Here are a few rambly thoughts on ministry. This is less organized and less well-thought-out than normal (How could that be possible?!) mostly because I just wanted to write down some of the thoughts that have been rambling around my head lately.
We’re all raised in a very winning, results-oriented culture. It’s only natural we should use the E word when it comes to ministry. Is what we’re doing effective?
If it’s not, we should adjust it or prune it, or do something to make it better.
But I think this question could be taken too far. About a year ago I read an interesting Christian leadership book that made me question my ministry’s effectiveness in a few passing words, “and the youth department does pizza parties.”
I don’t really remember the whole context of the quote, I just remember the author was talking about different ministries and summarizing how people perceive ministries, and in one short phrase made me both mad and a little insecure. “We do more important things than just have parties! … I think?”
“If what we’re doing is working, we should keep doing it. But obviously it’s not totally working” as Craig Groeschel said in one of my favorite Catalyst talks.
We need an evaluation culture. We need, as ministry and as gospel-oriented people, to always be evaluating the effectiveness of what we’re doing to reach people God cares about. If we don’t, we’ll become too insular. Like the previous generation of churches, we’ll get complacent and stuffy and we’ll stop reaching people God cares about. (everybody)
But I know I can take this too far. Very too far.
The other day, stuck in traffic on I-70 on the way back from skiing, I began to think about my personal effectiveness. In my head I counted up how many kids I hung out with (outside programming and special events like life groups and camps) and tried to pour my life out to in the last twelve months, and came to the staggering count of 23.
Of course my first immediate thought, for about 20 nanoseconds was, “That’s almost 2x what Jesus did. Jesus really should have stepped it up.”
And before the lightning came, I immediately wondered if I should be stepping it down.
Then I realized that was a little shy of 2x a month, and surely I could step it up to 3x or 4x a month!
Then I very quickly followed up with, I wonder if it’s effective?
I have a lot of time invested in those 23. I’ve averaged probably 3 or 4 times hanging out with most of those guys, and in some cases I’ve spent probably more than two dozen times hanging out.
That’s a lot of my life spent with students. A whole lot of energy, time, emotion and money. Is it working?
And here’s the question I feel like God gave me to wrestle with: Am I doing this to see God work through my hands? Or am I doing it to see me work through my hands?
At some level, the question of effectiveness may need to go away. In those 23 students’ lives, I may never be able to point to a single instant where God used my hands to do anything meaningful. Hey you can go to college even though you don’t know anybody in your life that thinks you can except for me. Hey God loves you. Hey did you know you’re important.
I wrote down a list of names of middle and high school kids I would like to invest my life in. I came up with just under 50 names. I’m sure if I spent more time thinking about it, I’d come up with at least 20 more names to add to the list. Guys I care about, that I know God cares about too, that don’t have any or very many people telling them that God cares about them. I’ve added them to my morning prayer list. I want to be praying for each of them daily because I realize that nobody else is praying for them, probably.
All of this long and winding to get back to my main point: is praying for 47 guys effective? Is pursuing a regular one-on-one relationship with 23 an effective of use of energy, time and money?
Is what I’m doing meaningful at all?
As I was thinking about this on the way up to the mountains, I listened to Andy Stanley kicking off North Point’s Annual Be Rich campaign where they collect millions and millions of dollars and give it away to awesome non-profits.
“Does it work?” he asked. Is it effective? And of course it works, he said. But that’s not why we do this. We do what Jesus did for us. We love those who may never or could never love us back. We serve those who could never serve us back. And we give to those who could never pay us back. Because God did that for us.
At some level, we can analyze our way out of any ministry. Because it’s not effective enough. Because it will never work.
And maybe that’s true. But, I really believe if God took our Excel models and plugged in his numbers, trying to answer the question, “Is dying on a Cross effective?” the answer probably would have been no. Narrow is the gate! But wide the path to destruction.
But God moved anyway.
At some level we have to put aside the analysis. At some point, we just have to decide if we’re going to be obedient or not. And we might have to do some things that are uncomfortable. We might have to do something that costs us, a lot. We might have to do that, for a very long time, without seeing any results at all. Just out of simple, blind obedience to God, and faith in what God can do.
