April 2, 2020

On Throwing Away A Ministry of Comfort

prchLast night was one of those nights of preaching where I am reminded of where God has put me and what he’s put me here to do. I meditated a bit on that today, and share my gratitude to Him with you.

“I live by preaching. My tongue is a devoted thing.” – John Wesley

For 17 years, it’s been my vocation to preach the Gospel to hundreds of teenagers who come to our ministry, most of whom, for much of the time I preach to them, do not believe it. I am not a professional evangelist, but evangelistic teaching and preaching is the majority of my ministry focus.

When I came to this work almost two decades ago, I came from twenty years of working on church staff; 16 as a youth minister and 4 as a pastor. In all of those years, I had very limited contact with unbelievers aside from a few unconverted church kids. That contact was on my “turf.” But in my first few weeks at my current ministry, I was overwhelmed with hundreds of unbelievers.

It was a jolting adjustment, to say the least. Almost everything in my ministry mindset and toolbox was calibrated for the believing children of church families. Unbelievers were, to be honest, the people I was supposed to teach my young people to stay away from, a la Landover Baptist’s “Ten Mile” rule. I was a servant of a “church shaped” spirituality: create a busy youth program and keep the students involved as much as possible. With lots of church based activities and experiences, it was far less likely those students would take up with criminals, get pregnant or use drugs.

Calling those church kids to discipleship was rhetorically acceptable, but had I undertaken a mission to get a significant number of my students to commit to missions in Afghanistan, it would have been an entirely different matter. So I did what thousands of youth ministers do: I reduced the Christian life to church involvement and lots of discipleship talk that amounted to “don’t be like the other kids.” I sprinkled “commitment to Jesus” in there, but I really had no idea what ministry outside of the church meant. And God’s global purpose? It was out there, beckoning me to begin discipling students toward missions and vocations surrendered to following Christ. I simply avoided it.

I am so grateful for what God has done in my life these past 17 years. As I listened to Dr. John Piper teach the material in “Let The Nations Be Glad” this weekend (See the sessions here), I realized I’d come a long way. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve become a different kind of preacher and Christian.

1. Evangelism is my preaching priority. I want to Christians to overhear the Gospel, but I want unbelievers to hear the Gospel.

2. I’m grateful for a deeper presentation of the Gospel available for evangelism training with materials like “Two Ways To Live.”

3. I’m grateful for a community of believers whose priority is evangelizing students. They support me in prayer, but they provide an environment where students are loved, forgiven and actively engaged in finding a meaningful calling in the world. What a gift!

4. I’m grateful for the questions unbelievers ask in our context. Some of them are a bit tedious, but everyone has to move past certain basic issues to get to the heart of the Gospel. Many times, I will realize that students aren’t really getting the scandal of the Gospel until the end of the year. It takes many months to move past the idea that Christianity is for and about good people rather than about our amazing crucified and risen King, Jesus.

5. I’m grateful for the network of churches and friends around the country who support our work. These are people who enable me to do evangelism, apologetics and Bible teaching with hundreds and hundreds of students who don’t know Christ. By providing an education, a home, job training, ESL and other valued ministries, the lost come to us. Making this possible are hundreds of churches and thousands of Christians who can’t do what we do alone, but can do it through us.

6. I’m grateful for Christian students and their witness to the their unbelieving friends.

7. I’m thankful for my direct co-workers: 9 other preachers, two worship bands, counselors, technicians, small group leaders, prayer ministers, assistants in campus ministry and people who do things large and small to make ministry happen.

8. I’m thankful to God for sending hundreds of unbelievers to us, many from the nations of the earth. I’m grateful for those that have need saved and those who will be.

9. How can I thank the Lord for bringing me to the place in my life where I can be of some use to him? There aren’t enough worship songs to say it.

Sometimes I get a bit weary and think that I’d like to be back on church staff teaching and training other ministry leaders. God may have that in my future. I don’t know. But until then, I want to be in a ministry that is filled with lost students. Even though I will occasionally have experiences like I did Sunday night, when opposition is visible and audible, the challenge is transforming.

Ministering in this context takes me to Jesus for molding, teaching, inspiration and example every day. Each new intake of students presents fresh challenges for how to live out the love of Christ. As I began a new term of summer school today, the lost are in front of me for 6 hours a day. God is at work, and I am privileged, as Dr. Piper said, to “hammer the nail,” i.e. preach the Gospel. No matter what we believe about God’s sovereignty, if the hammer doesn’t hit the nail (the communicator doesn’t communicate) no nail (Gospel) will go into the wood.

