Wisdom in Contextualization: How Far is too Far?

By Ed Stetzer

How does the word “contextualization” make you feel? Free or fearful?

The $64-million dollar question about innovation and change is this: How far is too far? I can’t think of any question in the church much more controversial than this one. We’ve been asking it for two thousand years and rarely ever seem to agree.

Most of our discussions on these issues center around contextualization. We should change our methodology to better proclaim the unchanging message to a consistently changing world. But not all change is good, even when it is promoted under the guise of contextualization.

I am all for innovation. But it should be used as means to better contextualize the gospel, not simply for its own sake. We need to evaluate where that line is, so that we do not cross it and lose the very reason God has placed us here.

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Measuring contextualization

Contextualization is, obviously enough, all about the context. Walking with my nose in the air could mean I think I’m better than you. Or it might mean I’m trying to protect you from my nosebleed. Context provides meaning to your interpretation.

Gospel contextualization began the moment Christ came teaching in synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23). Christ presented words and deeds to His audiences in ways that were meaningful in their language and culture.

The language was Aramaic. The culture was Jewish (with a bit of Roman and Greek tossed in). The reaction of the crowds, especially the religious leaders, makes it clear that Christ’s words and actions were meaningful in His cultural context.

Changing in order to contextualize is not watering down the message of the good news of Jesus. The opposite is true. To contextualize the gospel means removing cultural and linguistic impediments to the gospel presentation so that only the offense of the cross remains.

But when we think about changes and contextualization today, it is easy to think you are the only one who has it right. Everyone to the left of has changed too much and lost the gospel. Everyone to the right is a bunch of legalists who haven’t changed enough and can no longer have a conversation with culture. To overcome this temptation, we need to establish what is unchanging and look for signals that our changes have gone too far.

More art than science

God designed it so the unchanging message of Jesus can fit into changing “cultural containers” in order to reach people where they are, and to take them where they need to go. Contextualization is a skill the missional church in the U.S., like international missionaries, must learn and use.

Contextualization, however, is more of an art form than a science. Clear lines that provide hard and fast boundaries for every language and culture don’t exist, especially as it relates to our orthopraxy (the way we live out the gospel). But there are certain gospel lines that we cannot cross.

What are the signs we’ve crossed un-crossable lines? If we have lost the clear proclamation of the gospel—Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin and in our place—or we downplay repentance and forgiveness, I think we’ve removed the intentional stumbling block of the cross. That would be a first warning sign.

If we teach the message in such a way that excludes or de-emphasizes the Bible, I think that’s a difficulty as well. If I find myself underplaying the role of Jesus in salvation or the necessity to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, that’s another red flag.

What works today

Some segments of our evangelical churches have adopted some changes and are doing anything they can through advertising, media, social media, coffee houses, movie theaters, music, the arts, and other venues to have a meaningful conversation with the world. Some Christians feel that giving any ground toward what they perceive (often rightly) as compromise with the culture will eventually cross the line into a heresy and pluralism slide.

Obviously, we don’t want to be syncretists with the gospel message. But contextualization means change will occur. We will be looking for new ways to translate the gospel that help others grasp its message. This is not accommodating the culture; it’s building meaningful relationships with people and speaking with them about the gospel (on the gospel’s own terms) in ways that make sense to them.

So when has change gone too far? When the gospel no longer looks or sounds like good news and Jesus no longer looks or sounds like the Jesus found in the pages of Scripture. But if the feet of those who bring the gospel are beautiful upon the hills, it is at least partly because those who hear the gospel are able to understand meaningfully the wonderful person and work of Jesus. The feet can still be beautiful even after you change shoes.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today.

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Welcoming the Wilderness During Advent

The following excerpt is from “Advent is a Season of Longing,” written by Carolyn Arends and published in Christianity Today.

People are rarely neutral about the approach of Christmastime. Some of us reside at a North Pole of intense anticipation and excitement, while others of us hole up at a South Pole of irritation and dread.

If the latter is the case, it’s important to remember that Advent is a season all about longing and emptiness and waiting. It is a season set aside to help us realize that we need deliverance from our current condition.

