by Matt Crain
Read more about the ministry of the National Association of Free Will Baptists at www.nafwb.org.
“Hey, everybody, I have a challenge for you! The first person who can tell me three points from my last sermon gets five bucks!”
Imagine the awkward silence as 25 teens and chaperones stare at me like a rapper at a quartet convention.
“Hey, okay, that was a little harsh” (a teen phrase that means I expected a little too much from them). “Let’s make this a little easier and more interesting. I’ve got a $10 bill right here for the first person who can tell me one point from a sermon I’ve preached this month.”
Still no response—only stares! Are those crickets in the distance?
“Okay, guys, you sure are playing hardball.” (Denial is an ugly thing.) “The first person, adults included, who can tell me one point from any sermon I’ve preached in the last three months will get this!”
I pull out a crisp $20 from my pocket and wave it around a little too enthusiastically. “Who’ll take me up on my challenge?” I’m smiling, but inside I’m dying. “Just one,” I repeat hopefully.
I have to confess that I thought at least one person would shout, “Love God.” No, they’re all giving each other looks that clearly say, “Our pastor has finally lost his mind.”
Finally an adult speaks up. “Pastor, I have trouble remembering what tools I need from the toolbox by the time I get there. My memory is just not that great.”
To which I reply, “I appreciate that, but these are life-changing truths of the gospel. I want us to remember them!”
After reassuring them that I was not scolding them or laying a guilt trip on them, I explained that I just wanted to know how effectively I was communicating biblical principles. That day I learned a hard lesson: don’t ask how things are going unless you really want to know.
When we got back from the teen trip, I made the same challenge on Sunday morning from the pulpit. Same result. This was getting embarrassing.
Office furniture tycoon Max DePree said it best. “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” You might say I have been slapped in the face by reality during the past year—a very tough year. A shake-up in our leadership team challenged me deeply, in ways only God knows for sure. I began to question everything about my ministry, which led to the challenge I described earlier.
In all of this—quietly, behind the scenes—God was working as only He could, and that was enough for me to wait and see what He would do next. He wanted to teach me many things; would I have the courage to learn them?
What kind of things, you ask? I’ve learned, for example, that our identity as leaders must be found only in our upward calling in Christ. Never, ever, for any reason, pin your self-identity to a person or group of people as a validation of your ministry.
Richard Blackaby once remarked in his book Putting a Face on Grace: “I am a recovering sinner, and my first instinct is often sinful.” My first instinct to the ice-cold dash of reality was to run for greener pastures. But God made it clear that the changes were needed where He had planted me. I realize this isn’t a very popular premise, but it was one I needed to learn. It seemed that walking away from the headaches was the quickest route to peace and stability. Nothing was further from the truth. I needed to stay and allow God to transform me.
We find this transforming process again and again in the Scriptures. Abraham learned faith when Isaac was born, then tested when God asked him to sacrifice his beloved child. Jacob’s transformation took a lifetime. Favorite son and dreamer Joseph became the slave of Potiphar and a common jailbird before emerging from the dungeon as the second most powerful man in Egypt. Talk about a corporate-ladder-climbing roller coaster ride!
Moses, prince of Egypt, became Moses, God-follower, and leader of many thousands…of sheep. His promotion to leader of a nation came much later.
David, anointed king of Israel, dodged King Saul for years. But his training in the desert proved invaluable. After all, when a child of God finds himself cornered in a cave, it is natural to develop an intimate relationship with the Lord. David did exactly that.
Esther, Nehemiah, Elijah, Elisha, Ruth, Daniel. The New Testament picks up where the Old Testament leaves off: Peter, John, Paul, Apollos, Timothy—all led by the example of Jesus. For instance, the week before His death, Jesus remarked, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name…” (John 12:27, 28a).
These biblical characters all had one thing in common. They did not quit. Or, to put it in church leadership terms, they did not easily leave.
In his book If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat, author John Ortberg tells a great story about a desert monk who was asked what one must do to please God. His initial response was predictable. “Be aware of God’s presence and obey God’s Word.” However, it was a third part of his statement that caught the author by surprise. “Do not easily leave.”
Ortberg reminds his readers that relationships are hard, and leaving almost always looks attractive in the short run. But leaving often produces leaders who live in a cycle of giving up.
Do not easily leave. Hmm, words to live by.
A colleague once made a stand about this very matter of staying so God could transform him rather than leaving easily. He confessed that he had never lasted more than a few short years at any particular place. “But not this time,” he declared. “This time, I owe it to my family, as well as to myself, to stay and figure out what I need to change and work on as a leader. I will succeed in terms of longevity. I owe it to these fine people, too, to give them a leader who is effective. I’m finished with leaving before it’s time.”
Sometimes, the new direction God has in mind for a leader means that He desires to change his congregation as well. At First Church, this has meant redefining what terms such as grace, community impact, holiness, discipleship, and success look like. It has not been an easy process.
As we refocused our efforts on grace-filled programs that emphasize the life-changing power of the cross for anyone, we discovered how hard it is for a church to balance sanctified living with grace-filled freedom. In the last few months, I have baptized six new converts, ranging from young teens to seniors. Not one of them came from a strong church tradition. In fact, two came out of the bar scene, two came out the drug scene, and two were students who have at least one parent who does not attend church with them.
This is a huge departure from our traditional approach to ministry, where we usually baptize people who grew up in church. To put it mildly, we’re not used to this kind of intense discipleship. But praise God! I have begun to see what the cross of Jesus Christ can do because I did not easily leave. God has begun a transformation—not only in my life, but also in the lives of the congregation.
It’s the Relationship
The entire issue comes down to a vibrant, relevant relationship with Christ. If I’m not striving for complete spiritual authenticity in my daily walk with Him, then I will be unable to hear Him speak through various conduits. In other words, an obstacle-free relationship with the Holy Spirit will make or break my ability to stick it out and see what God wants of me. I’m guessing it’s the same with you.
Are you discouraged? Are you nearing the point of “easily leaving?” I ask you humbly. Has God truly released you from this assignment, whatever it is? Or have you simply given up? Whether we’re talking about marriage, job, or ministry, the real question is about seeking God’s voice in the matter and letting Him change you in the process? Adopt the attitude of Paul, who told the Corinthian believers their only goal should be to please God (2 Cor. 5:9).
Brother or sister, don’t easily leave. Dare to face your own private battles, if you will. God promised that He would never leave you alone, operating under your own power. Hear His voice, follow His lead, and witness His power!
About the Writer: Matt Crain pastors First Free Will Baptist Church in Johnston City, IL.