I recently stumbled across a statement by a prolific author, Matt Smethurst, that jarred me to the core of my pastoral mindset, “Ministry is NOT EFFICIENT. So much discouragement is downstream from assuming it will be.” Wow, what a challenge to my emotional intelligence or, maybe more bluntly put, my lack of it! I cannot tell you how revolutionary that realization could be for your ministry and mine. Far too many in our day are thinking, “Getting involved with people is complicated and time-consuming. Who needs it? I could be spending more time with my family, reading my Bible, and praying. Spending time with other people is not very efficient.” While I am not trying to advance the idea of doing kingdom work in a way that purposelessly squanders finances or people’s time, we must admit that most if not all ministry done on our terms of only the “cleanest and most concise way forward” must be sweetly abandoned. Many times “further, faster, better” is actually the antithesis of meaningful, eternity-altering service to the King of kings and those flawed and oft-frustrating people with whom He chooses to build His inevitable and final kingdom.
Tucked into Proverbs is a truly insightful, distilled nugget of leadership wisdom, “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox” (Pr. 14:4). As one commentator on this verse put it, “An empty stable is a clean stable, but it would indeed be a foolish man who would kill his oxen to insure a clean crib. Labor does have its disagreeable aspects. One must work long hours, care for animals, and deny self many things; but labor also has its rewards. The oxen allow a man to increase his efforts and, ultimately, to enjoy a larger reward for efforts expended. The little time spent in cleaning the stalls is more than adequately reimbursed.” Ultimately to chase after efficiency alone is to run away from any and all places of fruitful ministry with real people all around you!
Here the implications of what could be unlocked in Gospel ministry if we would but abandon the inadequate, shortsighted priority of being efficient at all costs:
Yes, maybe you can supposedly do more sanitized and custom-suited worship, Bible study, and prayer alone, but YOU’RE ALONE. A relational status that irrefutably keeps you from fulfilling the plethora of “one another” commands in Scripture. As Jeff McNeil recently put it, “You can’t serve from your sofa. You can’t have community of faith on your sofa. You can’t experience the power of a room full of believers worshipping together on your sofa.” We need the regular, messy benefits of “companion planting”…that is the planting of different crops in proximity (in gardening and agriculture), based upon the premise that they assist each other in nutrient uptake, pest control, pollination, and other factors necessary to increasing crop productivity. Being willing to enter into the extra time and inconveniences required to consistently gather with God’s people is what unleashes the breakthrough moments of illumination, fellowship, worship, and service that we cannot experience in any other manner…period!
Have you ever “gotten burnt” by a new project or big day that you invested a lot of your pastoral equity and energy into only to have it fall more than a bit flat? I have and I would guess you have too…an experience that tends to make us gun shy about getting anywhere close to repeating it. One of the primary reasons for writing this post is the result of my personal reflection upon an outreach event that our church just hosted, an offsite “pop up” church service in another town neighboring our own (you should see my packed, messy car that I have yet to get around to clean out yet today). This event required us to invest a ton of man hours, countless trips over and back, and finances to promote and prepare. Just as an example of “how inefficient” this truly successful event was, we got about a one percent return on the 1,500 doors that we visited with an invitation to receive Christ and attend this “Fall Night of Worship.” Was it a waste? Absolutely not…several visitors heard the gospel for the first time and we laid the groundwork for a ton of new connections in this community. If you doubt my assertion, just ask an excited visitor named Liz whom my wife took home after the service last night and shared how many others in her little community were talking about possibly coming to the event but “were too nervous to visit.” Was it inefficient from a numbers point of view? Absolutely! As Curtis Hudson wisely said many years ago, “Great churches are not built with spare time and pocket change.” Only those who have the longview will invest sacrificially in that which lacks a full and immediate return. Being willing to embrace the necessary inefficiencies of steadily reaching our communities, an others-first mission, is what makes new, expansive ministry endeavors not only possible but an inevitable reality!