Not coincidentally, two of this year’s Old Testament and the New Testament lectionary readings—Isaiah 40 and Mark 1—each begin in the same place. They are both set in the wilderness.

In Isaiah 40, the Israelites are at a South Pole of political exile and spiritual desolation. After chapter upon chapter of warnings and judgment, God begins to speak assurance through his prophet.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” he begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v. 1). And then a voice cries, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3).

This metaphor of a kind of superhighway being made through the wilderness is a favorite theme of Isaiah’s. It asks the listener to picture the rough, nearly impassable terrain to the east of Jerusalem being smoothed out into a wide and welcoming path. To the Israelite ear, the voice of one calling to prepare the way in the wilderness means not only that they are going to get to go home, but also that the Lord himself is on his way.

And it’s not just Isaiah calling us to prepare a way. In the New Testament Advent reading, the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark include a direct quote from Isaiah 40. Mark tells us that now the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” is John the Baptist, who has arrived on the scene as a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And John’s sole focus is heralding the coming of the king—of Jesus—who is the direct fulfillment of every promise ever made to God’s people.

It’s important to note that John is not only a voice crying to the wilderness—he’s a voice crying in the wilderness, from the wilderness. He’s a desert dweller, and his ministry is unfolding in the barren places east of Jerusalem.

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So, why did John choose to live in the wilderness? You would think a young man with a spiritual pedigree would set up shop in the most influential synagogue around—or better yet, in the temple—and wait for the religious leaders to recognize his authority. But John chose instead to head for the hills. What did he know about the wilderness that we don’t?

Maybe John chose to live in the wilderness because he’d heard enough of the history of Israel to know that God specializes in bringing good things out of unpromising places.

After all, God had worked out salvation history through childless couples, feuding brothers, stuttering leaders, wayward kings, and, now, in Jesus, a young man of questionable paternity born and raised in a series of backwater towns. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” a potential disciple had incredulously asked when he heard where Jesus was from.

John knew that, yes, when God is involved, something good could come from even a town of questionable repute like Nazareth. And something good could come from the wilderness, too.

So, if you find yourself at a South Pole this Advent, consider the possibility that you are being offered the gifts of the wilderness. Advent is a time for waiting, and the wilderness is as good a place as any—maybe the best place of any—to wait. If you’re feeling a little empty, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, there is a voice crying in the wilderness, and he’s asking us to prepare him room.

–Carolyn Arends is director of education at the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. She is also a recording artist, speaker, author, and college instructor.

Pastors, the Church is not our Personal Platform

By Karl Vaters

The church does not exist to give us an audience for our ideas, projects or egos. It exists to fulfill Christ’s purposes.

The church belongs to Jesus.

It is not owned by its denomination, its donors, its members, its staff or its lead pastor.

Jesus said he would build his church – and he’s not about to give up that ownership to us or our ideas.

As a pastor, this is a lesson I need to remind myself of regularly, so I thought I’d share that reminder with you as well.

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Why The Church Exists

The church does not exist to give us an audience for our ideas, projects or egos. It exists to fulfill Christ’s purposes. Our role is to equip the church members to enact those purposes, both inside and outside the church walls.

The church exists to make Jesus known, not to make pastors famous.

Yet we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. We (try to) take control because without our strong hand on the wheel (we think) the church will fall to pieces. The budget won’t be met. The membership won’t grow. The ten year vision won’t be realized.

The Pastor’s Role

This happens in churches of every size and type. From the charismatic founding pastor of the high-energy, non-denominational megachurch, to the long-term, patriarchal pastor of the traditional, centuries-old congregation.

We have big ideas. Grand projects. Exciting opportunities. And it’s tempting to use the resources at our disposal – namely the people, building and finances of the church we pastor – to bring those about.

But it’s not our job to get a group of people to agree with us and carry out our vision. No matter how good that vision might be.

As a pastor, it’s our calling to help the church body (re)discover God’s purposes together, then participate in them as the Holy Spirit leads us all.

If we want to build a platform, a project or a ministry based on our ideas, we need to start a parachurch ministry – or a for-profit business. Not use a church body to carry them out for us.

The Pastor’s Focus

The focus should never be on the pastor, but on Jesus.

