- Book Reviews
- About me
Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.
Meet the Ministries: Desiring God
October 07, 2009
Last week I began an interview series I am calling “Meet the Ministries.” This is an opportunity for us to meet some of the Christian ministries available to serve us. The first interview featured Grace to You. This week I’m glad to share an interview with Matt Perman, Director of Strategy for Desiring God.
How and when did Desiring God begin?
Desiring God as an organization began in 1994. An elderly couple had been in charge of the weekly sermon tape ministry since John Piper began preaching in 1980. But in 1994, they suddenly decided to retire. So John Piper went to his ministry assistant at the time, Jon Bloom, and said “I’d like you to take over the tape ministry.”
As Jon Bloom gave this some thought, it stood out to him that more and more people were contacting the church requesting John Piper’s books, sermon tapes, articles, and other resources. These requests were all being handled by different staff members.
So after a few days of praying and pondering these things, he went to John Piper and suggested that they create a coordinated, proactive strategy for using resources to spread the vision of God that so many of us have come to love through John’s preaching and writing.
John Piper said, “That’s a great idea! We could call it Desiring God Ministries.” The name of the ministry comes from John’s foundational 1986 book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, which basically articulates the core concepts that we are about.
Jon Bloom became the first person on staff and things continued to develop from there. Jon remains the executive director today. He is the best at telling this story, and was recently interviewed by Tim Smith of Mars Hill church in Seattle on how DG started.
Why does DG exist? What are its chief goals and key emphases?
Desiring God exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. That’s our mission and reason for being.
We believe that God is supreme in everything. Further, his supremacy is most clearly seen not simply when we know truth about him, but when we also delight in Him. The things of God are very great; but this greatness is not reflected if we remain neutral about God or carry on as if nothing is different.
For example, if I bring my wife flowers on our anniversary and say “no big deal, Heidi, it’s my duty,” she is not honored. But she is honored if I say to her, “I love being married and I’m so glad it’s our anniversary.”
Likewise, when we rejoice in and treasure God - rather than remain neutral or devoid of any emotional response - He is honored. He is shown to be great (which is the purpose of life, by the way) and worthy of praise.
Here’s how we put it: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.
It follows from this that joy is not simply icing on the cake. Rather, we ought to seek joy. We ought to seek joy. This is what the Scriptures command (Psalm 37:4; Matthew 6:21; Philippians 4:4; Psalm 97:12) and model (Philippians 3:8; Psalm 43:4; Hebrews 12:2). Yet so often the idea has crept into the church that somehow it is bad to want to be happy. That desiring to be happy is sinful.
But the problem with the human race is not that we want to be happy. The problem is that we seek happiness in the wrong things-in things outside of God (see, for example, Jeremiah 2:13). And the great irony here is that this results in less satisfaction.
It results in less satisfaction because those things ultimately cannot satisfy. The idea is often out there that the most exciting life and the greatest happiness comes from following the values of the world—either for outright sin or domesticated comfort—and that if you become a Christian you must give up the desire to be happy and perhaps even settle for a boring life.
But this is exactly backwards. The greatest satisfaction is in God, not outside of God. When we aim for the joy that the world offers, we are settling for less, not more. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “The problem is not that our desires are too strong , but too weak.” Then he continues: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the sand because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
So Desiring God is here to say: The desire to be happy is good, not sinful. That is not your problem. But stop seeking your satisfaction in temporary, fleeting pleasures that have no value. Seek real and ultimate satisfaction. Pursue your joy in God, who is supreme in all things and the only lasting source of joy.
One last thing here: This message is not contrary to the also very biblical emphasis that a life of radical service for God and others often involves suffering, and that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Instead, this truth is precisely what enables us to bear up under suffering.
We are able to endure suffering and in fact “rejoice in our suffering” (Romans 5:3) because our joy and hope are in God, not the world. So even when everything goes wrong, we can be like the saints in Hebrews who joyfully endured their trials because they knew that they “had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34) or like Moses who “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26).
The message of Christian hedonism is not a chipper happiness, but a deep-seated joy in God that therefore enables us to engage in radical deeds of love and to truly grieve over the brokenness in the world. We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
How can DG serve the readers of this web site?
I love this question because it gets at a few more of our dominant emphases as a ministry.
We have made all 29 years of John Piper’s sermons, conference messages, articles, and even books (except when a publisher wouldn’t let us) available on our website for free and without registration.