Which brings me to fruit. An apple tree doesn’t strain to produce apples. Nor does a lemon tree struggle to make lemons. Healthy apple and lemon trees produce fruit, almost like a byproduct. When the tree has what it needs, it just – by nature – produces fruit.
Galatians 5 lists the fruit of the Spirit. Not the fruit of AJ. The fruit of the Spirit. When we see a list with things like love, joy, peace, patience and on and on, we see a todo list. “Ok, gotta check off the love thing, oh and did I hit patience today?”
That’s not fruit. That’s religion. That’s not healthy. That’s toxic.
Jesus is the vine. (John 15) We are the branches. The fruit that is produced through us, is produced in us not by us, but by Jesus. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. You can’t produce that! But by abiding in Jesus, the Spirit produces these in our life.
I had an aha moment this morning when I was connecting the dots between the effectiveness of ministry and the fruit of the Spirit. Spiritually alive people leave fruit all around them. And, to abuse this metaphor to its very limits, this fruit feeds people all around them. And ministry is born.
Effectiveness of ministry needs to be evaluated, but it should be evaluated by a different yardstick: fruit. My ministry needs to be evaluated less by “how many kids did I save today” (say that in a nice southern baptist accent for the full effect), and more about the fruit that the Spirit produces in my life.
People were attracted to Jesus. And it was never because of his theology. And it was never because of his intelligence, though that impressed many. They were attracted, whether they realized it or not, because of the fruit of the Spirit in his life. He was real.
All Things. (For All People)
I think one of the best expressions of Jesus’ realness is in Luke 7. He came eating and drinking and people said he’s a drunkard and a friend of sinners.
In my mind, that’s the whole point of the trip from heaven to earth. To show what God is really like. That God gets on our level. First as a human, then a fairly typical one that enjoys good food and good drinks.
In my mind, it dovetails nicely with Paul’s witnessing strategy in 1 Corinthians 9 which has been so well summarized as: All things to All people. Paul talks about how he emulates those he’s trying to reach to share common ground with them by becoming like them. Sharing in their experience.
I think some people read Paul’s words and read something sinister into it. Like he is manipulating people. That he’s like one of those con-men that’s just trying to make a sale and move on, doing whatever it takes.
I probably would have read it that way a few years ago. But tonight I realized I do the exact same thing in my ministry. I’ve come to it quite honestly. Here are some examples.
Two months ago, I was not a skier. Today I am not much of one, either, but on Friday I went up with one of my awesome students and we spent the day skiing. I became a skier. To reach skiers.
Today I played Minecraft for a couple hours with another awesome student. We Skyped the whole time. 16 months ago I wasn’t much into Minecraft, but now I play with students at least a few times a month. (And talk about it way more than that.) I became a Minecrafter to reach Minecraftees. (or something. Work with it.)
Four years ago, I didn’t have an Xbox and never played Halo. Today, a few times a month, I’ll play Halo with students on Xbox Live. It’s awesome. I became a Halo-player to reach Halo-players.
I’m not much into beer, but I’ll sometimes have a drink with a friend or a coworker and just talk about life and what’s going on.
It would be manipulative if I had manipulative motives. But my only motive is to spend time with a few guys I love and really care about. And ministry is just a fancy word for “taking care of people God cares about on their level.” To do it, you just have to meet the people God cares about like God met them: on their level.
Oh let’s back up.
We have to meet people where God met us: where we were. God didn’t wait for us to come to him. He came to us long before we ever thought we should go to him. And he took the “all things to all people” thing so seriously he became one of us. And if we have really been transformed, then the overwhelming desire of our heart should be for us to meet the people we love and care about where they are.
I think God puts certain people or groups of people on our hearts for us to care about. And people we can and will be effective in caring for, if we just go for it. I know people who are really passionate about senior citizens.
Others who are passionate about prison ministry.
And still others who have four or five specific people they have just an incredible, God-given, burden for. I don’t know who your people are, but mine are students.
