This week's question is "Am I Selling Out?" By that I mean, do I stray slightly from God's call on my life to keep church people happy, or denominational leadership happy, or donors happy...etc.? Do you ever wonder about that? Or feel that tension? Please respond in the comments below. You can expand the question. You can tell of your story of when you've thought about this. It's open to you. I'll give my thoughts at the end of the week. Also, you can submit a question for future weeks here.
(This post is the first "answer" to a series of questions that haunt pastors. You can submit a question here. I have a great one to start next week, so check-in on Monday and discuss with me.)
Am I making a difference? I asked myself that as I drove home after church one Sunday afternoon. The question was still with me the next day when I woke up and went running. Running has always been a good time for me to think. So I started re-phrasing the question and being more specific about it.
Many pastors probably wonder about this, and we attach our value to "how church is going." If it's going up, we feel up. If it's going down, we feel down. That's not a very good recipe for longevity of effective ministry. Let's dive in and explore this a little more. What am I really asking when I ask "Do I make a difference?"
First, I think I mean specifically: "are there any changes in the lives of the people who hear me preach?" That is a question that I cannot answer directly. I can observe how people live and try to connect it to my influence. I can listen to people give compliments after a sermon. I even get compliments from people after months of hearing my preaching. But the cynical side of me has a hard time receiving them because I've always thought "actions speak louder than words." So what actions do I see among the people who hear me preach regularly?
Again, the cynical side of me has an easy time coming up with negative responses to that question. I'll be honest, it's hard for me to find things to celebrate. Maybe I expect too much, or I expect it on a faster time-frame. A friend and mentor responded to my question on Facebook saying, "Look for the small advances." That's great advice. In fact, at our last Church Council meeting I had people share things they thought the church could celebrate, and hearing the responses was very encouraging. I'll be honest though, I'm inpatient, and I want to see big things. So, looking for the small advances helps, but it's not always satisfying.
Another issue is how my denominational system tracks "fruitfulness." The main focus has been worship attendance, which can trend up over time, but has dips in between. So if you measure each week by that, it can be a stressful roller coaster ride. We also track "professions of faith" (a.k.a. conversions/commitments/decisions/confirmations), the number of people in "hands-on" mission & service, and the number of people involved in regular discipleship groups. We are always reminded that every number is a person, and every person matters, but a value ends up getting attached to the number. I just can't attach my value to numbers.
So, what's the answer to this question about making a difference? What am I asking? What do I really want to know? That my life's work is not in vain, but has a value for eternity. I want to know that the preaching, the visits, the evangelism, the youth trips and camps, the VBS, etc. has impacted people's lives in such a way that those who have not had a close relationship with Jesus, will know him for eternity. My experience with Youth Ministry has shown me, that I may not see that until the students have grown into adulthood and choose to live as Christ-followers. And some students I may never see again in this lifetime. I may not know the answer to this question until eternity. So why ask?
I think part of it is doubt, which we all face. It's one of those self-doubt voices that you have to be very careful about listening to. Too often, I forget that God in Jesus Christ has said "You, Ben, are valuable, my son. Your life is important to me. You will be apart of the great things of My Kingdom." In one sense, I already know the answer to my question: Yes, of course I make a difference. I am a beloved child of God. As long as I am faithful to God's call, God uses me to make a difference for the Kingdom of God. (If I am unfaithful, I am choosing to abandon God's call and kingdom even though God still offers it.)
I am also reminded of how much encouragement and appreciation people need. I'm not the only one asking this question. All of us want to know. Have you taken time lately to go out of your way and show appreciation and encouragement for the Christ-followers who have invested in your life? Let them know they make a difference.
Here's the answer:
I do make a difference. I know it not because of a number, and not because people like me, and not because people do what I say. I know it because God proclaims it through Christ's death & resurrection, and God's willingness to adopt me as His own. Through Jesus Christ, I know it more and more each day, and one day...one glorious day, I will know it fully and completely in eternity.
Many of my clergy friends are moving and have moved to new contexts for ministry in the past weeks and I thought this is relevant to getting to know people.
