rev. 15:2).
The encouraging word: Step away from the distraction of winning into the satisfaction of “won.”
The ministry mistake: We associate winning with people liking us—not everybody, certainly, but a lot of people. Winning means that people like us enough to come to our church, sign up for the thing we invite them to, listen to our podcast, or follow Christ. (And it means other people like us enough to give us a job or ask us to come back again.) When too many people don’t like us, we don’t score those successes, so it feels like we’re losing—especially when they dislike us enough to hurt us.
The gospel truth: When Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil,” he isn’t talking about falling to temptation. A careful second look shows that he’s talking about being defeated by the bad thing someone does to you. He says we don’t win against a wrongdoer by doing them wrong; we win by doing them good (Rom. 12:17–21).
The encouraging word: When you get hurt, don’t be a loser, because you aren’t one—you’re a winner. Be kind to your enemy like a gracious winner, and you’ll really be one.
The ministry mistake: We hope that if we score our ministry wins, many people’s lives will be better and God will be glorified. The prizes we take home come in different forms, but the biggest is probably the satisfaction of a job well done, that we accomplished what we set out to do . . . until the day after, when we realize we have to do it all over again—but better—the next time around. Our reward is real but it’s incomplete and fleeting.
The gospel truth: In Revelation 2–3, Jesus promises prizes to winners that dazzle the imagination:
The book ends with more prizes still (Rev. 21:3–6):
The encouraging word: The prizes promised to us defy conception. Yet we do know that they are everlasting and that they are far greater than the greatest honors, pleasures, and satisfaction we can win from the public, our ministry peers, or our own conscience in this age.
At the Future Church Company, we talk a lot about wins. We help churches name the characteristics and competencies of a follower of Jesus as a way of naming the win they’re striving for every day. We help networks name their win by naming what a healthy network of missional churches looks like. We help individuals dream after God’s heart and name the lasting legacy that’s the win for their life. And we help them all imagine where God is taking them from 90 days from now to years ahead.
We believe in wins like these because we’ve seen how God uses them to pour his joyous life into people, organizations, and communities. But as inspiring and challenging as such wins are, we have to remember that these are much smaller victories than the awesome wins Christ won for us.
Whenever we forget that, the wins we strive for become idols—dangerous seducers, cruel taskmasters, and big disappointments. But whenever we remember that Christ won the real victory, and we’re already winners in him, then winning in ministry—whatever it looks like for you this year—isn’t a burden but a blessing.
Leaders trying to win in ministry often get tangled up in trying to be relevant. But the Law of Power articulated in Future Church is that real church growth isn’t powered by relevance—it’s powered by the gospel. And the gospel (the good news) to you, leader, is this: because of Jesus, you’re a winner!