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.