When Zachaeus climbs up a tree, Jesus tells him he's going to his house today...at least, that's how the song goes that I was taught. Looking at Luke 19 verse 5, it's pretty clear that Jesus just invites himself over to Zach's house. I don't know what the culturally accepted (or expected) way of doing things was back then, but I know that today in the U.S.A. That's not typically how it works. That's called "inviting yourself over." It could also be called "party crashing." At least Jesus made contact first and gave a warning. Jesus didn't just show up at Zach's private residence, but he did invite himself over.
Can/should we follow Jesus' example today? Is it ok for me as a Follower of Christ to just invite myself over into people's homes to spend time with them? What's the balance between respecting culture and violating etiquette? Let's take a deeper look at the story.
Jesus does not just invite himself over out of the blue. Zach made a clear effort to try and get to know Jesus. Jesus responded and said, "I'm coming to your house." So, it would not be best to walk up to some random stranger and say "I'm coming to your house today." If that "stranger" is an acquaintance (or on the way to becoming one) and shows an interest in you and what you're about, then you can invite further conversation and invite yourself to their home.
Also, notice that Jesus knows Zach's name. Whether it was divine foreknowledge, or if Zach was a well-known public figure, the story doesn't say. But, Jesus knows Zach's name. Again, this is not just a random stranger out of the blue. The story says Zach is a rich leader among tax collectors. Zach is a person of influence, and probably known in the community, which can be negative or positive (in this case, probably negative because he's a tax collector). And Jesus knows his name and calls him by name. I imagine Zach also knew Jesus' name. Why else would he be climbing a tree to try and see him? Ok, maybe he just did it because everyone else was crowding Jesus and Zach just wanted to see what the spectacle was. But even then, the buzz was probably going around: "Jesus is here." So they both probably knew of each other, but didn't necessarily know one another. So if you know a persons name, and they probably know yours, then you can invite yourself over to their home. Are you following me?
Why am I discussing this? Because breaking cultural norms to reach people for Christ is tricky business. I need to fit in culturally, and speak the language, and follow the "rules," but the cause of Christ compels me to push the boundaries and take risks. Inviting myself over is a daunting risk, but if I know the person's name, and they've made an effort to know me, then I'm just returning the favor and seeking to know them more. This is how relationships start, and a relationship with me is a start to a relationship with Christ.
So don't pass up the opportunity to violate etiquette and invite yourself over to strangers homes. They won't be strangers for long, and you have the chance to share your relationship with Christ by starting a new one. Take the risk. It's worth it.
What do you think, is inviting yourself over going too far? How is it different from door-to-door evangelism? I think if you keep the above thoughts in mind and the person is becoming an acquaintance instead of a total stranger, then you're good to go. But honestly, for me, it's a very daunting task to step out, risk rejection and build a deeper relationship with some one I don't know. Again, the risk is worth it for the sake of Christ. I'm working on growing in this area myself, and I'm finding that yes, taking the risk is worth it. I
I thought I would do something to keep me blogging on ministry leadership. So I have "questions that haunt a pastor."** These are things that would keep a pastor up at night, or at least continually searching. The way this will work is, at the beginning of each week I'll post a question, and then you can post your thoughts about it. At the end of the week, I'll post my reflection/answer about it. To give things a chance to catch on, I'll ask the question this week, but I would love people to submit questions here.
This week's question is "Am I Making A Difference?" I ask myself that at least weekly. Do you ask yourself that? How do you measure your effectiveness as a leader, pastor, teacher, minister?
I don't want to say too much now because I'll save it for the reflection/answer later.
**(I'm stealing the title from my friend and theologian, Tony Jones. His series "Questions that Haunt Christianity" focuses on issues that deal with Christian Theology and Spirituality. People submit questions that bug them about Christianity, and then Tony and his readers answer. It's been pretty good discussion over at Theoblogy, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/.)
I am a United Methodist Pastor, but I'm trying to re-define that as a Missionary sent to my corner of the USA. What would it look like for you to envision your life as a Christian more like a Missionary than a Church-goer?