The danger of losing our sense of wonder as ministry becomes familiar.
One of the worst dangers facing church planters is common to anyone heavily involved in ministry: It’s easy to see God’s work up close and, over time, lose your sense of wonder. We get familiar with holy things. Perhaps overly familiar.
Chuck Swindoll has said, “The scary thing about ministry is that you can learn to do it.” And so we begin to take God’s work for granted—or worse, we lose a sense of holy dependence on his grace.
Preachers talk about this challenge. I just wrapped up an interim pastor role where I preached every week the past seven months. I love to preach. What an honor to spend time in God’s Word, in study, in preparation and then deliver a timely message for God’s people. But those of us who preach or teach on a regular basis know the temptation of becoming overly familiar with the Word, of losing sight of its power for us personally.
In an article a few years ago, Clint Clifton confessed:
“My devotional life was swallowed by my teaching ministry. The pace of public teaching meant I was in the Word of God more, but applying it to myself less. Prior to ‘professional Christianity,’ my devotional life was applied directly to my life, my sin, my struggles and my joy. Suddenly, when I became a professional, the words of the Bible were for those I led.”
Familiarity is the enemy of wonder. We start out with excitement and joy at walking with Christ but somehow, over the years, we become spiritual zombies, still alive on the outside but dead on the inside. A selfish sense of entitlement replaces a holy sense of expectation.
Fighting Spiritual COVID
The adventure of life is a fight for astonishment, a determination to resist growing bored in a world of wonders. Perhaps that’s why those who live near the quiet glory of the mountains go to the beach for vacation, and vice versa. We change the scenery so we can see the scene. We leave home so that, for even the briefest of moments, on our return we see its glory anew.
The Christian life begins with spiritual astonishment at the glory of the gospel and the goodness and beauty of Christian truth, the wide-eyed surprise of the infant brought into a new world of grace. But over time, especially for those of us in paid Christian ministry, our eyes grow heavy and our taste buds dim. We find ourselves with a case of Spiritual COVID. We’re fatigued and grumpy and, even worse, we can’t taste anything anymore. We eat to survive, not because the food has any taste.
Over time, giving your all to a church plant can lead to spiritual malaise. We lose confidence in the truth and goodness of the Christian faith. We lose our wonder at the glory of Christian truth and the enduring witness of the Church. In church planting, Jesus can, over time, become a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Our passion for planting can be transformed into a desire for platform, to extend our own influence rather than the name and fame of Christ.
‘The Biggest Thing That Ever Was!’
The key to renewal is to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” And where do we stand the best chance of regaining our spiritual passion? The gospel of God delivered once for all to the saints.
J.I. Packer was known as a professor for telling his class that his whole purpose was to say, day in and day out, “Look! This is the biggest thing that ever was!” Why point again and again to the gospel? Because, Packer would say, “We Christians, most of us, still haven’t appreciated its size. We’ve been Christians for years and years, and yet we haven’t fully grasped it.”
So, the way forward is to reach back. To find renewal in something old—foundational truths tested by time, a fount of goodness that refreshes and satisfies, long-forgotten beauty from the past that lifts our eyes above the suffering and sorrow of the present.
‘Be With Jesus’
This gospel is about a king who summons followers. One of my favorite moments in the Gospel of Mark is in the description of Jesus’ appointment of the disciples.
In Mark 3, we read this:
“Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, to send them out to preach, and to have authority to drive out demons.”
Usually, our eyes are drawn to the part where the ministry of the apostles comes into focus. Jesus appointed his followers and sent them out to preach and to drive out demons. How exciting! What authority! What power!
And maybe that’s how you feel when you envision what God might do through you and your church. But don’t miss what it says: Jesus appointed 12 apostles “to be with him.” He summoned “those he wanted” and appointed them first and foremost to be with him. Don’t miss the beauty of this order. He called you—first and foremost—to be with him, not to work for him. He summoned you because he—the King of the universe—wanted you. Yes, he sends his disciples out to preach, and he gives them authority to drive out demons. But before proclamation comes proximity. Before the power comes the Person.
Cultivate your life with God before you cultivate your life for God. Get that backwards, and you’ll run dry. You will slowly see your spiritual vitality fade if your relationship with Christ is not a priority. Proximity to Jesus is key. Your relationship with him is the most important part of your ministry. What happens in your prayer closet matters more than anything you do on a public platform.
The Tough Times
Lest we paint too rosy a picture of what this relationship looks like, let’s remember: Being with Jesus means sharing in the toil of ministry. The disciples, because they were with Jesus, experienced the harassment of the crowds. They tasted suffering.
Being with Jesus means we’ve got to prepare for the suffering that must mark the life of any who follow in the steps of the Suffering Servant. When you say you want to be the hands and feet of Jesus, just remember what happened to the hands and feet of Jesus.
Don’t miss the heart of Christianity: being with Jesus. Proximity comes before power. The person of Jesus comes before the proclamation of Jesus. Life with God comes before work for him.
In all your work to establish a new church, don’t forget God. Don’t leave out Jesus. Don’t miss the Spirit.