Only God can bring the Gospel into the minds and lives of my students, and only in his power and his timing. But for the next 6 weeks and beyond, I am one of God’s hammers.

Isaac Watts said it best:

Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His Name?

Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?

Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.

Thy saints in all this glorious war
Shall conquer, though they die;
They see the triumph from afar,
By faith’s discerning eye.

When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all Thy armies shine
In robes of victory through the skies,
The glory shall be Thine.

Comments

  1. I’m not very familiar with your ministry, but reading this post prompted a couple questions in my mind. (I’m Catholic, btw). These are truly innocent questions — I have no agenda or hidden motive. If you have time to address them, great. If not, I understand…you’re a busy guy, or perhaps they are too off-topic here. Here they are:

    1. In addition to preaching, teaching, and treating your students with compassion and charity, do you “hammer” by spending time interceding specifically for their conversion?

    2. Do you fast for them, offering your self-denial to the Lord as a way to implore his help in softening their hearts to receive your message?

    Thanks for the interesting blog.

  2. I’ve always been curious as to why so many foreign students seek out a small Christian college in Kentucky.
    Will you enlighten us?
    Also, I am delighted by your ministry to them and us.
    Rest and peace.
    rl

  3. God bless and keep you, man, and thanks for the good work you do with students.
    Looking back, I really wish there had been a really strong Christian ministry and community presence at the University of Memphis when I was there. Sure, we had several Christian campus outreach centers of various denominational varieties, and they were good places to hang out between classes and get free food now and again. But there didn’t seem to be any real sense of community or strong relationships at any of them. The regulars at each center knew each other and occasionally we’d do things together, but, for the most part, we all had our primary circle of friendships apart from the center.
    Unfortunately, it was primarily through negative friendships that I joined the statistics of young Christians who go off to college, leave the church, and lose their faith. And, years later, it was through a group of Christian friends, who took me in and befriended me, that I rediscovered my faith.
    That said, I believe that simple friendship is one of the most powerful evangelistic tools out there. I know it’s had more impact in my life than all the sermons, Christian concerts, and church-sponsored activities put together. But I’m not sure if there is any structured way to employ something as organic and personal as friendship.
    In my days as a youth minister, I was often frustrated to find so few real and close friendships forming within the youth group, which I think to them was just another social context (like school or sports teams) and all the usual social divisions still applied. Heck, I would even say that the formation of true friendships is lacking among adults within most church fellowships, and I’m kinda curious as to why that is.
    I was just wondering if anybody had any thoughts on this or on how friendship might be employed by the church as a means of evangelism.

  4. i have a handful of experiences as a youth minister and it occurs to me that in order to have a ministry to unbelieving youth while on staff at almost any church there is some sort of trade off that has to be made. do you have any suggestions for how to discern the balance between reaching the lost and keeping your job?

  5. Amen! We agree 🙂

  6. Rob,

    We’re actually not a college, but a boarding school for grades 6-12. I work primarily with seniors in the classroom, but preach to everyone, students and most of the staff.

    Why do we get so many internationals?

    Word of mouth for over 35 years. They keep things in the family.

    We’re the 3rd least expensive U.S. boarding school.

    We have an ESL program.

    Their families want them to get into an American university, so an American HS diplomma is important.

    peace,

    ms

  7. Walt:

    1. Yes. 2. No.

    ms

  8. Despite some excellent posts, I confess you’ve come close to losing me (not that it will or should cause you any lost sleep).
    [Mod edit]
    If your only tool is a hammer, does that make every kid you meet a nail?

  9. Rick:

    I’ve moderated your bizarre generalization. It is clear that it is about your experience and not mine. My ministry is not the one you are describing, and I won’t allow you to say it is.

    As a result of your comments, moderation is now on for the entire site.

    The “hammer” and “nail” illustration is from Dr. Piper.

    It’s about preaching the Gospel. Preaching is the hammer. The Gospel is the nail. I preach the Gospel to all of our students.

    If you have some issues with Christian education or evangelism, you might consider working them out, not tossing them over to me with an agenda of accusation.

    If you hear “boarding school” = “abuse” that’s not my school.

    ms

  10. [Mod edited]

    What about kids for whom the gospel needs to be something other than a nail? What about wounded kids who’ve been nailed when they needed simply to be loved for a while? What about “a battered reed he will not break off and a smoldering wick he will not put out”? What about kids who hear it, know it, pretty well understand it and, for whatever reason, simply don’t want it? How does one continue to minister to and love them? Or, do they remain planks in which to pound nails? As I read the gospels, Jesus’ methodology was pretty eclectic.

