Capturing Opportunities to Provide Messages of Hope
In an ongoing series by the Barna Group to try and capture the state of the church in America, half of the pastors cited “declining or inconsistent outreach and evangelism” as a major issue facing the church.
Sadly, this finding is not surprising. And, churches could be capturing opportunities in a time of uncertainly, discomfort – even panic. An incoming tide of receptivity to hear a message of hope is arriving at the doorsteps of professing Christians.
But, a lack of interest and preparedness is prompting many of us to remain quiet.
Our Lord and Savior who loves us beyond comprehension is already forgiving us. His grace and mercy already paid the price for our sins. And right now, with a clean slate and a heart full of love and thanksgiving, believers can be a bastion of hope and a proclaimer of Truth.
The Corona-virus pandemic is seizing the attention of the world as it should. People are looking to government leaders and science for solutions to help guide us back to a sense of normalcy.
A civilized society rests on their trust in its political institution. If people remain calm and not panic, it will be alright.
What about those who have been set apart by God to trust in his promises?
Justified by faith alone — fully redeemed through God’s grace alone — faith exemplifies itself through its confession and actions. It’s not that acts are motivated to be redeemed, but a spirit-generated response by being redeemed. Faith prompts a desire to spread the Word.
So, what’s the problem?
I believe the Barna report on the state of the church (“What’s on the mind of America’s Pastors”) is uncovering distinct patterns and clues for its problems and solutions.
For instance, a rise in the lack of interest to proclaim the gospel could be tied with a significant increase in the “low spiritual maturity among church goers” that pastors cite as a growing concern (27% in 2017 vs. 8% in 1992). U.S. pastors in the report also rank “watered down gospel teachings” (72%) as the largest issue facing the church during the America’s dramatic shift towards toward secularization.
These findings coincide with previous Barna reports which concluded that “evangelism has fallen out of favor even with young adults who are practicing Christians.” Coupled with “watered down gospel teachings” it’s not surprising that the next generation have a “distrust” of religious institutions.
When Christian churches appear more interested in aligning itself with political idealism and legislating morality, not willing to confront false teaching, and struggle with sanctified living among its leaders, then it’s going to be a struggle to reach those who distrust organized religion. A water-down gospel and spiritual immaturity sows the seeds of hypocrisy and a lack of interest to grow in God’s Word and proclaim it to others.
Like the Jewish people during the time of Christ, I wonder if professing Christians are far more interested in having a savior that promotes a return to a “moral” kingdom and prosperity rather than a Savior for our sins.
Like Jesus standing over Jerusalem, I wonder if he stands on a precipice today and weeps. How he may long to gather those he loves like a hen gather her checks under her wings through the power of his pure and unfettered Word.
When biblical truth is muddied by a watered-down understanding of God’s wrath and grace, people miss receiving the assurance and confidence of full redemption.
And this plays itself out by a lack of trust in God’s Word and a believer’s responsibility for spreading it.
Fear drives panic when there is a loss of trust in the institution of government for which God has established.
Fear drives panic when there is a loss of trust in his Word and the institution of the Church for which God has established.
A church loses its saltiness.
We can go to the Lord in prayer,
“O Sovereign Lord, Almighty Creator and Sustainer of all things, the One who establishes the universe – “who determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name” (Ps. 147:4) – we humbly place our trust in your hands. We praise you, our Savior and friend. It is during serious times it can be the time to take your Word seriously. Grasp the collar of my soul and raise me up to boldly declare your name to my community. Forgive me for any timidity that could cause me to remain satisfied in being a light without a desire to give reasons for the hope I have in you. By the power of your Word, grant me to be salty when it seems the world around me is increasingly tasteless. With eyes fixated on you, Lord, grant me peace, confidence, and everlasting hope. In your name, Amen.”
A Life in Christ Never Panics
I used to work for the athletic marketing and promotions office at Fresno State University. One of my duties was to help coordinate the promotions and in-game marketing for football and basketball. During a game with thousands of people watching, things can go wrong. When bad things happen, one of the cardinal rules for event managers is to never panic. A calm mind makes better decisions. Most of the time, slight adjustments that nobody ever sees can avert major catastrophes that everybody sees.
I have applied this rule countless times throughout twenty years of outreach ministry.
And perhaps it could be applied for us today.