  • • Not on the preaching, but the equipping.
  • • Not on the presentation, but the discipling.
  • • Not on the music, but the worship.
  • • Not on the building, but the gathering.
  • • Not on the platform, but the people.
  • • Not on the packed (or vacant) seats, but on the empty cross.

Always and only.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today

What I Wish I had Known about Stewardship

By Dave Briggs

Five insights that changed my awkward relationship with this core part of the Christian life and church ministry.

I grew up in church, and my family rarely missed a Sunday. I don’t remember a single sermon, but I do remember feeling nervous about the word stewardship.

Every September our church hosted Stewardship Sunday, where the minister would preach an emotional sermon stressing the need for everyone to give more. It worked—I left those services feeling guilty. To make matters worse, when I was in high school I was recruited to visit the homes of church members and present them with a Stewardship Pledge Card. It was my job to compel them to fill out their giving commitment for the coming year. They felt awkward. So did I.

Thankfully, in my mid-20s I was exposed to some outstanding teaching about the biblical perspective on stewardship. It changed the trajectory of my life. Things I had never seen before jumped out at me. I discovered that the Bible speaks about money and possessions more than any other topic except love. Jesus talked often and openly about our relationship with money.

For the last 14 years, I have served on staff at two large churches leading their stewardship ministries. During that time, I realized a surprising number of church leaders also have an awkward relationship with stewardship—similar baggage to my own. Here is what I wish I had known about stewardship.

  1. “Stewardship,” “generosity,” and “giving” are not synonyms.

I now realize, using these terms interchangeably confuses people. Stewardship is a role, giving is an act, and generosity is an attitude. In biblical times, a steward was a respected person of high integrity who was entrusted with the master’s possessions. The steward managed the possessions in accordance with the master’s wishes. Since God created and still owns all we have, stewardship is recognizing that God is the owner and we are his managers, responsible for using God’s possessions to please him. This elevates “stewardship” for people.

Generosity involves a willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of others. Giving is merely the act of releasing something of value. Giving can be done without generosity (the Pharisees are one example), but you cannot be generous without giving. However, generosity is only one characteristic of a biblical steward. A steward’s primary responsibility is to manage the resources that are not given away. Take a look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14–28 for a good example of both positive and negative stewardship.

  1. Poor stewardship is dangerous for you; rich stewardship is for your benefit.

When I communicate to people about money, I guide them to understand that I want something for them, not something from them. If my teaching on money is only about giving to the church, people will check their phones, and I’ll miss a great opportunity to help them grow.

Poor stewardship is dangerous for you. Between 25 and 50 percent of church attenders give nothing or next to nothing. This is not a financial problem but a spiritual one. God is a giver. Our willingness to give reveals our relationship to God.

Examples can be found throughout Scripture, but two of the most potent are found in Luke 12 and Revelation 3.

In Luke 12:15–21, we see a rich farmer blessed with an abundant crop. He gives no credit to God, nor does he give thought to being a steward. He thinks only about himself. Jesus calls him a fool, not because he had great possessions, but because his possessions had him.

In Revelation 3:14–17, we get to eavesdrop on God’s letter to the church in Laodicea. The people in the church believed their material blessings indicated they were right with God. But God exposed their blindness, nakedness, and depravity.

In both cases, a harmful relationship with wealth became the root of spiritual blindness.

On the other hand, rich stewardship benefits everyone.

The Acts 2 church provides an encouraging contrast to the church in Laodicea. In Acts 2:42–47, the early church lives out a culture of stewardship. Verse 45 says, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” This first-century church is a beautiful picture of generosity in action, even in their scarcity.

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  1. Stewardship is about hearts, not causes.

We live in a world fraught with causes to support. Yet the point of stewardship isn’t about causes, important as they may be. Jesus surprised his disciples with this principle. The story of Mary and the expensive perfume in Mark 14:3–9 is one example. During a visit to the home of Simon the Leper, a woman emerges with a year’s wages worth of precious perfume and pours it on Jesus. Some of the disciples grumbled, imagining all it could have accomplished for the poor. But Jesus wanted to focus their attention on the heart of the giver. This woman showed her deep love for Jesus through the use of her resources. The disciples missed the point. When we make God our highest priority, our desire is to honor him. This releases a spirit of love, which releases resources to meet real needs.