    And, for the record, the boarding school to which I referred had some wonderful staff and some wonderful students, probably just like yours. But it also had many wonderful kids who lived on the edge, who pushed the envelop and who struggled in ways that “being nailed” didn’t speak to at that point in their lives.

    [Mod edit]

  11. Memphis Aggie says

    Like the poem.

  12. IMOnk: THANKS for the fascinating glimpse into your world, it helps in figuring out who you are (when I get that wrapped up, I’ll let you know :-))

    your post reminded me of something our pastor says often, and not original to him: a lot of ministry is just showing up….similar to Hybels “just walk across the room” Thanks for “just showing up” for so many years, for your students and for us

    In gratitude
    Greg R

  13. sue kephart says

    imonk,
    There is one Spirit, many gifts. You have found yours. May God bless your work. Not all can do this type of ministry. Please don’t discount gifts others have. I have a soft spot in my heart for those who are ‘behind the scenes’.

  14. Aliasmoi says

    What’s the ten mile rule?

  15. To some in the audience:

    Sorry this piece offends you. If you didn’t know, I’m a preacher of the Gospel.

    And I evangelize teenagers.

    ms

  16. dkmonroe says

    People have such trouble with simple metaphors. It’s astonishing.

  17. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    What’s the ten mile rule? — Aliasmoi

    From the context (and the citing of Landover Baptist, a known joke Website), I would guess “Don’t Ever Come Within Ten Miles of a Heathen, or They Will Contaminate You and Cause You To Lose Your Salvation. Don’t be Left Behind!”

    Summarized in a one-liner attitude:
    “OMG! It’s a HEATHEN! Don’t let IT touch you!”

    Scary part is, I’ve seen and heard of RL examples. Usually drifting off into some sort of Uber-Uber-Xian la-la-land with no reality check.

  18. Michael,

    Thanks for this beautiful article. I’ve been a country preacher at the same country church for the past quarter-century. Something that I’ve just come to grips with again in my own ministry is this: “If you preach Jesus Christ crucified–the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–people will come to church, and things happen.”

    Thanks again,

    John

  19. Jason S. Kong says

    Rick Cruse,

    Analogies always fail at some level. Since iMonk made it a point to explain the specific context behind the usage of “hammer and nail” in his post, it’s absolutely ridiculous and inappropriate for you to apply his usage of “hammer and nail” to any other context than which he specifically referred to.

  20. Dan Smith says

    I just found this offering and thought it might be of interest:

    This is from an article by Chris Folmsbee, former youth minister, titled “If I Were to Do It Again.” http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2009/05/youth-ministry-if-i-were-to-do.html

    • Act theologically before methodologically
    • Be more of a spiritual director than a program director
    • Hire a parent to be a part of our youth staff
    • Spend more time investing in interns/co-pastors
    • Experiment with more learner-centered education models
    • Ask less of my volunteers and yet equip them more
    • Communicate change to the church leaders, staff and parents more
    • Create more opportunities for students to “learn up” instead of me “teaching down”
    • Celebrate the successes in the lives of students with greater regularity and intensity
    • Worry less about the retreat themes and spend more time with the students on the retreats.
    • Take students on way more spiritual retreats
    • Work hard to be more collaborative with the youth workers in my city
    • Take more time off to be with my wife and kids
    • Be more intentional with a confirmation process
    • Find time to laugh and play more
    • Be more grace-filled with students who were goofing off and causing trouble
    • Try to learn more from the staff instead of thinking I have all the answers
    • Take the criticism of others more seriously and less defensively
    • Meet with my spiritual director more often
    • Take personal retreats more often
    • Be way more missional and a lot less attractional in my approach or model
    • Try and get more pulpit time to advocate for the students in the church and community
    • Pray more and develop a team of people to pray with
    • Provide inspiring training for the parent of the students
    • Call the students to greater levels of holiness
    • Spend a lot more time creating opportunities for students to practice justice
    • Allow the more artistic students opportunities to express themselves and their love for God.
    • Teach much more conversationally
    • Try to enter into the joy, pain, loss, doubt, hurt, etc. of the students and their families

  21. 1-9, top notch, God led thinking.
    fishon

  22. Parsifal says

    It takes many months to move past the idea that Christianity is for and about good people rather than about our amazing crucified and risen King, Jesus.