Never panic… especially for those who trust in Christ’s promises.
A recent trip to a grocery store is a good way to gauge public anxiety.
Selfish hoarding and overflowing grocery carts exhibit a lack of trust in our government system, our leaders, and each other.
Even though cracks may exist in our society and there is a warring divide in politics, a foundation still exists and there are good leaders to help us pull through this public health crisis.
It’s going to be okay if people don’t panic.
But I think we are all arriving at the same conclusion that life is going to be different now. In the same way lives were adjusted after 9/11, our daily lives will be transformed but probably on a grander scale. In place of intensifying security measures, changing travel habits, and concerns about domestic terrorism, we may have intensified efforts in viral screening, immunization, and changing our public habits.
And this is not including the effect this pandemic will have on our economy.
It is during the darkest times that lights shine the brightest.
A life in Christ never panics.
The object of a Christian faith rests in what Christ has already done and what he promises to do.
The storms of life – even viral hurricanes – cannot wash away a house that is built on the rock of Christ.
A redeemed life in Christ that is fully received by faith rests securely in Christ’s promise that heaven is secure. Their name is in the book of Life.
A redeemed life in Christ that is fully received by faith accepts the reality that God has placed them on this earth for a purpose. This day in history has been ordained for a believer in Christ to fulfill God’s purpose – to declare his glory – to make his Name known.
Therefore, a proper Christian response can mean exercising a dual citizenship in Christ.
A believer in Christ exercises their citizenship in this world that God created, dearly loves, and desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. All people who trust in him have been set apart before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:4), to not be of this world, but be salt and light in this world to proclaim of his message of Good News.
With one foot in the world, those who trust in God’s promises, can courageously exhibit grace amid panic. They can visit grocery stories to get what they need but be willing to give away what they possess to help a person in need. They can boldly take advantage of every opportunity the Lord provides to give reasons for the hope, peace, and confidence they have in Christ.
A life in Christ never panics but embraces difficulties in life as a blessing from God. He often uses challenges to deepen our trust in him. Secure in Christ, confident that God’s hand is in all things, challenges dissipate into opportunities to share Truth to a more receptive audience.
With one foot in the world and one foot resting in God’s promises, believers can be casual observers by viewing life in the third person. They insert their own name in lieu of God’s promises by saying to themselves:[Insert name] is fully assured because Jesus tells me that he has overcome the world. [Insert name] is fully at peace because Jesus tells me he is the resurrection and the life. [Insert name] has sure hope because Jesus loves me, this I know, because the Bible tells me so.
We can pray,
“O Lord, thank you for your mercy and grace. Fill me up with your presence and the fruits of your Spirit today. That I may live for you and not for myself. When doubt, fear, and concern rises up within me, may you flush them out with your good promises. Since I live, you live in me. Since I live, you direct me to live for you. May I seize upon every opportunity to exhibit peace and hope in my words and actions, but more importantly, verbally provide reasons why my hope is in you. During this time of turmoil and looming change, may I cling to you as the changeless One who has already secured my place in heaven. Thank you, Lord. Amen.”
Filling Your Jar of Awesomeness
A popular podcast host, Tim Ferriss, talked about his “jar of awesomeness”. Whenever anything good happened in his life or any small victories, he wrote it down on a slip of paper and placed in into a large glass jar. Since he had a strong tendency to dwell on the negative, he needed visible reminders that his work mattered.
Do you have a Jar of Awesomeness in your office or at your home?
Perhaps we all need one.
Positive comments, successes and compliments have a short shelf life. They are like perishable food items that quickly spoil.
Every win in life every time you nail it, we receive a few smiles, a few high-fives with co-workers and family members, then all too quickly say to ourselves, “yea, whatever” and move on to the next day, the next project, or some other problem that needs to be solved.
Negative comments, failures, and complaints have a longer shelf life. They stay in the cupboards of our mental pantry for years and never spoil.
Every time we mess-up tends to be treated like a doomsday event. Outwardly we tell ourselves that it will be okay. Co-workers and family members give pats of encouragement, but the devastation of messing up can be crippling. Our inner voice – if unfettered – can routinely and unexpectedly deliver sharp pangs of guilt and remorse.
I hate when that happens.
Owning a jar of awesomeness may not be a bad idea for personal evangelism.
