When I was a local church pastor, I used to dread the approaching start of a new church year. I could predict with exact precision what was going to happen in our church. In twenty years as a pastor there was never an exception. The same thing always happened; well actually it didn’t happen. And I didn’t know how to solve the problem.
It was at the end of each year that we began to seek out church leadership for the coming year. There was a set number of slots to staff and there were never enough willing people to fill those positions. I wondered every year why there weren’t enough members who were motivated to become involved in ministry leadership. Was there something wrong with them because they didn’t seem to care? Was there something wrong with me that I couldn’t motivate them? Why couldn’t we, just one time, find enough people who were willing to serve without having to do all but beg to get people to work? Didn’t they care about our youth, our children¡¯s ministry, our outreach program, or any of the other valuable ministries of the church? Although I knew in advance what was going to happen, I always hoped that we could motivate people to assume ownership and take leadership in the ministry. But it never happened without great effort.
Becoming A Grace Filled Pastor
While I constantly tried to keep my own congregation motivated, the truth was that I sometimes found it hard to stay motivated myself. I sincerely loved the Lord and loved the churches I served, but I sometimes grew weary of promoting this program, then another one to try to fan the flame of interest among our members. Over a period of years, I did discover what worked and what didn¡¯t, so I learned to rely on the programs and plans that worked. Until. . .
1989 ¡ª I had moved to a new pastorate in Atlanta. I came with great enthusiasm and optimism about the future of this church. Upon arriving on the church field, I immediately jumped into the work with great zeal. I pulled out all the stops, preaching my best sermons and skillfully executing my best programs. But to my dismay, none of my efforts yielded fruit. The church, which had been declining for five years prior to my arrival, continued to decline during my first year as pastor.
The ongoing decline of the church gradually drove me to the place of despair. In the middle of the night on October 6, 1990 I laid on my face in my office crying. God, why did you bring me here? Nothing I do works in this church! What do you want from me? I had been sincere in leading my programs and plans. I loved the Lord and genuinely wanted to reach people. But I had become so discouraged that I didn’t think I could go on with ministry.
As is God¡¯s customary way of working, He began to show His answers when I came to the end of myself. I had wanted Him to show me how to motivate the people. He had other plans. He had been wanting to do a deeper work in me which would transform first my own life, then my ministry. This night of despair became the doorway through which God brought me to bring me into an arena of grace like I had never known. In the days to follow the Lord began to reveal truths to me about walking in grace which radically changed the way I understood and did ministry. Before my church became a grace filled ministry, it was necessary for God to cause me to become a grace filled pastor. That began to happen as a couple of truths were deposited deeply into me by the Holy Spirit.
¡ö Christ is life, not ministry. For 17 years, if you had asked me who I am I would have answered, ¡°I am a preacher.¡± My sense of identity came from my role. In reality, that isn¡¯t who I am but is only what I do. Who I am is a child of God who shares the very life of Jesus Christ. This may sound like a minor distinction, but beginning to see myself first and foremost as a man consumed with Jesus caused ministry to flow from me in a way I had never known. Focusing on ministry produces religious activity, but understanding our union with Christ will cause one to experience an outflow of divine life.
¡ö Success comes through a Person, not a performance. I believed that success in ministry meant measurable progress. While there is certainly nothing wrong with results which are measurable, I have come to believe that real success comes as we abide in Jesus Christ and allow Him to continually express His life through us. That may or may not always produce results which look impressive. Was John successful on Patmos? Was Paul successful while in the Philippian jail? Was Jesus successful when he hung dying on a cross? God measures success differently from contemporary society.
Grace Filled Churches
As God continued to work the truths of this new grace walk deep into me, I began to see a change in the life of my church. As I changed, they began to change too. It wasn’t unlike what happens in a marriage when God begins to do a deep work in the husband and the wife responds as she sees the Holy Spirit work in him. Church life began to be different in two ways.
¡ö People began to be motivated by desire, not duty. As I taught our congregation their identity in Christ, the Lord began to ignite a desire in the members to serve Him. Once I released them from the ¡°ought to¡± laws of the Christian life, the Holy Spirit began to instill His divine ¡°want to¡± inside them. I discovered that the best way to motivate people is to lead them to fall head over heels in love with Jesus! As we shifted the focus of the church from our plans and programs to the Person of Jesus Christ, life exploded in the congregation. It¡¯s like I had finally stopped trying to start a fire with wet wood and allowed God to cause a spiritual combustible explosion that only He could do.
¡ö God began to shape our ministry. When I released people from the obligation of ¡°filling slots¡± in leadership, some ministries died. Now I know, they needed to die. They were sacred cows which had no life in them anyway. As I relinquished control of the church and let God be God, He caused some aspects of ministry to fold while other types of ministry emerged. In other words, He created His own pattern instead of fitting into ours. A grace filled church is one in which God is the Chief Shepherd and the pastor serves as the under shepherd under Him.
A grace filled ministry occurs when a pastor is consumed with Jesus above everything else. As he rests in intimacy with the indwelling Christ, ministry will flow out of him. As the life of Christ flows from him, the individual lives of those he leads will be impacted. They will again find their own first love for Jesus and motivation won¡¯t be a problem. Jesus is the great Motivator. He did it 2000 years ago and He still does it today.