In 2 Corinthians 8:8, Paul addresses this same concept when challenging the early Macedonian church: “I am not commanding you, but want to test the sincerity of your love.” Generosity, even amidst poverty, reveals our love for God (2 Cor. 8:2).

  1. We need more teaching about money, not less.

When I became a stewardship pastor, I was shocked to discover how much people were struggling financially. Money is an emotional topic, so people want to hide their financial struggles. They often feel they are not in a position to be generous. Avoiding the topic of money only deepens the problem. Preaching frequently about money creates a greater willingness in your people to address their financial health.

Here are three aspects of money to address to help your people grow as stewards:

The practical aspect: This involves teaching people how to organize their finances and manage their money. We have all preached at some point on the Good Samaritan, but have you taught this parable from a financial perspective? In Luke 10, the Good Samaritan not only gave of himself, but he was also a good steward. He saved money in advance for an unknown and unforeseen need. Because he was a saver, he had a surplus from which to express his generosity to the wounded traveler.

The emotional aspect: This is rarely addressed and usually leads to bad financial decisions. When it comes to money, if the heart overrules the head, the result is frequently disastrous. Just follow teenagers around the mall to see what I mean.

The spiritual aspect: Your people will never be good stewards if they do not align their financial decision making with the wisdom of God’s Word. It’s that simple.

A powerful example of how our relationship to money impacts our spiritual lives is found in the parable of the four seeds and the four soils in Mark 4. Beginning in verse 18, Jesus explains the meaning of the third seed: “Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful”. Don’t miss the striking message here. A wrong relationship with money robs God’s Word of its fruitfulness in our lives.

However, Jesus gives us good news in explaining the fourth seed: “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” Isn’t this the kind of multiplication we want to see in every area of our lives and churches? Teaching your people to resist the deceptive power of wealth will keep the door to their hearts open to accept the Word and to experience fruitfulness.

  1. Your relationship with money impacts your relationship with God.

This energized me to leave behind the financial apprehension of my childhood and commit to helping people grow in this area. Stewardship is not a financial ministry; it is a discipleship ministry. If people don’t hear teaching and preaching about money, they are left exposed to one of Satan’s favorite tools.

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says it is impossible to serve two masters. Either we will follow and serve the powerful force of Mammon (greedy pursuit of wealth) or we will serve the one true God. It is not possible to do both.

In one of the saddest passages in Scripture, we experience a conversation between Jesus and a rich young ruler. In Luke 18, the intelligent and influential man asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus engages him in conversation and learns that the man believes he has kept the commandments from an early age. Knowing the one thing holding the young ruler back, Jesus asks him to part with his wealth and follow. When confronted with prioritizing Jesus or his wealth, the rich young man chooses his wealth.

The stakes are high. We cannot leave our people lacking a clear understanding of the spiritual implications of their relationship with money.

As I’ve learned over time, if you build a healthy stewardship culture, your church will never be the same. Your people will grow closer to God, your congregation will experience increased spiritual vitality, and greater resources will be unleashed for kingdom impact.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today

 

Pastor, Take a Vacation—for the Good of Your Church – Part 2 of 2

*This is part two of the article published in the previous post.

4 Commitments to Combat Vacation Anxiety

  1. I commit to being honest about my vacation anxiety.

Some anxiety is appropriate. As the leader, I am responsible for ensuring that leadership is being raised up and trained to do the work of ministry. My husband and I are ultimately responsible for having all our bases covered. Pastors who leave town without a thought to what might go on in their absence send a message of disengaged inattentiveness.

However, some types of anxiety are not only inappropriate—they are toxic to my soul and lead to the sin of idolatry. I have to ask myself,

  • Is my anxiety rooted in fear or in a compulsive need to please the people of my congregation?
  • Am I micromanaging the people around me and doubting their ability to do good work without my presence?
  • Have I taken undue responsibility for the Spirit’s movement among the people of God to the extent that I believe that, apart from my physical presence, the Spirit will not (or even cannot) move?
  • Is my identity so rooted in my vocation that the idea of time away from work is disorienting and unsettling?