We did this because it is one of the most effective ways that we know how to fulfill our mission to spread a passion for the supremacy of God by helping people fan the flame of their joy in God.
So I would say to your readers: Our website is at your service. Everything is there and everything is free because our aim is not to make money, but to help you find your joy in God.
So read, listen, and watch the resources whenever, wherever, and however you want to help fuel your joy in God. If you are interested in some specific ones that you might want to start with, here are a few that I would recommend:
- If you are interested in a book, you might enjoy Desiring God or Don’t Waste Your Life. Again, you can read both of these online for free, along with many others.
- If you are interested in a sermon or conference message, I would recommend Passion for the Supremacy of God part 1 and part 2 or A Passion for the Supremacy of Christ—Where He is Not Named. Each of these messages can be either read or listened to.
- If you are interested in an article, I might recommend Rebuilding Some Basics at Bethlehem: Christian Hedonism or Thoughts on Why Everything Exists.
- If you are interested in a biography, I might recommend reading or listening to Piper’s biography on the life of William Wilberforce.
- If you are interested in browsing all of our resources by topic or Scripture, or browse through all of the sermons by date, you can do that as well.
You may also be interested in subscribing to our blog. And if there is a product that you want to buy but which you don’t have the funds for, please make use of our whatever-you-can-afford policy.
Why do you post everything online for free?
When you asked about how Desiring God could serve the readers of this site, I pointed to our website. So it makes sense for me to talk a little bit more about why we post everything for free and how this relates to our view of serving.
The call to be God-centered entails a call to serve others before yourself. The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus said that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). And Paul said “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 4:4) and pointed to Jesus as an example (4:5ff).
It can be easy to think that this applies only to us as individuals—that individuals should put others first, but organizations are different. They should focus on survival.
But that’s not how we think. We want to follow the example of Christ organizationally as well as individually. We want the grace and mercy of Christ to be reflected as fully as possibly in what we say and in what we do.
So Desiring God is here first of all to serve. Survival is not our first priority. We do not exist to exist. We exist to be of use to others in the building up of their faith. And so we will do this even at cost to ourselves.
This is why one of our core principles that we don’t want money to be a hindrance to people. To help keep money from being an obstacle, we’ve had a “whatever-you-can-afford” policy from the start, and that’s why when we got to the point where we were able to post all of John Piper’s sermon audio online, we posted it all for free.
We don’t believe that this is the only way to do things. But for us, this is the best way that we know how to demonstrate the gospel in what we do, in addition to what we say.
A corollary of these things is that we aim to reduce all obstacles—that is, all friction—to spreading, not just the monetary ones. By doing this, more people can access the resources and spread them more effectively.
Consequently, our vision when it comes to the internet is that we post everything online, for free, without requiring registration, in a maximally usable interface.
Each of these four things goes to the issue of removing all possible friction that might slow down or hinder the process of spreading. If you don’t put everything online, but only some things, there are helpful resources that people won’t be able to access at all. If you make people have to pay to access material online, you introduce friction into the process and slow down spreading.
And if you wall up your content behind a registration gate, you similarly introduce friction into the process and many people will just move on to something else rather than deal with the hassle of registration.
Another source of friction that is not as obvious, however, is a hard-to-use website. If a website is hard to use, people will have a much more difficult time finding the resources that will be most useful to them. They will waste time and energy trying to figure out how to use the site rather than being able to focus completely on the content itself.
So when we undertook our major website redesign a few years ago, we made usability the core, governing philosophy of the redesign. We re-architected the site from the ground up on the basis of principles of usability so that the site would hopefully be as easy to use as possible and, consequently, introduce as little friction as possible into the process of accessing resources.
Our aim behind all of these things is to remove all friction to accessing our content because we believe that is the right thing to do, we believe it best reflects the gospel for us, and we believe it best serves people.
Who are the key leaders within the ministry?
Other than John Piper and the board of directors that oversees the ministry, some of the key leaders in the ministry are: Jon Bloom, executive director; John Knight, director of development; Terry Kurschner , director of finance; Matt Perman, director of strategy; Scott Anderson, director for networks & partnerships; Lukas Naugle, director of resource productions; and Eric Johnson, director of marketing and internet.
How many employees does DG have?
We have 38 employees plus about 50 regular volunteers.
What is DG’s annual budget? How is the ministry financed and how do you ensure financial integrity?