I once asked a student why he thought I’d spend as much time and energy in student ministry as I do. “Because you’re a child lover?” he answered with a smile. That kind of answer gets people put on watch lists, and I wouldn’t have phrased it that way, but yeah. I love students. A few weeks ago I was hanging out with a 6th grade boy and we were just goofing around and all of a sudden I looked at him and just smiled. I just loved him. I just loved that I knew God has big things in store and he doesn’t have the foggiest idea of any of them. I love that, over the next few years, I might get to see the first cracks appear as God breaks through his heart and plants something really great. And at some level, I just don’t know. I don’t know why I love and care about small goofballs like him, but I do and it’s the burden I got, and I just want to be faithful to it.
And I can’t talk about ministry without talking about one of its most important parts: faithfulness.
I remade my prayer list with every kid I’ve ever hung out with one-on-one in the last 2 years and came up with 43 names. 43! That blew me away, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. (and with 4+ camps, if we counted camp one-on-ones, it’d be way higher)
And here’s what blew me away: those are 43 kids.
43 boys God loves more than anything.
43 guys who are going to grow up and do all sorts of different things.
43 students God has big plans for.
43 young men each with parents and siblings and cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles. People that will deeply influence each one of them, and each one will influence as well.
43 reasons I don’t want to blow this up.
As I was thinking about that list, I realized I have the potential to be one name on a very short list of reasons why they hate God.
If I blow up my life, or my relationships or ministry, or whatever up, I could become just one more reason on a long list of reasons why God doesn’t work.
I know that I’m usually not going to be the pivotal make-it or break-it tipping point in any students’ spiritual walk. But for so many that have been hurt for so long, I don’t want to be just one more reason on a long list.
Twenty years from now, I don’t want anybody to be sipping coffee with their then pastor, talking about how they tried the church thing and it blew up when they ran into another religious faker that was a big ole’ hypocrite when they were 14.
I want to be faithful. Faithful to do what I can do, and leave what I can’t do to God.
I don’t like ritualistic prayers. I rarely pray the same thing day after day. But over the years, as I’ve grasped the magnitude of what I’ve gotten myself into, and the ineptitude with which I so often pursue it, my knees buckle and I ask God for three things I’ll never get without him:
- The wisdom to see what is right and the strength to do it.
- Being an unbelievably good steward with every word, every opportunity, every resource and every dollar I get.
- That I wouldn’t blow up my life or the incredible opportunity God has given to me.
Finally, God has put it on my heart that there are seasons for everything. Some students come into our lives for a week or a month or a year and leave. Sometimes you invest in them and they move on, on to another leader or another ministry or another interest. People will always come and go. You just do what you can and trust that God will take care of things when this particular season ends. You honor God by being faithful in your particular season.
So I already have sensed that my season is in the process of ending with a couple particular guys I have invested a lot of time and energy in. Some of them are moving on to new leaders, and as that season has shifted I’ve shifted too.
The biggest season shift is also knocking on our door. I realized that this coming BOCO will be the last BOCO any of us will have together. I’m taking guys I’ve known since they were in 6th grade to their last BOCO and that’s kind of sad. A chapter is closing. An exciting new chapter is opening for them in high school.
To be honest, I haven’t decided if I’m going to be a part of that chapter yet or not. I may move up and become a high school leader. I love that I have known these now 8th graders since they were super tiny little 6th graders. But regardless of how it goes, middle school is over for them in 4 months. In 4 months, I won’t be their middle school leader any more. There’s something to be mourned there because the last three years have been the best three years of my life. God has done more in my life and in the lives of people I care about than I ever expected.
And that leads to something else: hope. God has done so much in these last three years of middle school for the guys I know and love, I know God has so much more in the next four years of high school, and the years of college and adult-hood and fatherhood and everything else beyond.
I think God gives us seasons to remind us to enjoy the time while it lasts. We will always have the good memories of great stories that will be told for years to come. And we have so much to look forward to.
Cherish the little things in life.
One day you will look back and realize they were the big things.