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Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

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Church Planting

As Long As It’s Green: a ministry lesson from my sad lawn

Where I live green grass is a prized possession. In fact, green grass, green trees, and the accompanying freshness to the air are rare things. The general lack of color and staleness can drive you to the point to where anything green is welcome.

This was my attitude toward my small lawn last year as summer was in the midst of its fury. Water is expensive, care takes time, but I tried. I went out every day and judicially watered. But as I did this, I noticed that grass wasn’t the only green thing growing. Other greens things were growing, weeds, some even with thorns. And I remember joking to my wife, “As long as it’s green, I’ll take it!”

Fast forward about six months. Portions of my lawn are green. From a distance you get that refreshing glimpse of life on the parched earth. But getting close you realize that I have a problem. There is very little grass. And one day as I was praying and watering my weeds, I was struck with the danger of having this same attitude in ministry, to look at my church or the pioneer field I have been called to and think, “As long as it’s green!”

How did my lawn get to the place of being green but unhealthy? Filled with weeds and thorns?

I) I was looking for the wrong results

I was more concerned with my lawn appearing green, than I was with the health of my grass. Perhaps if I done the patient work of nurturing the health of the grass there would have eventually been little place for the weeds. In my desire to see green I failed to see that the long-term goal was not greenness but the health of the grass.

So also in ministry we fall into the mistake of seeking the green rather than seeking the grass. We are content as long as there are results. The problem is that what we judge as results may not be what they appear from a distance. The seats may be full on Sunday, but is discipleship happening? Churches may be multiplying rapidly, but is conversion unclear? People may be excited, but is their excitement based on any kind of doctrinal depth? People may be caring, but is there a disturbing lack of holiness?

I have seen many pastors and missionaries so desperate for any results that they have essentially redefined what the goal of ministry is. They have veered from a biblical understanding of the gospel, of conversion, of discipleship, of the church – all because they just want some results, some green. Much like I redefined what a healthy lawn looks like, because I just wanted a green patch in a desert place.

The other thing, which relates to ministry, that led to the demise of my lawn was…

II) I wasn’t doing the difficult work of weeding

Out of fear of the bare spots that would show, the brown, parched earth that would be exposed, I left those weeds and continued to nourish them in their growth as weeds. As a result the good work of watering was actually being wasted. I was spending time and money to maintain something that would eventually rob my lawn of its health.

So also in ministry, we can end up encouraging the growth of weeds by failing to slow down and do the painful, patient work of persevering in faithful preaching and discipleship. Sometimes ministry is as much about weed clearing as it is grass growing. As the word of God is faithfully preached, the gospel is clearly heralded, and the hard work of discipleship is maintained, this may lead to many green sprigs proving to be nothing more than weeds. This can be one of the hardest and most heartbreaking aspects of ministry, but it is there and it is real. And we must not allow the pain and the desire for “green” to lead us to jettison what it is that we have been called to do.

The bottom line is that because of my desire for a quick and easy green lawn, I didn’t do the patient, dirty work of weeding and ultimately is was because I was looking for the wrong results. And the end result was something that was green, but unhealthy. The grass was nearly no more.

So what are some ways to avoid this sad result:

  1. Don’t assume that results indicate good practices

One of the biggest lies propagated by missionaries and church planters is that results (whatever that may be defined as) indicate good practices. Just because something is green does not mean it is healthy. So you may have planted 10 churches that have planted 30, which have planted 90. What are you calling a church? What are you calling a member of that church? And how did it come about? One of the greatest tragedies in missions is that the wisdom of God has been jettisoned and the Scriptures have been abused in order to justify the unbiblical means which bring about these “results”. Stick to what God has told you to do without twisting the Scriptures in order to justify your pragmatism.

 

  1. Do the nurturing work of meaningful discipleship

There is no short-cut to a healthy ministry. I have seen ministries that will point out how this generation wants everything now, without even realizing how much that has permeated their approach to ministry. New programs and better music may not be bad things, but they can’t replace the slow and steady work of discipleship. Don’t mistake leadership ability or willingness to lead a Bible study as an indication that someone is ready for either of those things. Know those that you minister to, know whether they are “grass or just green” by spending time with them in the word, calling them to respond to it in loving response to the love of God. 

  1. The hard part: Don’t let what will damage the community remain

1 Corinthians 5 contains in it instructions for the difficult work of what to do when what is green turns out to be a weed. You remove it in the hope that it will return renewed, exhibiting the evidence of spiritual life. Many churches are active and full, but if you put it under the lens of Scripture you will see that there is little evidence of spiritual life. Paul warns that a little yeast effects the entire lump of dough, this is a call to carefully examine our ministries and the supposed fruit they are producing. And it is for love of souls and jealousy for God’s glory that we must not allow people to be deceived into thinking they are something they are not. That means inspecting who is brought into church membership and being willing to remove someone from that membership when their life lacks the evidence of being converted.

  1. Know what fruit (or grass in this case) is supposed to look like

This helps understand and define the last point that was made. We need to understand that a true disciple of Jesus exhibits their genuineness by their confession and life of  “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”. I think it is helpful to consider the words used in Romans 10. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (acknowledge rebellion and repent) and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (put all your hope in the cross-work of Christ) you will be saved.” There must be clear sorrow for sin, a desire to be free from it, and evidence in love and gratitude that the person is trusting in the Son of God alone for salvation.

  1. Understand what the objective is and be willing to engage in the long-term, consistent, prayerful labor that it will take to reach that objective

II Corinthians 2:15-17 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. 

