IT IS ALL CHRIST OR IT IS NOTHING
Why should any pastor take a church that is traditional full of people who are mean and hateful and don’t care about others? Why should I take a church that wants to be a museum and make no changes to anything? Why would I want to be a minister of a church where they will abuse me and talk bad about me and not take care of me?
Questions like these are being asked by younger ministers. But they are not alone, older ministers ask the same questions. I really do understand the question. I know of terrible things done in churches to pastors. I know of stories that will make you hair stand on end. You have to wonder if there are any saved people at all in certain churches. So, the question of why go there is very relevant to our times but the answers many not be what we want.
The most important reason we go to churches that may betray us and mistreat our families is because God called us. When our sovereign God says go we need to go. Too often we are like Jonah, we hear a difficult assignment from God and we want to run. I know we have our reasons. But should not God be the over riding reason for all that we do?
But still, there are some mean and nasty churches out there. They are preacher eaters. They don’t much care about the things of God. They would not recognize evangelism if it bit them on the leg. And from a human point of view, they don’t deserve a dedicated pastor. Some churches become so inward, so collectively self centered that they don’t even look like a church. What about those churches? We go to those churches if God calls us because we must follow God. And not making ourselves available to God does not work. It is the height of arrogance to say no to God even though all of us have done it at one time or another.
No matter how bad the church is, it is still God’s church. It is the only thing in this life that will live forever. It is so precious that Christ shed his blood for her. If it is God’s church then it deserves our very best. Men who go to smaller churches and use it as a stepping stone to greater things are not treating the church with respect. There is only one reason for going to a church and there is only one reason for leaving, God’s call.
Another reason to go to traditional and troubled churches is they cannot become good churches unless someone goes there and contends with them. Called pastors have to become as tough as the church and hang in there so that God can use them to bring about change. One of the most likely reasons for their problems is poor pastoral leadership in the past. Someone treated them as a stepping stone. Others were not biblical preachers and teachers. If you are God-called then you need to be willing to be the instrument that God uses. Because of the condition of many churches, much of today’s preaching must be in the prophetic mode. And we probably should not expect any better reception than did the prophets of old. But you never know when God’s grace will overcome and set a church on fire. We all must practice the difficult art of pastoral patience.
Recently, a friend of mind reminded me of The Shantung Revival. In seminary, he heard C. L. Culpepper tell the story of 1929 revival that took place in China. They worked and labored as missionaries for years with almost no results. Then God brought a great revival. But it took a long time of dry work, of prayer and confession and repentance before God. Perhaps the idea of the pastor confessing and repenting before God instead of the congregation seems a bit strange but that is where it must begin. How can we expect the church to be renewed and revived if we minsters, young or old are not willing to humble ourselves before God?
If you had measured the ministry of these missionaries before the revival, one might have accused them of being failures, thought that would have been false. There are no failures when men are faithful to Christ. But we get stuck in ruts of worldly definitions and we think success is measured only in large numbers. Patience is waiting on God to move. When God did so, it was a powerful movement. Dr. Culpepper’s concern was that others might think that he was something or part of the cause of the great revival. He knew better and wanted to make sure others knew. This is called humility and it is absolutely necessary in ministry. Dr. Culpepper knew that only God could do such a great work and he could not take an ounce of credit. All he could do was go along for the ride with God. The same is true in churches, even difficult churches. We have to trust God, wait on him, and go along for the ride with God.
My personal opinion is that this is difference between building personal kingdoms and God’s Church. There are obvious proven ways to build large numbers in churches but these churches seldom have a major impact on their culture. But when God does the work, the world around the church is radically changed by the events that God works among his people. The Welch Revival comes to mind as does the first and second Great Awakenings. You can build large organizations by proven methods. But awakening a dead church to culture changing impact can only come by waiting on God in humility. Perhaps the adventurous young pastor would go to the hardest of churches with the anticipation of what God could do if we wait patiently on him.
Let me point out that many of the great movements in history took place under the leadership of young men. It was true of the modern missionary movement. William Cary, Adoniram Judson, Luther Rice, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, among others were young men. In all these cases, these young men’s dreams had to be replaced by God’s call. Call is far bigger than a dream. A dream is something we come up with, something we can achieve by our own might. But a call is from God, it is so large that only God can pull it off. Maybe that is what we are all waiting for: God called young men who come to difficult churches with patience and humility so that God himself can bring about another great awakening. But it has to be God’s call and it has to be God’s way. In the end, all we can say is that we are mere slaves carrying out the will of our master Luke 17:10.
Ministry is not easy and there is no promise that it will be easy. When we learn to pastor difficult churches we are being most like Christ. Jesus put up with his disciples for three years. They were stiff-necked and obstinate. He frequently had harsh, negative words to say to them. If Jesus treated the disciples like many pastors treat the church, there would never have been any Apostles or a church or salvation to all who confess Christ. But they did become the apostles. And we do have the church today. When we strive with a church, we are being like Christ.
It would be arrogant of any of us to think we have all the answers for ministry. Most of us are not naturally equipped to be pastors. It frequently takes the hardships of a difficult church to bring out the gifts, abilities and attitudes required to be a pastor. One writer said that God cannot use us greatly until he has hurt us deeply. God did not call us to be ministers because of our great abilities or our great ideas and insights. He called us to break us and remake us so that we could be useful to him. Ministry is not about our abilities and skills, it is about our submission to Christ. You may have the skills to be the CEO of a great business but that does not mean you have the skills to be a shepherd of a church. God can use an Einstein or a Forrest Gamp. He is more likely to use a Forrest Gump, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. We are not fit for ministry until God breaks us and remakes us so that we become his slave. When properly broken, Jesus works through us to minister and lead his church. He changes our attitudes, our opinions, our practices, and our understanding of his people. It is not about programs and high-powered promotions, it is about being Christ to our people.
I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I am still learning it and I am still trying to understand what it means to be dead to me and alive to Christ. One thing is for sure, we must learn to love that which God loves. It took me a long time to realize that. If we are to love the things that God loves, we must love the church, all churches, even the traditional, difficult church.
I write this in hope that some young man in the ministry might learn from my mistakes. Maybe it will not take so many years for them to see that it is all about God’s church and not about our plans for it. I also write this in hopes that God will use all of us to bring about a great revival. Young men with their energy, older men with their experience, and God using us as his chosen instruments to bring about massive, deep change in our churches. Without a movement from God I see no hope. It is all Christ or it is nothing.