Saturday, March 19, 2016

Prayer – A Remedy to My Perceptions of (and Frustrations over) Futility

In the series of four posts that follow this one, I explore three stages of ministry development that I have seen. Affecting both new pastors in an established congregation, and newly-planted congregations within a community, these stages are first “Putting Out Fires,” then “Spinning the Plates,” and finally “Finding Your Traction.” There may be stages beyond these, but having served over three decades in ministry, with my longest tenure being my current position at The Glenburn Community Church, I have still engaged in finding my traction.

There is always the option of
choosing not to play the game.
But each of these three stages carries particular threats to ministry’s longevity—again, whether the ministry of a particular pastor, or the ministry of a recently-planted congregation. In this post, I want to examine how the potential for being consumed by the fires one would put out, or how allowing the spinning plates to wobble and fall could result in being dismissed, or how a failure to find your traction would result in perceiving only the futility of the alternative: spinning your wheels.

I would note that a perception of futility, and the frustrations that follow, is more often only a perception. At the risk of excessively repeating myself, it is essential to remember that in our service to Christ and others, we are responsible only for obedience in answer to “What would Jesus have me do?” God is the One who is on the hook for the results and consequences. Therefore, whether we recognize what results from our faithful service should be irrelevant.

Perception is reality? Not often.
But it is also possible to assume that we are being faithful, to ignore the evident lack of results to our ministry, and to presume that God is using the resources of faithfulness that we, in fact, are failing to supply. How can that be? E.M. Bounds would answer that such is the case when we gravitate toward either of “two extreme tendencies in the ministry.” (“Tendencies to Be Avoided,” The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds, 14) Some would shut themselves away from humanity in order to focus on becoming closer to God. Others, in their focus on becoming closer to humanity, popularizing their ministry, drift far from their devotions to God.

Whether in examining the personal ministry in which any of engages as individuals, or in considering the newly-planted congregations where some of us have served, our evaluation can never be reliable, or even stable, if based on our perception of whether this or that activity brought about its intended result. Instead, Bounds would recommend, our evaluation must be grounded in the simple (though not terribly easy) question of whether our words and deeds answer the question, “What would Jesus have me do?”

There's always a bright side on which to look!
How do we find the answer to that question? Only through prayer. How do we find the time and energy for praying through at such a level? Again, here is bounds on our motivation: “Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still.” There is a lot I could say about Bounds’ warnings to those of us whose education, intellect, talents, and other “ministry skills” allow us to celebrate our own efforts and their results.

Which is the point of living by faith, right?
Suffice to say, I recognize that my abilities more often accomplish two detrimental effects in the body of Christ. First, the perception that others in a congregation do not “measure up” in musical talents, public speaking eloquence, or any other standard causes many to withhold their own gifts and abilities from serving Christ and others. Second, and more egregious, I confidently rely on my ability to express myself eloquently (sometimes musically, but more often in the spoken word, especially in perceptions of my professional praying) to compensate for my tendency to spend far more time in preparing my words than in praying to receive God’s words through God’s Word.

So, the alternative question I am contemplating today is this: “What if the only thing that resulted from my life and ministry was that which God accomplished in answer to my praying?” I don’t dare hazard an answer without implementing its implications.

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