The following is a guest post by Casey G. McCall
Eugene Peterson writes, “Real work always includes respect for the material at hand. The material can be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, but when the work is done well there is a kind of submission of will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of humility” (The Contemplative Pastor, 100-101). Peterson is making an important differentiation between the kind of work that seeks to impose one’s will on the subject matter and the kind of work that respects the given conditions. Wendell Berry describes this same distinction by drawing a contrast between “exploitation” and “nurture.” He writes, “The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health—his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity?” (The Art of the Commonplace, 39).
Exploitation is atheistic. The worker imagines himself as the sovereign ruler. His will is all that really matters. Success is defined strictly in terms of increased quantity and bottom-line profit. The nurturer, however, recognizes that the material by which he is to work has been given. There is another sovereign who calls the shots. The nurturer has been entrusted to care for something that he does not own. Therefore, he defines success differently. Faithfulness, stewardship, humility, and submission—these values must supersede profit and outcome. Because God has created and owns the world in which we work, we must submit our work to him. Because Christ currently rules over every aspect of our respective environments, faithfulness to his will must be our first concern.
Exploitation is a danger, not only for farmers (who Berry certainly has in mind), but also for all workers, including ministers of the gospel. Indeed, Peterson’s quote is found in a book written for pastors. Ministers of the gospel, just as much as anyone else, face the constant temptation to exploit. We begin to define success strictly in terms of numbers. We look for the most efficient ways to do things. We quit caring about faithfulness in favor of made-up definitions of success. All that matters is the end goal with no appreciation for the process. The people we are called to serve become means to our greater ends. When efficiency and utilitarianism become our main values, we are pursuing ministry atheistically. At that point we have left behind faithfulness to God in favor of trying to be God.
So how do we avoid this trap? What does a ministry look like that submits to the conditions at hand in humble reverence before the all-wise Creator? Here are a few suggestions:
1) “Be you surrendered to Christ.”
My pastor and mentor, David Prince, has made this statement several times recently in sermons. The first material that we must respect is ourselves as created beings. Yes, we are sinners in need of redemption, but we are also people who have been created in the very image of God (Gen. 1:27). We have all been gifted differently and called to different tasks. Therefore, we must not clamor for the gifts and callings of others. To compare ourselves to another in this way is to say, “If only I were God.” In a recent sermon, Prince explained it like this: “The greatest position I could ever have is me surrendered to Jesus. No one else can be that. No one else has my life experiences. There is nothing common about that.”
To focus on being me surrendered to Jesus is a liberating reality. I don’t have to try to be anyone else. I don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations. As long as I am faithfully following my Lord, I can do so being me, the person God has “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). God has sovereignly placed me in my particular position of ministry at this particular time to be used by him in these particular circumstances. I must maximize my unique gifts in faithful submission to him. I must work hard, but I must work in recognition of my own limitations. In this way I am submitting to the particular conditions of my own creaturehood.
2) Allow others to be themselves surrendered to Christ.
The above principle does not only apply to the way I view myself; it also must shape the way I perceive others. Gospel ministers are called to serve Christ by serving people. Just as we face the temptation to try to be someone we are not, we are also tempted to expect others to fit into our preconceived molds. Paul encourages the church to celebrate the diversity of its members when he writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). We must not only tolerate differences in the body, we must also celebrate them. The church is stronger, not weaker, because of these differences. Diversity in the body is a sign of health: “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:17-18).
Exploitative ministry begins with my goals and then asks: How can I use these people to achieve these goals? Nurturing ministry, however, begins with God and then asks: How can I assist these particular people to live their unique lives in faithfulness to God? Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes vividly what submission to the conditions of a particular community looks like: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial…Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients” (Life Together, 27-28).
We must commit to working with the particular people that God has placed under our care. One of the practical ways that I have seen this submission to God’s design work in my own life is in the way our church staff functions. Instead of coming up with a ministry position and then trying to find someone to fulfill it, our church pays close attention to the particular gifts of the individual and forms ministry responsibilities around those gifts. We try to start with the particular person and ask, “How is he gifted for ministry?” At that point, we are able to ask the follow-up question, “Can our church find a place for those particular gifts?” In this way there is a constant dialogue taking place between the church’s needs and the gifts of the particular people God has sent our way.
3) Preach Christocentric, expository sermons.
The Word of God is the primary material with which the minister is to work, and it is certainly possible to exploit and abuse God’s Word in an effort to assert our own wills over the people we are called to lead and to serve. How does one avoid this temptation and reverently respect this holy material which God has entrusted to us? How do we humbly submit our wills to the God-given conditions at hand?
First, we must recognize that God’s Word is telling a story about Christ’s Kingdom. At the center of every part of that story is the person and work of Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27). Paul tells us that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20), and he determined in his own preaching “to know nothing among
Nurturing the material of God’s Word also means allowing the text to speak on its own terms. We call this practice expository preaching. Expository preaching is the practice of preaching a text as it has been given by God. Because the text was given by God under certain historical and epochal conditions, we must consider the text within its own context before making gospel-centered application to our present congregation. We are not at liberty to make the text say what we want it to say. There is a meaning that the human author intended. There is also a meaning that the divine author intends in light of Christ. We must communicate both as we drive toward present-day application. When we preach like this we are “guard[ing] the good deposit entrusted to [us]” (2 Tim. 1:14). When we preach like this we are working with respect for the material at hand.