My old job kept me in captivity most of the time. Captive to monotonous conversations I couldn’t get out of even for a phone call. I was a receptionist. I do recall, however, one of the shortest and most meaningful conversations of my life. I made an enemy in less than two minutes.
I didn’t mean to. It was really just a case of not thinking before I spoke, but it did two things: it freed me up to get back to work and delivered a gut-punch of truth I wouldn’t have muttered if I would have thought about it. After years of cultivating the precious habit, I now think before I speak (sometimes, rather than never) and usually give truth more tactfully, but this lady didn’t even see it coming.
A coworker of mine had sidled up to the counter and peered down at me while I ended a phone call. Poor lady. She was just trying to put some distance between herself and her own nightmarish conversation. But she picked me to talk to and that might not have been the best decision …
I’m not sure how the conversation started, but she was telling me about her second job. She was a social worker by day and a public speaker by … another day. Her topic: building the church. She traveled on the weekends delivering conferences on how to build the church through best business practice. My first question was pure curiosity: “People pay for that?” She bragged, “Yeah!” Then I did it. Engrossed by the idea and in the spirit of conversation, I mused, “That’s so weird! I mean, Jesus said in the Bible, ‘I will build the church.’ I can’t believe pastors pay for that!”
I kid you not.
She gave me a hurt look and without saying another word, she turned and walked to the farthest corner of the room and sat down. She gave me pitiful glances for the next half an hour and I just smiled dimwittedly at her because I had no idea how much I had hurt her ego.
I’ve been thinking about this for over a week now because for once, I finally understand why people pay for things like that. Someone told me a few Sundays past that they are seeking another church because as much as they love the one I attend, they preferred to be in a church where the youth are on fire for God. I agreed with her wholeheartedly, as that’s so important. Inside, though, it stung. I’m the youth leader…
When the Lord called me into youth ministry, I committed to God that I would never rely on gimmicks to build up a youth group. I told the Lord that day that I would simply teach the Word of God and let the chips fall where they may. I ministered for years to groups of three or four … sometimes two, and on some occasions, one. Every once in a while, the group would swell to eight, ten or twelve. Inevitably, though, I’d lose some and the numbers would go down again. Remembering that it’s important to be faithful in the little things, I have always just pressed on, teaching a message each week to whomever showed up that I had faithfully studied and prayed over all week prior. God was faithful to give me a word in due season and I was faithful to feed His sheep. I knew what she meant, though. We’re not, per se, “on fire.”
This friend’s comment, as honest and admirable as it was, hurt my pride. I went home and prayed in my closet, “God, if there’s someone else you want to move in here, please send them! I am not so proud that I won’t sit down and let someone else rock this for your glory. I wouldn’t mind being done.” I’ve been doing youth ministry for nine years.
I felt the desperation. I felt what many pastors must feel after faithfully ministering for so long to a congregation that is either dying or dead. And I finally realized that we’re all like the woman in the Gospels with the issue of blood. We’re dealing with a sickness that’s been persisting for so long, we’re desperate. We’re willing to throw money at anything that seems promising, even if it means paying someone to strategize about the carpet, the seating arrangements, the music and the length of the sermon. We’ll even trust a carnal businessman if he’s promising a positive change to the depressing state of our churches.
But, like her, perhaps our hope will not be found there. Jesus said in John 6:44 that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.” Unfortunately, that means we’ve wasted a lot of time and money, and fruitless effort, trying to do something no man (or woman) on earth can do. And I think we’re a little confused about what it means to be on fire, too. We can purchase the amazing theatre lights, go for broke on our musical instruments and shout the roof down, but that’s all just hype if people don’t leave services changed. As a teacher, I have seen many students go from Wednesday night youth to Friday night dances wearing the shortest and most revealing dresses and cussing like a sailor. Undulating with the sway of human depravity and hiding behind their sheepish grins when our eyes meet. These young people are not on fire, even if they raise their hands and worship or give the most eloquent testimonies.
Dear pastors and youth pastors, please don’t waste another penny on conferences that promise to make a difference. Trust me, they won’t. I’ll save you time and money by shortening the truth to this: touching Jesus in prayer and intercession is the only thing that’s going to work. Holiness doesn’t always look like a loud, boisterous service. God spoke to Elijah on the mount in a still small voice, not in the earthquake, wind or fire. You can’t replicate the work of the Holy Spirit and get the same results Jesus got. Be faithful in prayer, teach what God speaks to you and leave the burden to God. If you are desperate, good! That just means you’ve read and understand James 3:1, which says, “not many of you should become teachers, brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
If you are afraid you aren’t doing something right as a minister, it’s okay. It’s humbling when you think about it: God chose jars of clay with hearts of stone to use to minister to the world. On our own, we are rather pitiful. We need God to infuse us. Infuse the worship and message we bring with His power and set people on fire because we can’t do that on our own. No matter how much we water down the gospel to fill the pews, we will not see people on fire for God in our own strength.
I hope this takes a load off. It does for me, at least. If you find this piece offending, I think it’s probably because you think too much of yourself. Jars of clay. Remember that. “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this extraordinary power does not come from us, but from God” (2 Cor. 4:7). God bless, friends!