I have to confess that most of my Christian ministry has been defined by a sense of drivenness. I have lived with the pressure to compete, to keep up, to produce fruit, and to do something in the church that could capture the attention of the world. At the same time, I have had a deep sense of calling below this drivenness that has longed for deeper clarity and expression. I’ve wrestled to let my drive be directed by my call, instead of moving out in my own power.
This was highlighted in my life in a jarring way. I once spoke at a conference on urban churches where I shared about all the powerful and well-known people who had joined our church. I shared about their possible influence for the Kingdom of God based on the social position and influence they had in popular culture. I thought the talk went really well and had potential to inspire others to build a similar kind of ministry to reach those kinds of people. Sure enough young church planters lined up to “pick my brain” on how all this happened and how we attracted this demographic.
At the end of the line, an older lady who has spent her life serving in urban ministry waited to speak to me. What she said pierced my heart and has stayed with me over the years.
“I liked your talk,” she said. “It was very compelling, and I can see why people would want to come to your ministry. But I wanted to share something with you. The ministry you are describing doesn’t look anything like Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. You seem driven to use people for results rather than loving people for themselves. You are using your effort, personality, and gifts to build something so you can look good to the rest of the evangelical culture. God doesn’t really care how good you look to the rest of the world. What he cares about is that you humbly follow him in obedience and that you become more like Jesus in the process. I am not meaning to offend or rebuke you. I think I am here to save you from getting to the end of your life and being a success in popular church but missing the reality of God’s Kingdom work. Blessings to you, young man.” And she walked off into the crowd.
This came like a punch to the stomach and it started a process of deep reflection. What does it look like to live as a called person instead of one who is driven? Here are a few of my reflections:
1. Called people value obedience over results.
1 Corinthians 3 says we have each been given a task but it is God who makes things grow. Growth is the result of God’s sovereignty. There is no formula, conference talk, or book that can force God to move in your context in order for you to feel better about your ministry. We are called to see faithfulness as success and let God receive the credit. Called people delight in the affirmation of the Father, not the response of the crowd.
2. Called people focus on who they are becoming not what they are achieving.
The primary call on our lives is to become more like Jesus. Often in ministry we can live in rhythms and patterns that draw us away from the love of God into an obsession with fruit and results. Who we become is more important than what we achieve. We have all had disappointing encounters with people who are impressive from the outside but selfish and driven up close. Called people worry about becoming more like Jesus, not simply doing things for him. I am haunted by the quote from Bill Hybels who said, “The rate that I was doing the work of God, was killing the work of God in me.” Called leaders focus on what God is doing in them before what he does through them.
3. Called people focus on the Day of Judgment rather than judging other ministries.
In our media saturated world, we can often find ourselves in larger theological and ecclesiological conversations that can make us feel the need to judge and correct other people or ministries. This is often sideways energy. We are called to make sure our motives and ministries are pure and leave space for God to sort out the rest. As 1 Corinthians 4:5 says, “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”
4. Called people celebrate God’s work in others without comparing or criticizing them.
Galatians 6:3 is one of the most important verses for Christian leaders. It says, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.” Comparison is the cancer of Christian ministry. Called people rejoice when Jesus is lifted up and the Kingdom of God is advancing, and they celebrate that this is the true end of our labor. They join the chorus of angels in heaven rather than the critics on earth. When we know our call, it produces a security in us that lets us rejoice where God is working, regardless of who gets the attention, while enjoying the thing God has put before us. There is nothing more liberating than paying attention to the work of God around you, rather than trying to keep up with what he is doing with others.
5. Called leaders worry about the health of their people not the profile of their ministry.
Called leaders take the titles of pastor and shepherd seriously, with a vision of leading people to maturity and rest in the way of Jesus. Called leaders have a vision to love and see people as Jesus did rather than loving being seen by people like the Pharisees. Called leaders prioritize around the health of their people rather than the attention the ministry can give. In a world like ours that only pays attention to the spectacular and sizable, it can be hard to be content with the calling God has given us. But if we listen closely to the voice of the Spirit, we find that behind the affirmation we long for, the affirmation we crave is already ours in Christ.
May God lead you to a sense of joy and contentment in playing a minor supporting role in a massive and beautiful story about Jesus and his scandalous grace and redemption.