Perhaps the greatest barrier for many Christians to overcome is not learning what to proclaim but having the courage to say something. Guilt, the fear of messing up again can rob faithful Christian believers from participating in one of the greatest exercises of our faith – proclaiming the Good News to others.
And pastors are not immune to this either.
A pastor may carefully prepare and deliver a message on Sunday morning and receive handshakes and a few complimentary remarks by wonderful faithful members. But what do they reflect upon on Monday morning?
A grumpy member who makes an unloving comment.
A prospect family who were not there… again.
Empty seats rather then ones who filled them.
Any golden moment of joy can quickly evaporate when Monday morning greets us with new challenges, old problems, and a guilty complex.
A jar of awesomeness may not be enough, but it may be a good start.
There are times when we feel stuck in life, when activities don’t seem to be gaining traction, when results don’t seem to match our perceived efforts.
Some experts talk about the importance of keeping a daily journal. There are books that help people record measurable goals and celebrating victories. I began to apply this in my life, and it has made a difference.
I record each positive comment and reflect upon each goal accomplished.
I have discovered that small victories matter in the big picture by helping sustain momentum to accomplish difficult and greater tasks.
Like personal evangelism.
Praise and Proclaim believes in celebrating small victories. This means trusting the power of God’s Word over our ability to share words with others. It means that God uses every gospel seed that is planted even though we may never see the results.
And sometimes, the greatest victory occurs when a faithful Christian shows up, steps way outside of their comfort zones, and provides a short reason for the hope they have in Christ whenever God provides opportunities.
Whenever Christian believers proclaim God’s Word – and do so with love and respect – its impossible to mess up! And that is something we ought to record and put in a glass jar. Because that is awesome!
Keeping our cup full
Now, I don’t have a “jar of awesomeness” on display in my office, but I ought to have something else that is far more important.
A Styrofoam cup.
A pastor once gave a visible reminder of God’s grace for the young men and women who sat before him on their confirmation.
He held out a Styrofoam cup full of water. He told them that on our baptism day, our cups overflow with the water of God’s grace. However, sin pokes tiny holes into our cup and the water that once overflowed begins to leak out. But God in his wisdom has provided us with his means of grace that freely and generously pours the water into our cup to keep it overflowing. Not good works or happy feelings – nice compliments or projects completed – but the waters of God’s grace that gives us peace and purpose, patience and perseverance, and the will to remain in his embrace.
I like recording victories, compliments, and remembrances that God is working in me, through me, and for me each day of my life. But I can’t plug all the leaks in my flimsy cup no matter how hard I try. When guilt is overwhelming, I remind myself of the awesome victory that Christ won for me – and that promise is enough.
Curing Evangelism Influenza
The following is a re-post from 2018 that is one of my favorites. The points are ones that I consistently go back to for myself and for others in my evangelism training. I hope the words are meaningful for you as well. [Dave]
Whenever the topic of personal evangelism comes up at church, the response from members can be like a sudden attack of evangelism influenza. Perhaps you have seen or felt its symptoms — queasy stomach, nausea, sweaty palms, or feeling faint. I may have a remedy for faithful believers to consider.
These symptoms are common for people because fear is part of our human nature.
There is the fear of public speaking, fear of being emotionally hurt, fear of heights, fear of snakes, and the fear of being humiliated. And that is the short list.
In a recent blog post by David Sherry, entitled “The Cure for Small Talk,” he talks about how he dreads small talk and avoids it as much as possible. It’s not the fear of people, he wrote, but the dreaded feeling of awkwardness when you don’t know what to say.
What is his cure?
Whenever you are placed in a situation where small talk is inevitable, it is helpful to understand that everybody has hang-ups. Life is tough no matter how hard we try to hide it. His solution is to listen carefully and attentively. When people express a problem that they are having at work or with a family member, always answer, “Wow… that must be tough!”
He suggests that when people place the focus on others instead of themselves, the awkwardness of small talk dissipates. People will come across to others as being engaging and sincere. They will appreciate a person who expresses care and concern by listening to them.
The same fears he expressed about small talk are like the fears people have for verbally proclaiming the gospel.
We hate feeling awkward. And as a result, we tend to avoid witnessing.
Let’s modify some of David’s cures to help us avoid getting sick with evangelism influenza.
