Many years ago, as I prepared to plant my first church, a mentor shared with me: “We do not need people to get our ministry done; we need to create ministry to get people done.”
For me, it was a statement about Jesus’ motivation and purpose for mission and ministry. This distinguished the critical difference we must maintain between our means and our end—between our ministry vehicles and our mission’s destination.
As ministry leaders, we spend great amounts of personal and congregational resources on building and restoring our “ministry vehicles.” We believe they need to be impressive in order to get us where we want to be. We congratulate ourselves for them, promote them to all our friends and neighbors and even blog about them. And while they might get us where we wanted to go, what started out as sincere motivation to accomplish the mission of Jesus can evolve into ministry idolatry.
What often gets lost are the motivation and the purpose. We—and consequently, our disciples—can value ministry over people, the community that the ministry was formed to reach, impact and transform.
After some early ministry success, I became a little enamored with what we built. My motivation turned to maintaining that success, sometimes at the expense of the people it was meant for. Then, when “my ministry” was teetering, I turned to the popular ministries of the time: seeker this, 40 days of that, a new logo.
One day, the Lord interrupted me and turned my attention to Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 (NKJV):
Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
I saw this concept at work when we created Serve The City (STC), which inspires our neighbors to love the marginalized through volunteering in practical ways, in post-Soviet Estonia. We partnered with our unbelieving neighbors to serve. It was so shiny and ran so smoothly, and everyone was enamored with it. Once-aimless young adults found purpose within STC and formed a volunteering community. We were so impressed with ourselves.
Then, one day, as I was watching with joy what we had built, it dawned on me that STC is just like church—except without Jesus.
I understood, in that instant, that we had come to rely on and be impressed by our ministry vehicle, which had no power in and of itself to change our volunteers’ eternal conditions. It had no power to reveal Jesus’ mystery, no power to heal, no power to save or reconcile people to God. As a missional community, we had to realign with what mattered most, the core purpose of our mission.
With our Estonian disciples, we had to take responsibility to serve like Jesus, but also to boldly, sensitively and discerningly proclaim Jesus and testify to His awesome love and power. They now share explicitly who Jesus Christ is and how He alone can deliver people from darkness to light. Our church, by utilizing the ministry tool of STC, now can give the Holy Spirit opportunity to draw people to Christ.
Our ministries—no matter how well functioning, relevant or impressive—are only donkeys on which to carry Jesus into the city! Paul exhorted us that the foundation of all ministry is Jesus Christ. Whatever tools we choose, they in and of themselves have no power to accomplish the mission.
Everything Jesus expended was to one end: to demonstrate God’s love and to reconcile people back to their Creator. His prayer to the Father in John 17 reveals where His treasure and heart were found.
Paul declared that what must be received after the fire are saved lives and matured disciples, not specific ministries, as much as we may value their purposes. We will survive, but will those lost around us?
May we resolve to never put our hope in ministry vehicles, but on the foundation, which is Jesus Christ; the wisdom that is Jesus Christ; and the power in His name. As I learned, I must keep the end (people) in my heart rather than the means (ministry).
My keys to guarding my heart from “exalting the donkey”:
- Ask those you are accountable to if you are talking more about ministry (glowingly or in frustration) or about the people.
- Inspect your heart. Is it fearful of making substantial changes, or even scuttling a “popular” ministry, if it is not helping to accomplish Jesus’ mission?
- Is ministry survival more important than accomplishing your mission?
- Pray for the Holy Spirit to keep your heart focused on Jesus’ treasure: people, rather than ministry.
- Pray for wisdom and discernment about if (and how) your ministry will advance the kingdom of God.
- Pray for the body of Christ to trust in the empowering message of Jesus Christ to cut through cultural mindsets and spiritual bondage that oppress our communities.
Share your thoughts. See comments below, and add your own.