The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
May 20, 2007
Ministry in the Midst
I have changed my outlook on doing ministry.
When I was a kid, I watched my beleaguered church, filled with ordinary people, and beset by pastoral problems. And I thought that I must just be going to a problem church; that if I went to someplace that was bigger, maybe, that had been appointed a better pastor, it would all be different and church would look the way church was supposed to look.
When I became active in ministry as an adult, and experienced a congregational revolt at the church where I served, I thought that if the people hadn't been so gullible and had been more thoughtful, then we could have gotten on with doing church the way it should be—we could have done effective ministry.
At my current church, the issues seem to revolve around finance, transition and personal sin. If only these things could abate—well, then we would have something. Our church could really grow and develop.
But that hasn't been happening; we've been in this situation for years. My home church did not get away from its pastoral problems—in fact, it had successive pastoral problems. Nor did the people at the other church I served repent of their damaging activities; it's business as usual for them. What is up with that?
I have come to believe that for most church leaders, there will always be some set of circumstances that holds them and their congregations back. We can aspire to better, we can pray for calm and growth, we can develop better strategies and disciple people harder. We should do all these things. But I have a feeling most of us will still be doing ministry in the midst of everything else.
I contend that in this country we have unrealistic expectations for ministry. We all know about the churches that have experienced explosive growth and success, with expanding ministries and programs that seem blessed by God to reach many. In America, these are the churches we look to as examples; their pastors are usually looked to for advice.
In our typical American way, we believe that because these churches fit the American model of success, these are the churches with which God is the most pleased. Their pastors go on to have careers of great influence. They go on Christian radio and television, travel the Christian convention circuit, they get multiple book deals from Christian publishing houses—some of them even get marketing deals for peripheral products. We evangelicals have always been especially prone to the “star pastor” syndrome.
These celebrity pastors can make the rest of us feel inadequate by comparison. We must not be as faithful, or lack something else not to be blessed in the same way. We've got the problems; they've got the prominence. So it is tempting to wonder when God is going to relent and relieve us of the issues that hold us and our churches back. Then we can do the real ministry.
I've been wondering whether Paul ever fell into this trap. Lord knows, he had about the roughest pastoral ministry one could imagine. If you think about it, Paul experienced pretty much the entire gamut of what can go wrong in a church.
Sometimes I wonder if God didn't have Paul experience all these problems so he could write about them for our sakes. Not only to give us good advice, but also to show us what “normal” looks like in a church, and that “normal” is not the same as “ideal!” As Peter writes (1 Peter 4:12): Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.
Can you imagine being Paul, going out to set up these original churches, filled with the influence and presence of the Holy Spirit and his hope that the Kingdom would spread? And once he set them up, what he got were these half-hearted people who were doing stupid and sinful things and not living up to his aspirations for them. He paid a heavy personal cost to get the churches started, and this is how they turn out?
Here are three areas we struggle with today that were no strangers to Paul. Let's see how he dealt with them.
Sinful behavior. Our congregations are beset by a lack of maturity and desire to really explore and live out the Christian life. People seem to take Jesus up on his offer of life after death, but not his offer of life here on earth. On top of that, individual and corporate sin within our churches is like a chronic disease we can't get rid of, slowing us down, flaring up at inopportune times, sometimes stopping us in our tracks. What is wrong with people? If we are saved and freed from sin, why do we keep falling back into it?
If ever there was a Christian leader who can sympathize with our plight, it was Paul. A read through 1 or 2 Corinthians or Galatians will give you an idea of some what Paul had to deal with: infighting (1 Cor. 1:11; 3:3); serious sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1); individual lawsuits against other church members (1 Cor. 6:5-7); factions (1 Cor. 11:18); gluttony and disregard for church members of lower social classes (1 Cor. 11:18-21); gullibility, legalism and straying from sound doctrine (Galatians 1:15–2:14); challenges to Paul's leadership by outsiders (Galatians 1:15–2:14, 2 Corinthians 11:4–28). For all we know, this may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Paul's letters that are part of our New Testament were written not only to encourage the fledgling churches but also to chastise them and instruct them about their behavior. We can look back at Paul's situations today and realize that God brought good for us out of the ministry problems he experienced. But how did things look back then to Paul? No doubt he was wondering what was wrong with these people too, and why he had to keep interrupting the other ministry things he wanted to focus on to correct them.
