AT SOME TIME EVERY CHRISTIAN WORKER gets discouraged by the lack of growth or the sheer carnality in the people that he or she serves. People are slow to change. Some never seem to change. Then there is the bickering and infighting. Although the Bible implies that everyone has a gift to exercise, many hold back and never become more than passive observers. When these things happen, and they surely will, we get tempted to take matters into our hands. We distort the goals or the means of ministry.
There are many ideas about how to fix these problems. Some water down the message. Others imagine that a change in church structure is the solution. If we join the house-church movement, maybe these problems will go away. A few think the problem is smallness. Larger churches are the solution. Others think education is the solution. We need more PhDs.
We can’t provide a solution until we have identified the problem. For Believers, the problem is always internal. It is the individual heart. And there is one truth that is written in granite. No Christian worker can change another Christian’s heart. Only God can do that. Therefore, we are totally dependent upon God to solve our most pressing pastoral problem, transformed human hearts.
We need God’ power to change hearts. How do we get that power? That is the question. The leader most apt to attract God’s power to his or her ministry is the one that adopts God’s goals and pursues them with God’s means. These two tools, the right goals pursued with the right means are the solution to most pastoral problems.
What are God’s goals? The answer to this question is the continental divide of Christian ministry. Some answer the happiness and salvation of people. Although human happiness matters greatly to God, our happiness or salvation is not his primary goal. God’s primary goal in all of his work is his glory, and so it should be for all Christian ministry . This is very important, because the ministry centered in glorifying God, not human happiness, will end up looking very different from one that makes human happiness its primary end.
What about the means to that end? God has only given us three means. They are preaching, prayer, and the example of God’s leaders. Shepherding is the mop-up work that takes place after effectual prayer leads to effective preaching modeled by godly elders. The Jewish tabernacle in the wilderness is a good illustration of this simplicity.
God’s presence dwelt over the mercy seat in the holy of holies. No one could enter except the High Priest, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. He only came with blood that signified the death of a Substitute on behalf of himself and God’s people.
The chamber outside the holy of holies was called the holy place. This is where the normal priestly ministry occurred. There were just three simple objects in the holy place. On the left, as the priest entered, was the seven-branched candelabra representing the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit. On the right was the table of showbread reminding us of the word of God which is the bread of life. Before the priest, in front of the veil barring the way into the Holy of Holies, was the altar of incense representing the intercession of God’s people.
The tabernacle illustrates the simplicity of the means that glorify God. They are the word of God bathed in the Holy Spirit’s illumination, culminating in intercession that motivates God to send his power to change human hearts.
This means that God is most apt to change human hearts and solve pastoral problems when we preach or teach God’s word in total dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit. The fragrant incense of intercession rising before God is the only valid means to that power.
In other words, Christian ministry is always first and foremost word ministry. I’m not primarily thinking of the academy. Yes, we need scholarship. We need to impact the intellect, but much more is needed. We need the Holy Spirit’s illuminating power over the word of God. This is most apt to happen when Christians go deep in prayer.
Every Christian leader needs a fundamental conviction that preaching is the most important activity in the local church. We preach the word. We counsel the word. We share the word with unbelievers. We meditate on the word, all bathed in the power of the Holy Spirit brought to pass by the sweet incense of our intercession rising before God’s throne.
The Word of God is Living and Active
Think about the dynamic word images used by God to describe his word. In Hebrew 4:12 it is “living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword” that “pierces to the division of soul and spirit.” In Psalm 33:6 it is God’s creative power that formed the universe. We become new creations by the same word (2 Corinthians 4:6). God told the prophet, Jeremiah, that his word would “pluck up and break down…destroy and overthrow…build and plant” (Jer. 1:10). Psalm 29 describes God’s word “breaking the cedars…flashing forth with flames of fire…making the deer give birth…and stripping the forest bare.” In Hosea 6:5 the prophet, “hews” people down “slaying them” with the words of his mouth (Hosea 6:5). So great is the power of God’s word that the apostle, John, called Jesus “the Word of God” (John 1:1). The power of God and the word of God are inseparable. This only happens when the illuminating light of the Candelabra shines on the Bread of Life. This is where prayer comes in.
What are the implications? First, it means we are totally dependent on God for the results we so earnestly seek. We are not in control. We cannot solve our most pressing pastoral problems by changing church structure, or revising our by-laws, or beginning a campaign to get everyone involved. These all have their place but they are not the fundamental solution. That is because they don’t address the fundamental problem, the human heart.
[Second, it means we are not free to change the ends or the means when we are not getting the results we want. Rather God is pleased when we persevere in total dependence using his means to accomplish his ends.
So, let us cast ourselves on God’s mercy. Let us pour all of our energy into preaching the word, counseling the word, and sharing the word in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us burn the incense of desperate intercession on the altar before the veil until God rises up in power and transforms the hearts of the people he has entrusted to us.