Our annual budget is currently $5.5 million. About half of our budget is financed through donations. The rest of our budget is financed through resource sales, conferences, and the bookstore that we run at conferences and at the church. Also, John Piper donates all of his book royalties to the ministry and takes no salary from Desiring God.
In regard to the donation side of things: Our donations largely come from what we call “an army of small donors” rather than a few large donors.
Some of these donors have chosen to be a part of what we call the “Philippian Fellowship.” Basically, this is a group of about 2,100 friends of the ministry who have committed to faithful pray and/or give financially to the ministry. Members of the Philippian Fellowship receive weekly prayer requests and other information as well.
The ministry of Desiring God would not be possible without our donors. When I say that our aim is to serve, not be served, I don’t mean that we have the misguided notion that we can do this by ourselves. I mean that we are not in this for what we can get out of it. And that our desire in all that we do is to see people benefit, not increase donations. But we do need donations in order to continue. Those who share the vision of what we do are critical partners in the ministry. And I think that one of the things that they value about Desiring God is that we are not about money.
We ensure financial integrity through several means. The independent consulting audit firm, Larson Allen, currently advises us on internal controls and conducts our annual audit. We are members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. And our director of finance, Terry Kurschner, is a man of incredible integrity and detail whom we are blessed to have over our finances.
How do you expect DG will be different in ten years? Twenty years?
It is really hard to say on this, because we couldn’t have even seen where we would be today back ten years prior. And the pace of change in the external environment has only increased. So we have a few principles that guide us in the way we go about discovering the future which I will share.
First, our mission and values govern everything that we do. Along with our affirmation of faith, they constitute our “core.” The core provides the constant that you need to successfully navigate change and to develop in a way that is effective and remains in alignment with your DNA.
Having a core is critical to remaining adaptable and flexible. In fact, as Jim Collins has argued, the fundamental dynamic of any organization that is effective over time is the concept of preserve the core and stimulate progress—and to create mechanisms that weave this dynamic into the fabric of the organization.
This principle doesn’t tell us how things will change, but gives us something more important: an understanding of how to move forward into a future that is radically changing for all types of organizations. Critical to DG in all stages will always be our mission to spread.
Second, DG develops more like a story than a blueprint. We didn’t know or plan—indeed, couldn’t have known or planned—what things would be like today when we started 15 years ago. So our approach is not to blueprint out a future that we cannot control anyway. The result would be a lot of frustration, dead ends, and wasted time.
Instead, one of the key ways to progress in the midst of ambiguity is through incremental progress. That is, through a few tangible mechanisms that drive progress while acknowledging that we are very limited in what we can know about the needs and context of the future environment.
One of those mechanisms—which arose naturally at DG from the very start—is the principle of “try a lot of stuff and keep what works.” You don’t know what will always be best in advance, so you try a lot of things. The things that work, you keep and build on. And by that means, the organization develops and advances incrementally according to what it is good at and what is needed.
This is one of the fundamental ways to “build on strengths,” which Peter Drucker rightly said all organizations must do. And it allows you to adapt intelligently to the future, without having to think you can predict it.
Third, and closely related to this, are the talents and strengths of our people. We believe that people are most effective for an organization when you put them in positions where they can play to their strengths.
Your strengths are what you are good at, what you love doing, and which align with the goals of the organization. As people focus on their strengths, new capabilities and initiatives develop, and these are the lines along which Desiring God has largely grown over the last 15 years.
Fourth, the concept of evolutionary progress, like a story, is best complemented by a twin principle of discontinuous and intentional progress. A good example here is that of setting a big, clear, compelling, and even audaciously large goal that focus the organization on accomplishing a certain major task over the long-term. Jim Collins calls these “BHAGs” in his very helpful book Built to Last.
Having a big goal like this aligns the organization and creates unity and collaboration, and a sense of excitement. It also gives concrete intentionality to the future of the organization.
At the same time, like the concept of evolutionary progress, BHAGs reflect the fact the future cannot be largely known or controlled by us. A BHAG does not attempt to script out or blueprint your future in detail.
Rather, a BHAG defines the broad strokes, and evolutionary progress fills in the rest of the details. In this way, you combine intentionality with flexibility, charting a course without defining everything in advance, and thus remaining adaptable to an uncertain future environment.
I think that this also best reflects the fact that God is sovereign over the future, not us, while also upholding the fact that we are indeed to be intentional and make plans (Proverbs 16:9).