These are not easy questions to answer honestly, but my answers reveal the ways in which my heart veers toward that “blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”

  1. I commit to going.

Yes, I will actually take my vacation. This requires wisdom and discernment. It’s probably not ideal to take two weeks of vacation in the middle of Advent. But I won’t kid myself into thinking every church function requires me to be there in the flesh. I will work to empower my leaders, be they pastoral staff or lay leaders, and then let them do their jobs. Equipping the saints for ministry is sacred work.

  1. I commit to being absent.

When I leave, I will be as fully “gone” as possible. This may not require a costly overseas escape. A simple, affordable “staycation” will work just as well, if I take the call to absence seriously. That means I will need to communicate clearly that I will not be responding to emails, calls, or texts. But that’s not enough. I must follow through and stay off my phone and email! I will probably disconnect from social media as well. It has the power to make us present in mind and spirit to the wrong things, even when we are absent in the body.

I will, of course, leave emergency contact info with someone who I trust to respect my absence—someone who understands the definition of emergency.

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  1. I commit to being present.

Being absent is only half the battle. As I embrace the call to absence from work, I must accept the challenge to be present—to my family, to my body, and to my spirit.

Present to my family. I commit to paying attention to my loved ones in intentional ways. Even if I don’t go on a lavish trip or even leave town, I will find a way to spend quality time with my family.

Present to my body. So much of pastoral work is work of the mind. After a long day of sermon prep, I find that I have left my seat perhaps only twice, but I am exhausted from the mental fatigue of studying. During times of increased stress and anxiety, my body lets me know through stomachaches, tight shoulders, and jaw tension—once so severe I could barely chew! I will use the time of absence from work to be present to my body through physical movement and bodily care. Exercise, even a simple walk, reminds me that I am a whole person, not a disembodied spirit or mind.

Present to my spirit. It never fails that when I have a moment of stillness, anxiety pounces on my peace. My initial reaction is to flee or distract. Hurry, get busy! If I’m constantly moving, anxiety can’t slither in. Or, Start that Netflix binge! My mind will be too busy with the steady stream of entertainment for anxiety to get a word in. In her book Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind, Jennifer Shannon says this is the wrong approach to our anxiety. It sends the false message that the fear we are experiencing is dangerous and should be avoided. But it’s not dangerous; it’s just uncomfortable. Shannon encourages her readers to open their minds and hearts to the anxiety and to sit with the discomfort, thereby debunking anxiety’s lies and stealing its power.

As I sit with the discomfort, I ask the Lord to remind me that I am his beloved, and with me, the Lord is well pleased. I confess the ways in which I have sought to do God’s work on God’s behalf. I ask the Spirit to heal the wounds that led me to these anxious behaviors.

Vacation as Co-laboring

Without a doubt, taking vacation as a pastor can be a challenge. But time away is not merely important—it is essential for both the pastor and the congregation. Those of us who bear the mantle of pastor need to be reminded that we are not the head of the church. Christ is.

Pastors are not, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “the linchpin holding a congregation together.” We are co-laborers with our flocks, cooperating with the Holy Spirit who is doing the work of calling, comforting, and convicting. Our congregations need a reminder that pastoral vacations can deliver blessings as well. They are not to be passive consumers of what the “professional” pastor has to offer, but rather to be engaged, contributing members of the body of Christ.

By refusing to participate in the blasphemous anxiety to do the work of God for him and confessing the idolatry in our own hearts, we will shape our congregation to follow Jesus faithfully—more faithfully than 365 consecutive days of work ever could.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I need to get back to planning my vacation.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today

When Your Calling Feels Like Death

By Mandy Smith

Doing God’s will, even in ministry, isn’t always fun and flourishing.

What makes you flourish?

It’s a helpful question to ask when discerning our calling. It assumes that God’s call grows from our gifts and passions, that we experience blessing as he works through us to bless others. And that’s scriptural and true.

But what about when our calling feels not like flourishing but like dying?

Yes, I’ve known seasons when following God felt like life and growth. Times when praying for someone brought transformation, when obeying the call to start something new brought growth. But I’m not in that season right now.

Right now it feels more like obedience. Like setting aside what I’d like to do and choosing instead to do what he asks. More like endless spreadsheets and emails and starting big challenges and less like seeing lives transformed. Seasons like this mean stepping into places that feel unsafe, that make me look foolish, daring to care about broken things that may never be fixed. God dares me to pray for release for the person who seems beyond hope. Personally, I’d rather not go there. I might be disappointed.

Yes, I believe that God leads us into life and growth. At times, though, I believe he prunes us.

We have admiration for martyrs—people who die publicly because of their faith. We know their stories from the Bible and church history. But what about the kind of martyrdom that slowly draws the life from us, not in an execution, but from a daily choice of being poured out like a drink offering?

In today’s ministry, we easily equate our work with life fulfillment and career goals. So what do we do with these words of Jesus?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

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How could it be that following the Lord’s prompts took me to a place where answers were scarce and God seemed absent?

In a culture that loves to measure success, how do we accept the example of the prophets? They were called to say and do faithful things to an unhearing, uncaring crowd, hammering on hard hearts. Prophets were called by God to feel his own pain, to long for things they would never see.

Dare we risk equating our story with the martyrs and the prophets, as ordinary as we are? It may be the only way our own story can make sense. The stories of martyrs and prophets may help us set aside other stories we’re tempted to believe. Twisted stories like these:

  • When you’re not seeing fruit, it’s because you’re doing it wrong.
  • When prayers aren’t answered, it’s because you’re unfaithful.
  • When ministries elsewhere seem more successful, it’s a sign something’s wrong with you.
  • When you don’t see God making all things new, it’s because God has forsaken you—or maybe doesn’t even exist?

How could it be that following the Lord’s prompts takes us to places where answers are scarce and God seems absent? 

This kind of discomfort can become a moment to discern if we’re in the right place. Sometimes lack of outcomes may be a sign something should change. As leaders we can use discomfort to motivate those we lead (or to guilt-trip ourselves) to try harder and longer: “Ministry is hard. Try harder.” But when we’ve discerned those things and still our work is hard, when we’ve prayed for release and no change comes, it may simply be that this is the life obedience has led us to.

This life of obedience will likely call us to do things we don’t actually want to do.

We may be called to say goodbye to people we’d rather be with, to be with people we wouldn’t choose.

We may be called to stay in places we’d rather leave, and leave places we’d rather stay. He may call us to long for healing for someone who may never be healed, to pray for someone who may never be “fixed.”

Giving up our time and energy and control all feel like death. We may not admire these deaths as much as martyrs’ physical deaths, but what is a life if not our will and time and energy? This is living sacrifice.

According to Paul, we carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that his very life may be visible in our bodies. While we live a life that daily becomes less and less our own, Jesus’ own life becomes more and more evident, not just in a sermon we preached but in our bodily witness. As we become less, Jesus becomes more.

During this season of serving a particular couple named Teo and Lily, I vented to a wise mentor about my pain. I had felt the Lord so strongly in the prompt to care for them. But caring for them meant working toward miracles I rarely saw, hoping for changes that hadn’t come. How could the prompt that grew from his presence lead me away from his presence? I thought those who made sacrifices for him would at least get the pleasure of sensing him with them. My wise friend smiled kindly and said, “It seems you think your pain is your own.”

Could it be I was feeling the Lord’s pain every time Theo wondered how he’d care for his disabled wife every night she slept on concrete? Could it be that by daring to care for this couple I was being shown a tiny corner of God’s heart for every way this world is lonely and cold? Perhaps he was giving me a glimpse of Jesus’ obedience to step into this broken, sinful world. The suffering face of Jesus on the cross had always made me feel guilty. I didn’t want to be reminded that he suffered for me. Now I knew he suffered with me. That he suffered with Theo and Lily and every lonely, poor, weary person around the world and throughout history. Jesus’ obedience to the Father had taken him into intense suffering. And now I knew that his physical pain was only part of the suffering.

While this may not bring the pleasant flourishing our younger selves imagined when we first followed this call, a life of obedience certainly brings another kind of flourishing. Day by day, we slowly die to our own preferences. It may feel like being buried. But with Christ’s example we see that burial as a planting of something hopeful in the soil, something that dies only to burst into life. So we learn to live out Jesus’ own story:

“I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today

When Your Calling Feels too Small

By Alison Dellenbaugh

Success is measured in obedience.

