John the Baptist, that curiously dressed wild man with a penchant for preaching hard truths, has always been an odd figure. And though Jesus taught that John’s role was essential, virtually nothing about his ministry would make its way into church planting manuals today.
Yet while John the Baptist isn’t normally associated with church planting, I think his ministry can greatly help church planters understand their role. Specifically, we can learn from John’s understanding of his role in redemptive history, his willingness to recede into the background, and his posture toward Jesus’s ministry,
Look Down: John’s Understanding of His Role
The Gospels show that John the Baptist was well aware of his role in redemptive history. Even when others gave him every opportunity to exalt his ministry or religious status, he humbly pointed away from himself.
Consider, for example, one occasion when the priests and Levites, intrigued by John’s fiery preaching and eccentric dress, asked if he was the Messiah. John insisted, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20 ESV). Then they asked if he was Elijah (Mal. 4:4–6) or the Prophet (Deut. 18:15). Again, John answered no.
Instead, John identified himself as “one crying out in the wilderness,” whose message was, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23 ESV).In other words, John made it clear that he was not the focal point of his message and ministry.
The same should always be true of us. “For we are not proclaiming ourselves,” as Paul says, “but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake” (2 Cor. 4:5 ESV).
Step Aside: John’s Willingness to Recede into the Background
John understood the implications of his ministry of prophetic preparation. He knew that his unique role had a built-in expiration date. In fact, he was working toward that end.
For many months John had pointed to the coming Messiah. He knew Jesus was the only one with the power to bring lasting change. John also knew that he himself possessed no such power and that only Jesus could alter the eternal destiny of countless souls.
All this is why John was willing to recede into the background so Jesus could shine in the spotlight. As John famously said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30 ESV). John’s life had a lasting impact precisely because he understood that the goal of all ministry is the exaltation of Christ and the extension of his kingdom.
Cheer Up: John’s Posture toward Jesus’s Ministry
It’s one thing to know your role and its specific responsibilities. It’s harder to accept the implications of the role when it has a definitive endpoint. Yet to receive all this with joy—as John the Baptist did—is truly remarkable.
Note how John rejoiced at the news that many began flocking to Jesus instead of to him (John 3:26). He happily recognized God’s work in moving people from the messenger to the reality of the message (John 3:27). And John rejoiced at that result. He said, “He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete” (John 3:29 ESV).
Planting like John the Baptist
Among peoples without an established church, preaching the gospel and planting churches requires increasing the role of international workers. This is why missionaries have often taken the lead when certain contexts demanded it.
However, like John the Baptist, international church planting has a built-in expiration point. There comes a time when the presence of an established church and a growing number of believers means that field workers are no longer needed in the same roles or even to the same degree.
In Latin America’s largest cities, for example, national churches are thriving and reaching many people with the gospel. In contexts like these, where I have served, we have seen great fruit in following the example of John the Baptist. By decreasing our direct influence as national believers increase their own, we are not retreating from the field. Rather, we are reaping the reward of many years of faithful prayer, evangelism, and discipleship.
Indeed, the growth of the evangelical church in the world points to the fact that God is at work in a great way. We should rejoice that God has used us to pave the way for our brothers and sisters to rise up and do much more than our teams could ever hope to do. Our work shouldn’t stop, but like the ministry of John the Baptist, it must change. For like the quintessential forerunner himself, we have the privilege of coming alongside national believers in doing all we can to help increase their potential to reach the world. They must increase, but we must decrease.
Rick Martinez lives in Mexico with his wife and three kids. He is the city leader for the Gateway Mexico City Team and a graduate of Trinity International University (BA), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary (DMin).