I don’t want to belabor this point, but Collins has a great statement in Built to Last on how Jack Welch utilized this combination of intentionality with organic growth at GE:
Instead of directing a business according to a detailed … strategic plan, Welch believed in setting only a few clear, overarching goals. Then, on an ad hoc basis, his people were free to seize any opportunities they saw to further those goals. This crystallized in his mind after reading Johannes von Moltke, a nineteenth century Prussian general influenced by the renowned military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, who argued that detailed plans usually fail, because circumstances inevitably change.
I think that is very helpful, and biblical.
We came to an understanding of our 5- to 10- year BHAG a few years ago, which we’ve expressed in a one-page document that we call our “vision statement.” Here’s our current BHAG:
We want to see millions of people around the world more accurately understand the Bible and increase in their love for Jesus Christ by reading, listening to, and watching our resources at the times and locations that are most helpful to them, and eagerly sharing these resources with others.
In pursuit of this vision we will, joyfully and by God’s grace, develop an integrated global distribution network that makes our resources accessible at any time, at the lowest strategic cost, in the most effective formats, to the most effective spreaders.
We can do better at communicating this constantly among the staff here, and I’m working at mechanisms for doing that right now as we speak.
But wherever we end up in ten or twenty years, it will likely be somewhere along the lines of the aim we have expressed in this BHAG, plus whatever comes about as a result of the evolutionary progression of the Desiring God story and allowing our staff to work within their strengths.
And all of the progress, growth, and development that happens will be in alignment with, not contrary to, our core. We will preserve the core and stimulate progress.
How does DG work with other Christian ministries?
We want to see every sound ministry be as effective as possible. We see ourselves as one small piece of a much larger picture of what God is doing. And we want to see the entirety of God’s kingdom flourish and advance. So we are eager to do whatever we can to serve the wider picture of God’s work in the world.
To get to specifics here, there are a few things. First, it really stands out to me that there is at present a truly remarkable spirit of camaraderie among gospel-centered ministries. Part of this is reflected in the extent to which we are all able to learn from one another and mutually encourage one another. This is largely informal, but it is very significant and, I think, very beneficial.
Second, one of the most significant ways in which we work with other Christian ministries comes through John Piper’s speaking. He invites other pastors, theologians, and ministry leaders to speak at our conferences, and he is often invited to speak at theirs. We have especially significant interaction with the T4G and Gospel Coalition affiliated ministries.
Third, we seek to partner strategically with churches. Our regional conferences, which we hold in various parts of the country once or twice a year, are an example of this. They provide an opportunity to partner with a church or network of churches to carry out the conference and equip people in the church and wider area with resources.
We also partner with churches for large-scale give-aways. Every year, for example, we do a case lot special in which we make a certain book available for about a dollar per book. Churches can purchase these books in case quantities at that rate for the purpose of distributing large numbers of books.
Fourth, we partner with churches and ministries as the opportunity arises for collaborative projects that are strategic for the mission and promoting resources. This is sort of a new area that is developing.
Fifth, our growing international outreach division is entirely based upon the premise of partnerships. Our international outreach director, Bill Walsh, looked at the task of helping equip pastors and leaders in the developing world with much-needed resources, and said “if we take a top-down, centralized approach to this task, we will be able to do almost nothing.”
A centralized approach where we, for example, set up offices in different countries and seek to distribute resources would never scale. So the approach we are taking to international outreach is to identify partnerships globally of ministries and churches and individuals that we can equip to do the work of spreading internationally. This is a core philosophy of our international approach.
The last point to make here is that partnerships with other ministries and churches is more and more becoming a major priority for us. It is something that we are pursuing with increasing intentionality and which we see developing in an even more significant way over the next few months and years.
What are some of the ways DG has seen evidence of God’s hand of blessing?
Now this is a tough question, Tim, because the last thing that I want to do is say “hey everyone, look at how God is using us!” We realize that we are quite small, that the office supply budget of a company like Apple is probably larger than our entire annual budget, and that we are imperfect and flawed. But, I see your point and will try to say a few things.
First off, we are grateful for anything and everything that the Lord is doing through our very imperfect efforts. Any good that does come through the ministry of Desiring God is simply grace.
Second, we are amazed at the remarkable people that God has brought on staff at Desiring God. This is a very substantial blessing that may not be the first thing that comes to mind when someone asks how God has blessed the work of the ministry, but it is absolutely critical. We do not take for granted that without the quality and spirituality of the people that we have, we could not do what we do.