II Corinthians 4:5 – “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” 

These are two very helpful texts for understanding our objective. Is the aim to make disciples, as we see in Matthew 28? Yes. To baptize and instruct? Yes. But the foundation of that is this understanding that Paul gives us. We speak Christ. We don’t manipulate, we don’t deviate, we don’t practice cunning. We simply, albeit foolishly, speak Christ. The objective is to make Christ known – beyond that is all in God’s hands. That is going to be one of the biggest things that keeps you from seeking the green above the grass, understanding the bounds of your ability and responsibility.

I should have understood that the objective was not a green lawn, but the sowing and maintaining of the grass. So also in ministry we must understand that our objective is not what only God can do, but what God has given us to do. Understanding that will help us focus, despite the results, on what God has given us to do rather than wasting time and doing damage trying to replicate what only God can do. 

Just because something looks alive doesn’t mean that it is. You have to look at its fruit and its leaves. When someone says their ministry is bearing a lot of fruit maybe they need to ask “what kind? What are we calling fruit? Is it grass or just anything that is green?

But, before I close this post, I must say on the flip side that it could be that your yard is just brown (metaphorically speaking), because there is no care, no urgency – just plain ministerial laziness. Laziness is just as or more dangerous than is pragmatism.

This is an exhortation to faithful attendance to what God has given us to do. It could be that you “lawn” will be brown all your life due to many factors outside of your control. I have this one section of that same sad lawn that just stays dry and brown no matter how much I seed it and water it. And it is in that situation in ministry that understanding your responsibility as a worker in God’s vineyard is so important! You pour out your life like sprigs on the dry ground, you water, you pull up weeds, you water some more, but you can’t control what the soil is like. You can’t give the miracle of life. You can just supply the material and that is all you are called to do. Understanding this is crucial, lest you find yourself longing for anything that is green, smiling and rejoicing in a patch of thriving weeds and thorns.

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Field of Dreams: A Church Planting Approach

The question the past year had crossed my mind, “Why do I put all the work into a Friday morning Equipping Class[i] that only four or five people are going to attend?” The very reason I ask myself that question is because it seems like such a waste of time. Other questions could be asked, “Why have the structures and formalities of membership procedure that we have when there are only twenty-one members? Why stand up and preach when there is only 15-40 people in the room?” Even more questions could be asked, but my answer, by now, is always going to be the same.

We all know the famous line to the classic movie Field of Dreams. “Build it and he will come”. Basically, James Earl Jones and Ray Liotta get Kevin Costner to build a baseball diamond. Costner, as Ray Kinsella, has faith that Jones is right, if he builds it people will come and so it is. Going back then to the question of why I am doing so much with a church so small is because of the “Field of Dreams” approach to church planting. This is not a pragmatic method. It is not some proven strategy. It simply a matter of faithfulness, a matter of exercising the means that God uses to grow and build up his church.

We gather each week in a room big enough to hold a hundred with the hope and prayer that there will be a hundred. We have classes to equip the few in hopes that they may equip the many. By God’s grace alone, I strive to prepare my sermon the same for fifteen people as I would for fifteen hundred people. On and on the examples could go.

It feels exhausting sometimes and the immediate return causes one to consider whether or not it is worth it. I am not delusional. We are not trying to play “big church”, but are simply trying to be church, God’s vehicle for his mission of redemption, the vessel of his truth, the trumpet of his kingdom, the fold of his sheep, and the display of his wisdom and glory.

This way of viewing the little flock I have been given charge of is shaped by the conviction that God grows his church through his church. And on top of that, the growth is his doing through the faithful ministry of the pastors and members of that church. Faithful ministry is that which plans for great things, while leaving the great things to God. Faithful ministry is that which endures through seasons of fruitlessness with confident rest in the fact that God has established this church for the purpose of making known his glory through the proclamation of the Gospel in our community, giving us good reason to hope that there are many sheep who must be brought into the fold. We hope and pray that the harvest will be great, so we prepare the barns. We prepare the ark of Christ for all of the chosen to come and escape the storm, where they can be protected, fed, and sustained. The local church is to be a hopeful, eschatological entity that looks forward with confidence in the Gospel and the power of the Spirit and plans for the harvest.

So we do. We have been planted in this needy, Gospel-impoverished city by God for his glory. He has us here for a reason. Therefore, we preach to the twenty like there are a thousand. We hold equipping classes for the five like there are fifty. And we pray like we are an army. We conduct ourselves in a way that says that we expect more. We are not trying to be “too big for our britches”, we are trying to make britches big enough so that we may be what God can and may choose to make us.

I once heard Tim Keller say that we should preach every week as if non-believers are in the audience and eventually they will be. So I have made this my practice. It is awkward at times, as I gaze across the godly faces of the people in the room. I proclaim the Gospel, calling for people to repent and believe in Jesus. Why? Because in the intimacy of our little group I hear the voice of James Earl Jones whispering, “Steve… People will come, Steve.”

I believe that. I believe that because churches, proclaiming the Gospel, are God’s method of increasing the Kingdom. I believe it because the Word we proclaim is alive and active. So when I labor all week to prepare classes and sermons for so few, I don’t feel like I am wasting my time. We are building.

My job is to be faithful to build. And the fact the Lord tarries and that he is at work in the world through his church in the great task of gathering a people for himself gives me confidence that if we build it, people will come.

 

 

[i] That is what we call our “Sunday School” or adult education classes at Immanuel Fujairah

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