The “Sweetest Agony” of Ministry

Somebody has said that preaching is the sweetest agony.  It is sweet when lives are changed.  And it is agony the rest of the time! 

That is probably unfair, but whatever ministry we are involved in, it is good to pause and reflect on the sweeter parts of it.  After all, there is plenty to find discouraging!

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed.  Sometimes you preach a message or have a conversation and a life is changed completely.  More often, change occurs over a longer time frame.  It can be hard to measure when change occurs.  But occasionally, people may write a note that specifically lists the impact of your ministry. 

Since there is always a long list of reasons to become discouraged in ministry, it is a good idea to keep a log of some of these encouragements.  Keep a collection of those notes and let them sit there, ready for a day when you really need to be reminded of the sweeter aspects of ministry.  Keep an email folder of encouragements that you can go back to when the inbox is overwhelming and discouraging.

With all that is going on, and all the reasons for discouragement, why not take a moment to look back and list some of the lives that you have seen changed by the grace of God?  If you have some encouraging notes already collected, why not read a few and give God thanks for how he has worked in the lives of those you serve?

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed, but there is one other person to remember.  If the sweetness of ministry is changed lives, then don’t forget the one life that hears every sermon you preach, every conversation you participate in, etc.  By this, I mean you. 

Every time you prepare a sermon, you are involved.  Every time you plan a workshop, prepare a talk, anticipate a conversation, or schedule a one-on-one meeting, you are part of it.  This means that you get to go through the times of prayer, the low points, the spiritual highs, the wrestling with the biblical text, the struggle to figure out how to lead a session, the grappling with formulating your main idea, the prayerful decisions to omit material, and the practice runs of a sermon or speech with only you and the Lord listening.  You are there.

Much of ministry can feel like the agony of labour, striving to work through all that it takes to eventually bring to fruition something helpful for others.  It can seem like thankless toil.  People don’t understand the time you invest, nor the stress you often carry.  But let’s remember the good times too.  The times of sweet fellowship with the Lord.  Those moments where your desperate prayers give way to clarity on a way forward.  The times when study leads to deeper understanding of a text and greater worship in your heart.  These are times of blessing and encouragement in ministry.  Sweet times. 

Let’s find ways to mark these moments.  Maybe write a thank-you note to God and put it in your files.  Maybe a journal entry, highlighted to help you find it again.  Perhaps you have a collection of visual “memorial stones” on a shelf – markers of moments to help your memory.  You need some way to remind yourself of the sweetness of ministry: how good it has been, how good it can be, and how good it will be again.

Most ministries that are worth doing entail a whole lot of agony.  But there is a sweetness in serving God and his mission in this world.  There is a sweetness in the blessing that we receive as well as the blessing we offer to others.  And when ministry feels overwhelming and difficult, we need a way to remind ourselves of the sweeter parts of ministry, of the lives changed and blessed, including ours.

This year has started with all sorts of complexities and does not promise to be easy for any of us.  But God has promised to be with us through it all.  Let’s find ways to not let ministry drain play a decisive role in our life stories.  Yes, there will be agony in what we do, but let’s be sure we don’t miss the sweet moments too!

Preaching in Troubled Times

“The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” (Psalm 9:9)

Troubled times can be caused by global pandemics, national disasters, or more local challenges on a city or church level. In this world we will have trouble. And when trouble comes, the preacher gets to point people to God’s Word to find the comfort and to stir the response of faith that is needed. The problem is, we don’t do ministry in a case study. People don’t tend to respond in a textbook fashion when problems come. Just a few verses after the one above comes Psalm 10:1 – “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” By definition, these seasons of ministry are not easy, but here are five important things to keep in mind:

1. The Preacher’s Relationship with God – Be Healthy. Maybe it is obvious, but it bears stating. You need to be in a healthy place to have the reserves to serve others effectively. Remember Martha. She was trying to do the right thing, but somehow she had gotten the two great commandments out of order. She was doing the classic evangelical mistake – “loving God by loving others.” It is unsustainable. Be sure to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to you before you continue to minister to others. (And remember that being healthy is not just spiritual . . . what about sleep, exercise, diet? What about emotionally and relationally?)

2. The Preacher’s Relationship with Listeners – Be Sensitive. Remember that different people react in different ways to the same crisis. Listening to our culture it would be easy to only address the fear of dying in the current pandemic. But for some their concern is finance, employment, other vulnerable people, loneliness, mental health, etc. We need to know what is really going on with the people we preach to, and they need to know that we are real too. Be appropriately transparent. A crisis is a time to offer strength and stability, but don’t come across as Superman. You are allowed to struggle too, just invite others into a faithful response and share the journey together. When troubles hit, people tend to pull back. Be sure to pursue connections with people in your church. You may not see them on Sunday (or may not be allowed to meet in some strange circumstances), but you still have a phone. There are ways to stay connected. We need to do that if we are to preach effectively.

