It Takes an Army
Christian ministry is hard work...can I get an Amen!?!?! Here's the reality of the situation: people are broken and sinful, and the Church is made up of people, therefore, the Church is broken and sinful. The math is pretty simple. You can imagine how this might lead to some inevitable issues from time to time. AND...if you think the work is difficult inside of the Church, where at least many of the people are hopefully regenerate believers, imagine the challenges you face when you seek to minister to people outside of the Church, where the transforming work of the Gospel hasn't yet taken root. I believe this is why Paul, who had experienced the challenges of ministry first-hand, writes to Timothy, "If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task" (1 Timothy 3:1), and then goes on to provide a long list of characteristics that such a man must possess.
The qualifications of a pastor/elder/shepherd/overseer (you choose your favorite term) are intimidating to say the least. The expectation is that he would be a man of the utmost integrity and moral character. He is a man who is to be distinguishable among other men, particularly when compared to those who are of a "worldly" character. In other words, he is a man who has been radically shaped, refined, and remade, as metal in a fire, by the power of the Gospel, for the work to which he has been called. Without those deep roots and a strong foundation, the man will inevitably collapse under the weight of his ministry. We see this play out time and time and time again in churches around the world.
Paul was no stranger to the weight of ministry. In 2 Corinthians 11:16-33 he describes many of the trials he had faced over the years. After describing things many of us will never experience (beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, exposure to the elements, extreme poverty and hunger, etc.), he adds the "icing on the cake" in verse 28, where he writes, "And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches." Paul's primary concern was for the churches he had planted and was ministering to. He was juggling a lot of responsibilities. Paul needed a big ol' hug...to say the least.
In the midst of all of this, scripture reveals to us Paul's secret for keeping his head above water. We get a glimpse of it in Acts chapter 18. First and foremost, Paul relied upon his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Paul was faithful and obedient to Jesus in the work to which he had been commissioned. His Lord hadn't promised it would be easy. In fact, he promised the polar opposite...trials and tribulation for the sake of the Gospel (Acts 9:16). However, Jesus' promise to Paul, and to all of his followers who seek to walk in obedience to him, is simple and true. After issuing his marching orders for the Church, he promises, "Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
When Paul was struggling with fear and doubt, his Master reassured him of this promise:
"And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, 'Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you...'" (Acts 18:9-10a)
and the means through which he would strengthen his Apostle was by raising up brothers and sisters around him:
"...for I have many in this city who are my people" (Acts 18:10b)
Here Jesus highlights the important truth of his plan for kingdom expansion through his Church...it takes an army! Regardless of the greatness of the leader, how charismatic he is, how great he is at casting vision or rallying support; regardless of his giftedness in speaking, or how many times he can make you laugh (or cry) in his sermons; in spite of all of those things, and more, no one man can do it alone. When churches become all about the guy in the spotlight, they are on a path of inevitable destruction. Either by attrition, because that guy will eventually get old and die or retire; or by burnout, because that guy can't sustain the demands of his ministry, and he eventually collapses in exhaustion or falls into sin. We see this play out in our churches almost daily.
A genuinely great leader, like Paul, recognizes his limitations and constantly seeks to develop a culture of reproducible leadership around himself by investing in, training, mentoring, and equipping leaders. Furthermore, even this endeavor is not one which he undertakes alone, but rather the church he is leading plays a crucial role as well. In other words, the leader develops an entire culture of discipleship (disciples making disciples) in which he is just one of many essential pieces.
So often in our churches, the identity of the ministry is wrapped up in the pastor. It's not about the church doing ministry, it's all about the pastor. This is a fundamental failure on all fronts. For the church membership, it is a failure of complacency. I don't know how many times I have heard people in churches say, "Our church should do __________." When what they mean is actually, "The leaders should do __________." This isn't to say that there isn't value in the leadership helping the church discern what ministry efforts make the most sense for the body. However, it does mean that the church is most effective when everyone hitches their horse to the wagon and pulls their share of the load. Too often our churches become consumeristic and self-focused. It becomes all about what we are getting out of the church, instead of about how we can sacrificially do our part to pour in.
This is likewise a failure of leadership. The spotlight shines brightly at times on the pulpit. Pride, hunger for power, and other sinful attitudes are lurking just around the corner waiting for pastors who lose sight the truth. It is such an easy trap to fall into when your ministry becomes all about you...and your people are happy to give you the keys to the castle. This is a clear Gospel issue. Jesus' teaching, and even moreso his lifestyle, focused on humility above all else. The incarnation itself (God descending his throne and putting on flesh) screams out sacrificial humility!
In God's economy, the last are first and the first are last; the prideful are brought down, and the meek are raised up. When his disciples were arguing over who among them was the greatest, Jesus responded by washing their feet; a job reserved for the least of the group, not the master! And what more needs said about the self-sacrificing nature of Christ in light of the cross???
Ministry is hard work...but it doesn't need to be debilitatingly so. When Silas and Timothy arrived in Corinth, Luke says that they found Paul "occupied with the word" (Acts 18:5). Later, in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul reflects on those early days of his ministry there. He describes himself as "[weak] and in fear and much trembling" (1 Corinthians 2:3). Despite this, and in the midst of one of the most sinful and pagan cultures of his day, Paul successfully established a church of genuine regenerate believers. He didn't do it alone though. It was through the sacrifices of others, like Aquila and his wife Priscilla, Titius Justus, and Crispus who formed the core of the early Corinthian church, that his ministry in Corinth was sustained and able to thrive. Behind every Paul or Peter, there are dozens, even hundreds of Aquilas and Priscillas. Even Jesus himself didn't walk in ministry alone, but built his church on fishermen and tax collectors. What part can we play in God's kingdom building plan???
If you missed this week's sermon (or just want to listen again), follow the link below to listen. Or subscribe to our podcast in iTunes.
Part 40 - Paul Is Exhausted But Sustained
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. Who are Priscilla & Aquila?
2. What gospel realities sustained Paul during difficult seasons of ministry?
3. What happened to Sosthenes?
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