- Everybody has fears
Everybody has fears about personal evangelism and that is comforting to know. People who appear to have the gift for evangelism, articulate pastors, and seasoned missionaries all have struggled or continue to struggle with fear. And like everybody else, we sometimes go to great lengths to hide our fears through excuses, being too busy, or completely avoiding it.
I struggle with fear also.
It has taken me a thousand doors and hundreds of attempts before I finally reached a point where the symptoms of evangelism influenza don’t affect me as much.
It’s comforting to know that it’s perfectly natural to fear personal evangelism because personal evangelism is perfectly unnatural. That’s why we need to hold on to Christ’s promises.
Many faithful Christians have a desire to share their faith with others. But, they can easily fall into a trap when they start focusing entirely on learning what to say while ignoring other components that are equally as important.
A person can learn every possible answer to every possible question from an unbeliever. They can memorize hundreds of Bible verses, but it will still not be enough to cure evangelism influenza.
Learning how to verbally proclaim the gospel starts with taking the focus off of ourselves. That can happen in two ways.
First, instead of flailing like Peter who tried to walk on water, we fix our eyes on Christ and his promises. When we step out into the scary waters of the world to share our faith, we keep our eyes on Christ to walk and stay afloat.
Second, when we fix our eyes on Christ we can see what Christ sees. His eyes are fixed on those who are lost. They are focused on furrowed fields ready to be planted with his Word. When we see what Jesus sees a potential mission field suddenly embraces Jesus words when he says, “The harvest is plentiful and the workers are few.”
People in today’s world are not going to want to hear an answer for the hope we have in Christ until they know that we sincerely care about them. The eternal consequences of sin prompted the Apostle Paul to be all things to all people to win as many as possible. Evangelism starts with empathy for the lost and the ghastly eternal consequences of hell.
How can we overcome the fear of awkwardness of not knowing what to say?
Listen first, talk later.
To receive an audience, you must first gain an audience.
To gain an audience, you must first be an audience.
Evangelism is about using our eyes and ears before we use our tongue. We look for opportunities and God delivers. We listen first to what a person is concerned about, then provide answers based on God’s Word to address those specific concerns.
Faithful Christians already know the gospel. They know Jesus and what he has already done for them. People want to hear about your faith and why Jesus is real to you. When a Christian initially engages an unbeliever, they don’t want to hear a canned presentation or be bombarded with Bible verses. Be who you are in Christ.
Evangelism influenza is highly contagious because proclaiming the gospel is 100% contrary to our human nature. For that reason, proclaiming the gospel is far more God working in us and through us instead of us working for God. The cure is Christ. Out of deep love for him, we become willing messengers of the sacrificial and costly work God has already done for us through Christ.
Let’s keep our eyes fixed on him.
7 Questions I Never Hear When I Go Canvassing
The presidential primary season is in full swing. Campaign volunteers are exercising their zeal to ultimately win the election in November. The volunteers are willing to do all things for all people to convince fellow party members to vote for their candidate – even going to their doors.
Political volunteers embrace questions at the door rather than fear them. Every question is an opportunity to give reasons for the hope they have in their candidate and our country’s future.
Faithful Christians often refrain from proclaiming the gospel because they fear questions from those who don’t believe in Christ. It’s intimidating to be placed in a position where they might not know the answer or give false information.
Faithful Christians need not fear questions from unbelievers but celebrate them.
Evangelism means proclaiming the gospel to unsaved souls. They are a different audience than those who believe in Jesus.
In my experience of going door-to-door to proclaim the gospel, the toughest questions typically come from those who already belong to a church or an avowed atheist looking for a fight.
Those who are far from Jesus and need to hear the Good News have a completely different mindset. They will make comments and ask questions that many Christians would never expect. They are a unique audience with a far different knowledge base.
Here is an example of seven questions that I never hear from the unchurched when I go canvassing to proclaim the gospel.
#1 What denomination do you belong to?
#2 What does your church teach about baptism and holy communion?
#3 Are you a liturgical church or do you sing Christian contemporary songs?
#4 How long are the sermons?
#5 What is your pastor like? Could he stop by for a visit so I can meet him?
#6 What version of the Bible do you use?
#7 What does your church teach about the end times?
These questions are more important for Christians who are church shopping, but they will not come from those who are spiritually lost or don’t have a church home.