3. The Listener’s Relationship with Circumstances – Be Hopeful. In the midst of crisis people need to have perspective. It is not helpful to dismiss a crisis. I remember a lecturer on 9/11 being dismissive of the situation (it didn’t help!) But do offer perspective with gentleness. Remember also that people have troubles that are not “the trouble” too. I am waiting for someone to fix our hot water boiler right now . . . that is not a Covid-19 issue, but it is today’s issue in our house! People still have other health concerns during a pandemic, people still have marital struggles during a war, people still struggle with parenting during a natural disaster. In the midst of it all, cast a vision. Could God be teaching us to pray like we have never prayed before? Is God growing greater depth and dependence on him in our church? Maybe God is shaking the culture to wake it up to spiritual realities? (Don’t make prophetic pronouncements, just help people to look on their circumstances in light of Scripture.)

4. The Listener’s Relationship with God – Be “Evangelistic.” There will be people who are not yet believers and the crisis might be the perfect moment . . . point them to Jesus. There will be people who have been believers for years and they too need to be pointed to Jesus. Help people to know that God is who they need and he can be accessed through the Bible. That is, be biblical. Don’t jettison your biblical preaching in order to offer personal wisdom, or to drift into political proclamation, or to distract people with empty entertainment. You may need to preach from somewhere else in the Bible, but do preach the Bible.

5. The Preacher and Preaching – Be Adaptable. Your eight month series in Ezekiel may not be appropriate when a crisis hits. It is ok to suspend a series and be a bit more targeted when necessary. After 9/11 a significant proportion of preachers just continued their series. That was a big missed opportunity to show love, care and a word from God in a key moment. So you may need to adapt your content, and you may also need to adapt your approach. In the last year many of us have learned to use new technology, to preach to camera, to shift to a mixed setting with some people present and others watching at home. Crises, big and small, tend to invite adaptability. By all means do things differently, just don’t disappear.

What would you add? What things are helpful to ponder during challenging times?

Preparing to Preach in 2021

We don’t know what 2021 will bring, but we can guess. We can guess there will be more to the COVID story. We can guess there will be further political and social tensions in various parts of the world. We can guess that it won’t feel like preaching during a honeymoon period of stability and global contentment.

As we leave Christmas behind and start to move towards a new year that we know won’t be simple, what can we do to prepare? The simple answer would be to pray, but what should we pray about, specifically related to preaching? Here are seven things to pray about, just to get you started:

1. Love. Pray that your love for God and your love for your listeners will not be neglected in the coming months. Difficult times can helpfully toughen us, but they can also unhelpfully distract us from ultimate priorities. Pray for the love of God poured into your heart to flow out in devotion to Him, and Christlike selflessness towards others – including in your preaching.

2. Wisdom. Pray that your ministry will be marked by a profoundly biblical discernment in the coming months. We live in a swirl of contradictory information and sometimes the most affirmed realities are the most worthy of profound questioning. We cannot minister with our heads only in our Bibles, we also need to spend some time in the “newspapers” too – but be wary of simply parroting cultural values driven by the media of our time. It is easy to offer a slightly sanctified culture-shaped spin. Pray for wisdom to be able to know and speak God’s truth clearly in a time of great confusion.

3. Courage. Pray for courage in your ministry. It will be harder to speak the truth boldly in this decade than in the last. We may be able to anticipate where the pressures will be coming from, but we do not yet know how great those pressures will become. Your church does not need a bulldog in the pulpit, but neither does it need a wimp being pushed around by the increasingly brazen demands of the world. Pray for courage to speak God’s truth incisively in the coming year.

4. Patience. Pray for patience in your ministry. Someone said we can easily over-estimate what can be achieved in a single sermon, but should never under-estimate what can be achieved through a steady diet of solid biblical preaching. Pray for patience to keep on in your biblical ministry.

5. Endurance. Pray for the endurance that you will need in your preaching in the next year. This year has been draining. Take COVID – it is tiring to minister during uncertainty, with continual changes of government rules and guidelines, with uncertainty hanging over everyone, with different perspectives on the situation throughout the congregation, with the need to continually adapt and re-create church momentum, etc. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge that 2020 was difficult and tiring. And pray for endurance as we head into 2021.

6. Growth. Of course we should pray for the growth of our listeners, but pray for your own growth too. Pray for God to help you grow in your handling of Scripture, your theological insight, your pastoral sensitivity, your communicative ability, etc. Pray that you will become a better preacher this year.

7. Fruit. Don’t forget to pray for fruit. It would be easy to allow global events, national lockdowns, family struggles or even personal issues to distract you from the obvious. Pray for fruit in your ministry. Pray that people will come to faith in Christ this year. Pray that believers will grow closer to Christ this year. Pray for marriages to be healed this year. Pray for lives to be transformed deeper and further this year. Fruit doesn’t ultimately depend on your love, your wisdom, your courage, your patience or even your growth. Fruit depends on God’s kindness, so pray for Him to be powerfully at work whether you are “preaching well” or not, whether your church is meeting in person or not, whether your country is falling apart or not.

What would you add to the list?

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How Does Preaching Change Lives? – Jonathan Thomas

Here is a great little three minute clip from Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  Click here for the clip.

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Thank you to Jonathan for the interview for Cor Deo Online – it has proved to be a very helpful series of clips for this site too!