Lately, I’m hearing a lot about “calling” and following wherever Jesus leads. And I’ve been right there on the front row, soaking it up. Meanwhile, my church is focusing on what it means to really be a disciple, no matter the cost.

When we hear these calls to radical discipleship and bold leadership, a lot of us have our spirits pierced and want to sign on–as we should. “Here I am. Send me!” we say with Isaiah. “Anything! Anywhere!” We’re ready to lay down our lives, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus into even rough waters. Go to Africa? Start an orphan care ministry? Plant a church in the inner city? No matter how big, Lord, we’ll do it!

But what if God asks us to do something small? That can be the hardest calling of all, especially for those of us who feel passionate about following him with abandon and making a difference in the world.

I’ve told God I’ll do anything he asks, then waited for the next assignment. And he seemed to say to me, “Will you be faithful to keep writing these church announcements?”

Um, of course, Lord, but…don’t You have anything more? Harder? Not so safe?

For you it may be something different. “Will you stay in your current position? Work in the nursery? Serve in the local soup kitchen instead of Haiti? Lead another Bible Study with only the same four people?”

Last year, I felt strongly that God was calling me into a new ministry, though I had no details. I expected a door to open any day, but instead I saw doors close. After a few months, I cried out in prayer late one night, asking God to please call me somehow the next day! And first thing the next morning, I was asked to do a new ministry task. A task that seemed small. A task that turned out to be tedious and stressful, requiring several volunteer hours a week, very much behind the scenes. Given the timing, it almost felt like a divine joke.

Yet the same day I got the assignment, one of my devotionals was on Zechariah 4:10, which says in part, in the NIV, “Who dares despise the day of small things…?” Or in the NLT, “Do not despise these small beginnings.” Message received.

I determined to stay faithful in what I was given, and I sought God hard along the way. Eventually I was relieved of that task, but meanwhile nothing new presented itself, and my husband, who wasn’t even seeking a new ministry opportunity, was given a big, daring one! At least in Zechariah the small beginnings paid off. Mine weren’t seeming to lead anywhere.

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During this time, a Bible study asked for my definition of success. I pondered what would make me feel successful, and it hit me: Success isn’t achieving a particular result. Success is obedience and faithfulness to God–doing whatever he wants me to do, wherever he has put me.

It isn’t measured by what I accomplish relative to what I think I should have accomplished, but by how I respond to God and whether I’ve done what he’s asked. Even if what he’s asked seems less worthy than what I’d hoped to give him.

I say, “But God, I could do this for you!”

And he replies, “Yes, but will you do what I asked?

If we accomplish great things in Jesus’ name–apart from his leading–they’re hollow and they will not last. If we do small things, unnoticeable to other people, because of his leading and out of love for him, those things will have eternal value. We’re often proved the most in the smallest things–the momentary choices to follow, step by step, high or low. Of course we should be willing to die for him, but also to live for him however he leads, even if it’s not what we’d envisioned. A bigger ministry might bring us joy or allow us to more fully use our gifts, but it won’t bring us more success than following him in any other calling.

Still, we’re all frustrated when we feel we have more to offer, or gifts that are not being used. When what we’re doing doesn’t match our passions, we may fear God’s letting us go to waste. But God, who started a good work in us and will be faithful to complete it, is growing and shaping us for his purposes in those moments. I heard Jill Briscoe say at a recent conference that sometimes we learn more of God when we work outside our gifts and passions. Indeed.

I didn’t go a day that season without learning more of God. Had he given me a bigger ministry when I expected it, would I have sought him so hard, or would I have shelved deep reliance on him until I had another perceived need? Would I have seen the opportunity as a sign of his goodness and love, forgetting he’s good and loving even without that? I likely would’ve thought I’d earned it by my super spirituality. And I might have found my security in that, instead of learning anew to find it in him alone.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m still praying for God to open new doors, even as I do what he’s called me to today. But meanwhile I have this confidence: As long as I’m obedient to God, I’m pleasing him regardless of what I’m doing, how important it seems, or even the fruit it bears. And that’s no small calling at all.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today