What type of questions do I hear from those who have not stepped inside a church for many years?
Do you allow
gays in your church?
Do you have to be a member to attend your community event at church?
Does God forgive every sin?
Could your church accept someone like me?
Our world has changed so much that faithful Christians may not realize how people view the church or how little they know about what the Bible teaches. Unchurched people are heavily influenced by the media and what the world believes what Christianity ought to teach. We can’t assume they are rejecting the Truth because so many people have never really heard the Truth before. They don’t know that they don’t know. And those with a previous church background have stopped going to church because they longer want to feel judged, tired of trying to meet certain standards to be acceptable or find church no longer relevant in their life.
Christian believers should not be afraid to answer spiritual questions because people today are not bothering to ask them. Therefore, one of the greatest victories in evangelism is creating a safe and trusted environment where intrigued people who don’t have saving faith can ask questions and not feel threatened.
I am humbled and admire the zeal of political campaign volunteers. They are willing to go to the people to win votes for their candidate. Perhaps Christians can learn a lesson from them. With zeal sparked by the love of our Savior and engulfed by the power of his Word, we can go out to the people to bring Good News about our Candidate – Jesus Christ. He has already won!
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
Asking the right questions
Churches can often feel stuck when they ask the wrong questions.
Naturally prone to replicate, copy, or model church programs or ideas that are deemed “successful,” churches are prompted to focus on asking the “How?” questions because they are easy to ask.
One of my favorite podcasts is called “How I Built This” from NPR. It’s an appropriate title. A host sits down for an hour and talks with people about how they started their multi-million-dollar businesses. Their stories are fascinating and varied.
Most successful start-ups emerge by meeting unmet needs that are not being filled rather than assuming that they exist. Copying other ideas often don’t lead to success. Even though starting a profitable business requires hard work and persistence, building a sustainable business is often a reflection of who you are rather than what you do. At the end of each podcast, the successful founder will usually say that their business success was a surprise. It was not so much “How I built this”, but why they built it in the first place.
I think it is the same with churches launching new evangelism and outreach programs.
They tend to focus solely on other “successful” programs to borrow their ideas, follow their steps, and construct their blueprints.
Yet, in this ever-changing world with its complex dynamics, copying what already has been done can prove to be limiting and fruitless.
A more appropriate question to ask is “Why?”
It’s a philosophical question that ultimately fuels inspiration and persistence. It helps to avoid the debilitating effect of looking for easy, quick fixes to achieve numerical success. More importantly, it’s a question that values innovation.
You can ask, “What do you do?” but it needs to be quickly followed up with a better question. “Why did you do that?”
For example, “Why did you attempt this idea to reach people with the gospel in your community?”
When you ask this question to “successful” congregations – a large majority of them will provide surprising answers in the following ways:
- Their answers will tend to focus on bringing as many people as possible to heaven through the power of God’s Word rather than scour the neighborhoods looking for new members.
- Their answers will tend to focus on who they are rather than what they do.
- Their answers will tend to be within the context of how they see their mission rather than launching activities to enter a mission field.
- Their answers will tend to be based on a mission strategy that seeks to meet specific needs rather than assume they exist.
- Their answers will tend to develop approaches that fully exercises the gifts and talents of their members rather than pigeon-hole them into acts of service.
When congregations see another congregation that God is blessing with successful outreach programs and numerical growth it’s important to try and understand the context of their vision versus what they are doing.
Praise and Proclaim has been blessed with launching outreach initiatives and providing personal evangelism training across the country. With every initiative, Jesus is proven to be right. The harvest is plentiful and the workers are few. The challenge is that people are no longer coming to church on their own. They need personal contact. They need to see faces. They are more willing to hear the reasons for the hope believers have in Christ rather than listen to a sermon. They need to hear answers to the “Why?” questions in life. “Why do you go to church?” “Why do you believe in Christ?” “Why do you have peace in your life that goes beyond understanding?”
When congregations start asking and answering the “Why?” questions they are positioning themselves to uniquely gain an audience to proclaim the Good News.
Stranger evangelism versus Friendship evangelism
The Bible seems to suggest that personal evangelism is more about making yourselves available than it is about manufacturing moments. Believers are encouraged to be prepared to provide an answer for the hope we have in Christ to “anybody who asks”. (1 Peter 3:15) The emphasis in this verse is on being prepared and God will orchestrate opportunities by providing people to ask a question.
Philip and the Ethiopian provides a compelling example. (Acts 8:26-40)
While travelling Phillip made himself available to be used by God. The Lord provided an opportunity by prompting him to meet a man on the road. God’s Word was already working in the man’s heart with the Truth and God provided him with a willing servant who was prepared to answer.
The essence of evangelism is to be prepared to provide a short answer and be available to be used by God. The Lord then orchestrates opportunities to comfortably and confidently provide a gospel message.
People say that friendship evangelism is the most effective form of proclaiming the gospel because a bridge of trust has already been built with that person. They are more willing to receive an invitation to come to church or hear a reason for the hope we have in Christ.
Yet, one of the greatest fears about evangelism is the fear of rejection. Relationship evangelism is perceived as too risky and prompts many to remain quiet. Is relationship evangelism easier than stranger evangelism?
People say that stranger evangelism is effective because a person doesn’t know them. Yet, it is is perceived as too risky for the fear of messing up or saying something wrong. Is stranger evangelism easier than friendship evangelism?
There is not a good answer because evangelism is never easy.
A better question may be, “Which is more comfortable?”
When a believer has prepared themselves to give an answer for the hope they have in Christ, it really doesn’t matter if it is stranger evangelism or relationship evangelism. It’s not about concentrating on what is perceived to be the most effective – or easier – but what is the most comfortable.
Witnessing to strangers
When Praise and Proclaim leads a door-to-door proclaiming experience it’s always impressive to see how surprised church members are when they see the amount of awareness about their congregation. People typically drive by their church every day. They read the signs and message boards. They notice when there are cars in the parking lot. They gauge the amount of activity.
They also discover that most strangers are polite and friendly when they quickly find out that the person knocking on their door is from the church down the street. They usually will come across a person who has been waiting for an invitation to come to church. Sometimes, they are going through a personal or family crisis and the Lord sends the right person at the right time. The Lord provides a window of opportunity to hear some Good News.
God orchestrates opportunities by sending the right person at the right time to deliver Good News to a stranger.
Witnessing to friends
Friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members carefully observe and notice how a friend who confesses their faith in Christ deals with a personal or family crisis. A calm assurance during life’s storms is a powerful testimony to a life in Christ that remains steadfast in Christ’s promises.
Witnessing rarely feels like its manufactured but a natural overflow of a faithful heart that cares about their friend.
Prompted by love, a spiritual conversation can start. Being a light for Christ has set the table to introduce Christ through the power of his Word. A calm conviction opens our lips and eases our nerves to give a reason for the hope we have in Christ to listening ears.
Being prepared to witness to friends or strangers is a powerful form of evangelism. Yet, Jesus is right. The harvest is “plentiful” and the workers are few. Well-intentioned, faithful believers in Christ tend to stand in the shadows and remain silent because they are uncomfortable.
Witnessing to friends and strangers
The most comfortable and effective personal evangelism strategy is proclaiming the gospel to strangers who are friends.
In my experience of partnering with congregations and providing personal evangelism training, the most comfortable witnessing opportunity is with friends of your church. It is low risk because it is stranger evangelism. It is powerful because its friendship evangelism.
Friends of the church are people who have expressed interest in learning more about your church. They are young families who send their children to preschool or a youth outreach event. They may have recently attended a worship service or attended a family event. They are friends of the church who have already expressed a willingness to hear a reason for the hope that you have in Christ.
Witnessing to strangers who are friends of the church is commonly referred to as a follow-up visit. Most of the time, a connection has been formed with the pastor or teacher. And that is good. But the best way to further a relationship is when members become involved. We need not be bashful because they have already given the church permission to build a relationship with them by providing their contact information. And like any relationship, sometimes that takes time.
We don’t manufacture as much as God orchestrates a person’s interest in your church. Comforted by this truth, believers can discover how meaningful these evangelism visits can be.
- Be prepared to give a short succinct answer for the hope we have in Christ.
- Be available to be used by God to provide that answer by being gospel intentional in our daily lives.
- Be willing through Word and sacrament to be used by to God to advance his kingdom – and you will be used.
“Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)
I cleaned out my office during Christmas break.