With how long it takes to raise support, get to the field, and assimilate into the culture of the foreign field, we are seeing a decrease in young people surrendering to reach the entire world with the Gospel in their generation. Why? Much of it has to do with self-serving leaders in the home and church who present missions as an antiquated, ineffective means to reach a world population that overwhelms them and has been relegated to a few zealots who sincerely but “naively” enter into this line of calling and work. I am all for nationals, who require much less preparation and resources, reaching their own people with the Gospel, but…what about those that Paul asks us to consider, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? (Ro. 10:14)”. (I would be remiss if I did not remind you that we only have the Word in our heart language and access to a deluge of gospel preaching and ministry all around us because someone was willing to dig deep to reach a place in time and space they would never go and people they would never meet.) Being willing to persevere through any waiting period, count any cost, and travel any distance frees the local church to get the Gospel to ANY AND EVERY PERSON in the furthest corner of the globe!
Training the Next Generation
Far too often we are dropping the ball in our parenting responsibilities because we are only willing to fulfill them when it is convenient and/or include instantaneous results. Instead, we need to see the “interruptions” of our children as divine appointments from God for why we are on this planet, not on an individual island but an inconvenient, interpersonal context called the home. As Paul Tripp so eloquently puts it, “Parenting is ambassadorial work from beginning to end. It is not to be shaped and directed by personal interest, personal need, or cultural perspectives. Every parent everywhere is called to recognize that they have been put on earth at a particular time and in a particular location to do one thing in the lives of their children. What is that one thing? It is God’s will. Here’s what this means at street level: parenting is not first about what we want FOR our children or FROM our children, but about what God in grace has planned to do through us IN our children.” This opting out of under the guise of efficiency also manifests itself in our delinquency to make disciples through the local church. It just appears to take too long with too few with less than a hundred percent success rate. Remember that the foreknowledge of Judas’ betrayal and even the temporary abandonment of the other disciples didn’t stop Jesus from wholeheartedly investing in the twelve. If the inevitable failures of those under you destroy your so-called commitment to being a spiritually leader, WHO is truly the source of your calling and mission? Being willing to sacrificially invest into one immature life in our homes and churches at a time unleashes the high quality descendants of our influence to exponentially multiply and turn the world upside down for Jesus!
Rich Pulpit Ministry
Unfortunately many sermons nowadays are prefabricated with the inadequate crutches of outside curriculum helps or even last minute misappropriation of others passion and observations to fill yet another weekly time slot. Meaningful, dynamic ministry in the Word cannot be served up with microwaved leftovers; it must be drawn out of the fresh, deep discoveries of a personalized slow cooker kind of study and prayer. H. B. Charles writes, “A desire to preach without a burden to study is a desire to perform.” Lose the tendency to pursue the shortest, easiest way to put on a decent performance; invest the many hours of building a sermon well in advance (I deal with this in more detail toward the end of this post.) and then persistently finetuning it over and over until your final trip from your study to the pulpit. Being willing to invest disproportionate-in-the-eyes-of-many hours of meditation, exegesis, and prayer into a sermon that only God will see and favor, enables our teaching and preaching to possess the full power of God’s Spirit and import of God’s Word…no matter the general trends or appetites of our day!
Do you catch yourself, like me, regularly opting out of ministry opportunities or tasks that God clearly has sent your way and that you honestly could have/should have a part in, but you just prefer to stick with what you already had planned even if that plan is only optional leisure or white space? God help us to amend our ways! If the ministry of Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, was messy to say the least, who are we to think we are the exception to this ministry norm? You don’t get to opt for “messy ministry” or some other more structured, sanititized version; you just choose to do ministry with all of its slow-grinding liabilities or you don’t do it at all! One author recently confronted us Westerners, “More than any before us, an American today believes ‘I must write the script of my own life.’ The thought that such a script must be subordinated to the grand narrative of the Bible is a foreign one. Still more alarming is the idea that this surrender of our personal story to God’s story must be mediated by a community of fallen people we frankly don’t want to get in our way and meddling with our own hopes and dreams.” The sad thing about this far-too-pervasive-in-even-ministers sentiment is that we fail to realize what we are losing by being so amazingly, creatively efficient…WE LOSE THE INEFFICIENT BUT GLORIOUS MINISTRY of Jesus, the One who had to slow down/step down more than we can possibly comprehend, and of which we are eternal beneficiaries/stewards!
Ph 2:5-8 “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash