Stay Messy, My Friends
It is my conviction that gospel wakefulness erupts from the intersection of beholding the glory of God in Christ in the midst of profound brokenness (see 1 Thess. 1:6, for example), and so it is my conviction that regular gospel enjoyment precludes the appropriation of comfort as a Christian’s chief virtue. Rest is good. Sabbath is commanded. But a life and ministry of comfort is dangerous to our souls. If you’re a pastor in particular, God bless you in times of great success and peace, but keep a close watch on your life and doctrine, because while we need not have martyr complexes and be thankless in our times of victory and relative ease, we ought not become numbed by those times into being ill-prepared for the trouble Jesus promised. We have not been called to avoid difficulty and conflict, but to trust Jesus within them.
Here are three areas we can stay in the thick of the messy ministry that is fertile soil for gospel joy:
The temptation for ministry leaders is often to keep “graduating” to easier ministry. This usually means interacting only with “easy” personalities, but in some cases it means insulating from most people altogether. Indeed, it is a great temptation for lead pastors or busy church planters to begin to elevate themselves above the “hoi polloi,” removing themselves from street level ministry to focus on vision, study, writing, etc. Those things are important, but if you spend all your time by yourself or only with those who aren’t messy, you will remove yourself further and further from the visceral compassion Jesus felt when he looked upon the helpless crowd (Matthew 9:36). Peter tells the elders to shepherd the flock of God that is among them (1 Peter 5:1-2), assuming they are actually, you know, among the people, not away from or over them. Pastor: Don’t outsource all your messy people. Love them personally, counsel them directly, disciple them regularly. Of course you can’t give to all, but you can give to some.
Messy ministry in the church family is hard and it is taxing. So the temptation then becomes to withhold from spouse and kids. When church life is difficult, we typically want to retreat into a well-ordered, problem-free home. We want our houses to be respites, not more of the same. But our families should be our first ministries! So, pastor, don’t avoid the hard conversations and the deep questions with your wife. She wants to be known, and she wants to feel like you want to know her, not just keep her emotional arm’s length for your own emotional convenience. Your kids need you too, and not just in the quality time kind of way but in the quality discipleship kind of way. Are there difficult issues or questions you’re not addressing with your kids because you feel helpless or ignorant or scared? Those circumstances are designed for the God-reliance that helps us — and our families — treasure Jesus more.
3. Friends and Fraternity
Whether personal friends or ministry colleagues, it is important that we seek out the sharpening of iron against iron (Proverbs 27:17). “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). In other words, you will want friends and coworkers who are encouraging and edifying, who are unequivocally for you, but you do not want a stable of yes-men. Open yourself to hard questions, challenges, conflicts in opinions, loving rebukes, and constructive criticism. People who only tell you what you want to hear are not your friends and are doing you harm. And if you intentionally surround yourself with people who are afraid to tell you the truth because of your self-defensiveness or your verbal or occupational retaliation, you’re not a friend to them, but a self-righteous guy afraid of the repentance that leads to growth in Christ. Cultivate a climate of transparency and honesty in your friendships and ministry circles, and you will see the gospel spread more dominantly within them.