Risky business: God invests liberally in our lives
November 15, 2005
There is such joy in ministry. The daily work of tending and teaching God’s people is such a blessing. Sometimes I wonder why God chose me. After all, there are those more eloquent. There are those more caring. There are those more naturally gifted. Why would He select me to be a shepherd? I don’t have the answer. Obviously, God thought it was a good plan, though. He took a risk on me.
I am writing this as a type of open letter to struggling pastors and ministry leaders all across our state. Some of you may be really struggling through a ministry situation where you are wondering where God is and if He is still interested in moving in your neck of the woods. I don’t have the answer to your situation, but one thing I do know is that He did choose me and He chose you! If you are anything like me and most pastors I know, that obviously makes God a huge risk taker. But that’s what God does with each of us. He takes the risk and invests liberally into our lives. Then, He expects a good return. Isn’t that what we want, too? Don’t we all want to get to the end of the line and be able to say that we made a difference in the lives of others? This should be true on a personal level for all of us and it should also be true on a corporate level for each of our churches.
But, here is the rub. Two recent studies – one from Lifeway done from 1978 to 1983 and then, more recently, a study from the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary that looked at the years 1998-2003 – both showed that one statistic had not basically changed over the last 20 years. The percentage of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches that were growing was at 30 percent. The flipside to that coin is the troubling part. Latest studies show that 23.9 percent of SBC churches are declining and 45.8 percent are plateaued. The question is this: Has God called or not called His church to be a source of light and truth within its culture? If the declining and plateauing churches remain as they are, the trend will be to decline. Stagnation is not healthy. But, a healthy church cannot help but grow. It will not always be dramatic, but it will grow.
Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But, that is what we do many times in our churches. This is also what our people come to expect. Many pastors and leaders find themselves at the end of their ropes trying to get their churches off dead center. A fellow pastor came to my office recently in tears, because he was to a point that he didn’t know what to do next to help his ailing church back to health. He wasn’t sure if he should bail or keep rowing. That’s a terrible place to be and I would bank that there are many of you reading this article saying, “That’s me right now!”
Bitterness is not the answer. Bitterness toward the flock that wants the status quo will lead to a cooling of your own heart toward evangelism and discipleship. You can’t truly love the lost without loving the flock. I know there are those in our fellowships who will remain steadfastly against any transformation to make ministries more healthy and effective. But aren’t we, at times, hard to get along with as well, as we sometimes try to do ministry in a “my-way-or-the-highway” fashion? We must continue to lead with love. Love sometimes means speaking decisive words of vision and direction in the face of just plain obstinate opposition and apathy. Decisive leadership with love is modeled by Jesus.
Defeat is also not an option. We owe our allegiance and faith to a higher love. God’s love and work in our lives and individual ministries is always a winning combination. Even when it seems our ministries are stuck, He wants to teach us to trust Him more and more. Giving up is not a road we can take when the Lover of Our Souls has invested so much into us and those He has called us to lead. I know so many who have been in ministry and stepped out because of defeat. Sometimes life and ministry can be hard to the point of tears and anguish. You may be there now. But, the last time I checked, isn’t this life supposed to be hard? If it was easy, none of us would learn and grow. We don’t want to hear this when we are in the middle of a bad situation, but we know this is true in our heart of hearts. The last thing we want to be told when we are in the pit is that adversity builds love, strength of character and commitment to ministry. But, I am afraid that is how God has wired us, so only time and testing will help us learn these truths as we mature in the faith and our ministries. If we don’t learn them, life will only be hard with no good result in our lives. I would rather learn and grow.
So, you are there in a struggling situation. You are not sure what your next move should be. You are taking two steps forward and three steps back. Leadership and vision that balances compassion for the slow to follow with the empowering of your staff and the emerging leaders in our transitional or static churches is the balancing act to which God calls us. Now, understand when I called this article “risky business”, I don’t mean that following God’s lead is a gamble for us. The risk here is God’s. Once we begin to follow His promptings and leadings, we can’t afford to flinch at opposition. Yes, sometimes we need to stop and assess the roadblock. Ask Him for wisdom and He will give it liberally. Then, we either stay the course and pursue God’s vision or revert to the path of least resistance and simply maintain. That’s where God’s risk in His choosing of us for the ministry of pastor either pays off for Him or it doesn’t. The payoff for obedience to His lead is blessings of fruitfulness and an ability to celebrate His accomplishments through you. Everyday we should seek to live in the center of His plan and rejoice in the challenge of ministry.
If you are in a place of ministry where it seems you are spinning your wheels, don’t dwell on that. Dwell on the goodness of God and what He is teaching you through it. Then, use what He teaches you. He will never allow more opposition than you can weather. Time is short and we can all see this world and our culture spinning out of control year after year. We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and letting our ministries glide in autopilot, decline, or just simply maintain. That’s not how the early church functioned. The same God that produced exponential growth in the early church wants to do it in our time. Just ask him for the wisdom and direction and He will begin to show you steps you can take to begin to make a real difference in your ministry and communities. Find a partner to pray with you and for you. Pray.
Jesus calls us to love and that is a great place to start. Jesus’ love is magnetic and is the only thing that can effect life change in those to whom we minister. His love is what all of those in our communities have got to see active on our churches. But, His love starts in us as leaders. If I don’t love, then His risk on me will never pay off. So, even in a hard place of ministry, don’t let Satan break you down! Throw your heart on the line and you take a risk. God did on you. Now, it’s your turn. Love.
We can also learn. Become a student of what God is doing as He moves in our world through churches that are healthy and making a difference in individual lives. Don’t become a cookie-cutter church. Not every method and style will work in every other church. What we can learn are the attitudes and leadership qualities that make some ministries effective in their particular culture. What is it that God is looking for in you and your church that will enable His Spirit to move with freedom and power? As a shepherd and leader, it is your job and responsibility to find these things out and get on with it. We serve a creative and innovative God. Our churches should be the most creative and innovative places on the planet, not time capsules. Learn.
Commit to pray, love and learn. That’s the call by which we are to be consumed – for ministry and life. Go ahead, take a risk today. (Steve Gann is associate pastor, Plaza Heights Baptist Church, Kansas City.)