    I think this is where NT Wright is helping me. He would take issue with this statement in the sense that it is incomplete.

    I think he would say that the gospel is about the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus and Paul taught about the Kingdom of God, it’s already but not yet character, and the meeting of heaven and earth in Jesus. This seems to have profound implications, if he’s correct, for how we live our lives.

    I am 1/2 way through Justification, Wright’s response to Piper, and it’s fascinating, even if I find myself disagreeing with many things.There’s also a long series of YouTube videos of Wright talking about Acts back in April where he covers the themes in Justification.

    As I think about Wright in the context of evangelizing teenagers, if the preaching and teaching is less about getting saved (imp. as that is) and more about doing God’s work in the world, it may resonate with these kids. At least the kids I have in mind who see Chrstianity, as you described–an oppressive rulebook for living.

  23. Rick: are you having a particularly bad day ? Your reaction to a simple metaphor is odd and weirdly over the top (and that’s my take on just what got thru moderation). If the post ‘pushes your buttons’, OK, but that says more about your unpleasant experiences than IMonk. I hope you get help, and sorry in advance it this comes across as condescending, I really mean it.

    Lift a rock, pound a nail, build a bridge, wash feet….. keep at it Mr. Spenser, do the hard work, the simple things, with faith and passion. PLEASE STAY AT IT….almost said “stay at your post”…but OMG, that’s a military metaphor 🙂

    GREG R

  24. Michael, do not be discouraged by the cynicism you see on the internet and elsewhere. Everything in your account indicates that you are where God wants you and that you are buiding His kingdom and doing His will. There will be imperfections, failures and discouragements, but also victories, love, communion, fellowship, support and encouragement. May God bless and keep you as you continue to serve Him.

  25. Aliasmoi,
    If memory serves me, the ten-mile rule is to not let your children within ten miles of an unbeliever. It’s satire, mind you. Two miles would be perfectly sufficient.

  26. alvin_tsf says

    iMonk

    thanks for sharing. it is indeed very inspiring and often tedious. i work with kids at our church and it is so easy to fall into this:

    “reduced the Christian life to church involvement and lots of discipleship talk that amounted to “don’t be like the other kids.”

    your reflections on a Jesus-shaped spirituality and the Jesus Disconnect has helped re-evaluate the children’s and youth ministry at our church.

    tbanks again for your insights.

    have a blessed day

    alvin

  27. Imonk,

    Good stuff and I love the hammer-nail illustration. However, I have a question. How do you disciple the students into the Christian walk at your workplace? Do you just preach to them, or get involved in some other way too? Just want to know because my own church has a problem when it comes to discipleship.

  28. Excellent post Michael, and thanks for being faithful to the Gospel, your calling, and to those under your ministry.

    Mr. Cruse has engaged in the logical fallacy of refuting the analogy. Its guys like him that cause me to start to lose interest in any kind of internet dialogue.

  29. I’m a bit curious as to why anyone would be offended, as it is readily apparent from many of your other postings that you’re a minister of the gospel.

    As to your “target audience”? Wasn’t aware of that. But it changes things . . . how?

    Keep up the good work. Between you and some of the books you’ve recommended I am learning and growing, which is not always that easy to do when one has walked this earth for more than half a century, more than half of that time as a believer. I only wish there had been someone like you in my life 30 years ago.

  30. I thought this was a good post and I’m grateful that you are where you are. Your students are very lucky.

  31. Michael,

    I’m happy for you in finding a place where you feel God is using you. I don’t know the story of how you got from being a youth/church pastor to where you are today, but if it’s like other stories I’ve heard of “former” church staff, it probably wasn’t a lot of fun.

    What you and others in the thread are saying about youth programs is intriguing, and insightful.

    As for what Ron said about the lack of meaningful friendships forming in youth groups (and other parts of the church) I would submit that we don’t want others to know who we really are out of fear they might see that we don’t exhibit a “victorious lifestyle”.

  32. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    As for what Ron said about the lack of meaningful friendships forming in youth groups (and other parts of the church) I would submit that we don’t want others to know who we really are out of fear they might see that we don’t exhibit a “victorious lifestyle”. — Ed

    And that all the others might turn on us and peck the defective to death like chickens in a feedlot.

    “Any nail that sticks up gets hammered down — HARD!”

    So out of sheer survival, you stay on the surface. Always Victorious, Always Righteous, Always Happy Clappy Christian. Or at least, your masks say so — like the avies in this little vignette of a Second Life-esque Virtual Megachurch circa 2060, by Christian Monist.