Books were re-arranged. Folders were reorganized. Shelves were dusted.
Inside my closet required a purge. Notebooks bursting with old notes, training materials, office supplies and various odds and ends were bit of a mess. On the top shelf gathering dust included more articles, notes, and hand-written journals. Tucked away amidst the clutter was a brown, hard-bound manuscript.
As a young man struggling to find purpose, raise a new family, and flailing in his profession, the manuscript I was holding in my hand represented a pivotal point in my life.
It all started with a well-known quote.
“Every man should plant a tree, have a child, and write a book. These all live on after us, insuring a measure of immortality.” (attributed to the Talmud or Jose Marti)
The Lord had already blessed me with two children, a tree was recently planted in my front yard in Minnesota, so it seemed at the time that writing a book was the next thing I needed to do to build a legacy.
Since I was a new father and had little idea what I was doing, I felt that writing a book about fatherhood would be an appropriate subject. I knew there were young men like myself who were struggling with materialism and the pursuit to be somebody. We were inadvertently following in our father’s footsteps by not knowing how to be an engaged father. Weary of reading “how-to” books that mostly made me feel guilty about what I was not doing, I wanted to write a book of encouragement. For two years, I arrived early at the office to research, write and re-write.
The studying and research led me to this conclusion. The best way a Christian father can be the father he desires to be is to trust Christ’s promises and steadfastly remain in his Word. Only Christ takes away the baggage that hampers our ability to be a God-pleasing father and husband. Only Christ takes away the guilt. He takes us – the complete mess that we are – and molds us to be his own. By remaining in Christ and committed to the task God ordains for us, we will be a good father whether we feel like it or not.
The manuscript that carried this truth was sent to dozens of publishers and rejected by all of them.
When it appeared that the Lord was closing the door on this project, I needed to move on. The manuscript was bound for safe keeping.
After wiping away the dust, I asked myself, “Was this project a failure?”
Nobody was impacted by its words, but it certainly changed me. A spark was created – a desire to proclaim the message of the cross. It spurred me to consider becoming a full-time servant of the gospel. And the Lord miraculously opened a door for me to serve.
Success is defined by faithfulness.
Whether it be a father struggling to figure out how to be a good father, a young man attempting to establish a career, or a called servant out serving in the field, God does not judge a person’s effectiveness by outward success.
I wonder how successful Daniel felt when he was sitting alone in the lion’s den.
I wonder how successful Moses felt while wandering in the desert.
I wonder how successful Paul felt while under arrest in Rome.
Success is much more about being and remaining in Christ rather than planning and doing.
Success in God’s eyes is determined by faithfulness to the task for which God places before us.
This thought is totally contrary to our human nature. We desire – even demand — fruits for our efforts. When they do not appear according to our timetable, we tend to wring our hands and consider ourselves as failures.
Faith trusts God’s work on our behalf but faithfulness always works.
Faith rests in God’s promises but faithfulness never rests.
It’s a life-long quandary that only can be sharply defined by what can be perceived by our human nature as a failure.
There was a king born in a lowly manager in the small town of Bethlehem.
The long-awaited Messiah then disappeared in Nazareth for thirty years.
The Son of God revealed himself, then lifted on the cross.
In humility, in what was perceived as total defeat, there was victory!
Gospel ministries flourish and they close. God opens doors and closes them.
I sometimes have experienced ministry “success” and yet, it’s never enough to satisfy my ego.
I have often experienced ministry “failure” and yet, it’s always enough to keep me humble.
If I said that I have been blessed with four adult children who are making good life decisions, remaining in Christ, and not carrying excessive baggage, I would risk patting myself on the back and proudly take the credit.
If I said that all four of my children were making difficult life decisions and have turned away from Christ, I would risk scourging myself on the back and take all the blame.
“Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)
Success is defined by faithfulness – even when we feel like a failure.
Though our human nature demands results – visible monuments of our labor (successful work, ministry, or children) – our new nature in Christ trusts that our labor for him is never in vain.
Trusting in Christ – committing your work to the Lord — and his plans will be established.
Through his tender grace and everlasting mercy, God allows us to wrestle and pray, live and stay, so that he may begin a good work in us, for us, and through us according to his will and purpose. And that good work never ends until he calls us home to his eternal presence in heaven.