Third, he has blessed us with an incredible team of supporters-people who hold the rope for us in prayer or financial giving or both. People are praying for us. And our financial support has been better than expected through these challenging economic times.
Fourth, we see evidence of God’s blessing in the resource spreading that has been happening. The growth over the last four years or so has been especially surprising. At present on our website, we receive about 1 million visits per month and 3 million page views per month. There are about 18 million audio and video streams and downloads per year and 225,000 online product orders per year. There are about 23,000 subscribers on the blog.
Off-line, John Piper has authored more than 40 books, with over 6 million books sold in the United States. There are 226 translated books into 26 languages other than English.
We know that numbers do not automatically equate with the blessing of God, and that numbers are not the most important component of God’s blessing. But that does give a picture of the spreading that God has brought about so far, and for which we are very grateful.
Last of all, and most significant, are the testimonies that people send us. That’s how we really know if we are having an impact. We are blessed and amazed at the stories that come our way from people each day.
Speaking personally, how has working closely with John Piper impacted you as a person?
In more ways than I can count. First of all, John Piper has taught me more about God than anyone else. He has profoundly affected my worldview, which in turn affects everything else.
Second, I learned from John Piper that we should “expect great things from God; attempt great things for God” (William Carey). His emphasis that risk is right and that we should dream dreams for the kingdom rather than coast through life is a constant spur to action for me.
Third, I spoke earlier about how one of the convictions we have is that we are here first to serve, not be served. And that this has ramifications in all sorts of ways and had an impact even on the way we thought about the website when it came time to do the major redesign. This mindset is one of the biggest things I’ve learned from John Piper, and I don’t even think he knows that he models this.
Over the years, often in casual conversation, I started noticing a recurring emphasis. When we’d talk about the website, for example, he would talk about making it easy to use for people - long before I had done any research or reading on the subject, or even knew that there was a body of literature on that (and I don’t think he knew that at the time, either). He would talk about how the importance of anticipating people’s needs and being generally thoughtful. How we shouldn’t wait for there to be a problem to see what we should address; we should think ahead about what people will need and make it right to begin with.
As I mentioned, I don’t think he was trying to teach anything in these comments; he was just describing the way he thought about things. But it would come up in a noticeably frequent way when we would talk about things like the website and such.
I kind of “caught” from this the general principle that trying to anticipate people’s needs and be thoughtful about them is an implication of Christian service and love. If we love God and therefore love others, we will seek to do good for them and serve them - and we will seek to be proactive in doing so.
This has influenced the way I thought about everything—the website (make it usable), our resources (make them free), management (think of serving your employees and the world first, not surviving), the Christian life in general (we are to be consistently and remarkably doing proactive works of good for others and the world), and more.
Everything boils down to: Christians are here to do good for others, to the glory of God. We aren’t here to build up our own comforts, but to expend ourselves in radical deeds of love. This is because God is good, God seeks our welfare, and God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him - and therefore we can risk and let go of comforts here because God is our satisfaction and strength, not the things of this world.
John Piper teaches this explicitly and there are some incredible sermons on these things, but it is the impact of working with John personally that most forcefully and significantly taught me this mindset and gave me this desire. I certainly have a long way to go, but this is how I think and what I aspire to be as much as God will enable.
How can the readers of this web site serve and support DG?
Thanks for asking, Tim. While the most important thing to us is simply that people come to see God for who he is, we absolutely need and cherish the involvement of everyone that feels called to be a part of what we are doing.
There are three main things the readers of this site can do to serve and support DG: Pray, pass the word, and give. In that order.
Here’s how you can pray: Pray for John Piper’s speaking and writing; pray for the website and that God would use it to build up his people in joy and faith; pray for wisdom and effectiveness for our growing international outreach department; pray for our staff; pray that we would be faithful to God’s word; pray for our continued efforts in spreading that as many as possible would see the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
If you want to spread the word, here are some resources that you might be most interested in pointing people to:
- Our website or blog
- The message “Let Your Passion be Single,” which is Christian hedonism unpacked in a single message.
- The message “Doing Missions When Dying is Gain.”
- The article “The Goal of God’s Love May Not be What You Think.”
- The sermon “Sustained by Sovereign Grace - Forever”, especially for those who are going through difficult times.
- The book Desiring God or Don’t Waste Your Life.