Could it be that, no matter how frustrating these sins seem to us, God is doing something similar in our ministries? Could the fact that we come alongside the sinners in our churches, attempting to provide correction, instruction and discipline, be having kingdom effects of which we are not fully aware?
Challenges to leadership. Paul was no stranger to challenges to his leadership—ironically in churches he had founded! In 2 Corinthians 11:4–28. Paul defends himself against the so-called “super-apostles” who infiltrated his churches when he was in the mission field and attempted to set themselves up in positions of authority. These were smooth-talking, money-grubbing men with a commanding presence who preached a different message and fooled many in Paul's churches. They got by on their eloquence and their criticism of Paul. When you read this passage, you can feel how ridiculous Paul knows it is to have to present his credentials all over again—but present them he does to pull the Corinthians out of error.
It's not so different today. We too have super-apostles. Many in our churches supplement their local church involvement and teaching not with personal Bible study, but with a diet of the teachings of Christian celebrities. People follow radio and TV personalities, book authors and video producers, and believe they are more knowledgeable than their local pastor because they talk smoothly and are famous and ask for money. They forget that it is their local pastor who is down there in the trenches with them. Paul would understand.
Could it be that contending for our ministries, as Paul does in this passage, is itself actually a form of ministry that helps people to start thinking differently? Could it be that all the challenges to our authority that we experience actually have some purpose for the Kingdom? I would like to think so.
Politics. I can't tell you the wearing-down effect I've experienced from well-meaning conservative Christians who don't think women should be in ministry. They approach me publicly and privately, and they approach our pastor and other leaders with their views. I've learned ways to (winsomely, I hope) contend for my calling and gifting when given the opportunity. But it wears one down over time to feel that very little progress is being made. Beyond the “women in ministry” issue are other issues of our time that seemingly have no resolution, but use up enormous amounts of energy. Politics takes so much out of us, and detracts from time we would rather be spending actually doing ministry.
Yet when I read Galatians 1:15–2:14. I ask myself, was it so different for Paul? One of the political realities he had to deal with was the constant contention of the Judaizers. One political hot potato the church faced in Paul's time was whether Gentiles had to become Jewish before they could become Christians. For everyone this meant keeping the law of Moses and for men it also meant circumcision. Despite working out the politics with the apostles in Jerusalem and getting agreement there (Acts 15:1–21), Paul never was rid of the Judaizer faction in his churches. This bunch continued to stir up trouble throughout his ministry. How many times did Paul have to go over the same ground? How much time did it take from his ability to do “real” ministry? What didn't get done because this sapped so much strength?
Could it be that politics was actually a part of Paul's greater ministry of contending for orthodox faith, rather than a side issue that took away from it? Seen in this light, the time he spent on this issue was not wasted; it was part and parcel of his calling.
Paul experienced on a very intense scale the same things we experience in ministry today. Yet today we look back at his ministry in the midst of everything he experienced and we realize how significant it was. He ministered in Christ's name and with Christ's power in the midst of all the setbacks he encountered.
I have stopped waiting and hoping there will come a “golden time” for me to do ministry when all the distractions will go away. I don't think that's going to happen, because I don't think that's how ministry works. Ministry is what we do in Christ's name in the messy midst of life. It includes dealing with people's sin, and contending for our own authority, and being active in the political debates of the church. These aren't distractions—they are part of ministry in this world.
In the middle of Paul's defense against the “super-apostles,” (2 Corinthians 11:24–28) he lays it on the line with his church people. They have no idea what it's like to be him. “Do you want to know what ministry is really like?” I can imagine Paul thinking. “Let's see if you can handle the truth:”
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.
Those of us in ministry can relate. Then and today, ministry happens in the midst.
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning.
Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.
And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.
2 Corinthians 11:24–28