I want to write on a topic which initially may appear to be unrelated to preaching, yet for some may have significant implications to their sermons.
Here is what I am sensing in a nutshell:
I fear we engage too quickly in ‘mission and calling,’ without first having a transformation of heart, developing true substance to share, or having the evidence of God’s blessing and empowerment upon their lives.
Much of what I hear these days from emerging generations focuses on being involved in meaningful, front-line ministries. We long to get their hands dirty; we want to make significant contributions to the betterment of this world by serving and helping the lost, the vulnerable, the least, the disadvantaged, and hurting. These longings are to be applauded and encouraged. I believe this loving concern springs from the heart of God.
Yet, in the recesses of my spirit I sense a troubling unsettledness. As we interact with the hurting, as we serve those in need, and as we seek to make the world a better place, do we have what it takes to make a real difference? Or, will we fail and flounder in epic ways because we are inadequate for the tasks and challenges that this kind of ministry makes us face?
Recently, a friend of mine who runs an inner city ministry told me of a number of individuals who had volunteered to provide ministry to the drug addicts, prostitutes and street-people, but ended up addicted and enslaved themselves. He shared stories of well-meaning Christians who sensing the need to make a positive difference in this world, had ended up in bed with prostitutes and taking the very drugs from which they were trying to help people find deliverance. As a result, not only were their own lives ruined, but just as importantly, those in the streets began to look with well-justified suspicion on all gospel representatives and their message.
There is no doubt that Christians ought to be in the forefront of ministries in prisons, soup kitchens, helping immigrants, opposing the sex trade, protecting the weak, helping the run-away, defending the disadvantaged, and addressing other social injustices and crimes. Yet, I am concerned that so few Christians are internally transformed themselves. I am concerned that when I hear them speak, their words and advice are devoid of the wisdom of Christ. I am concerned there is little evidence of the power and blessing of God upon their lives.
I am not addressing the situation where a volunteer lacks experience or the circumstance where a person is still lacking in normal human development and maturity. What I am speaking of is the same thing John Wesley addressed when he wrote in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians but, oh, who shall convert me? “ Those who study Wesley’s ministry to the America’s know his intentions and motivations were noble, but he lacked the internal wherewithal to genuinely help others. As a result, he left North America defeated and disgraced with little-to-no fruit to show for his labours. It was not until later in his life, after he himself was transformed, equipped, and empowered by the power of God, did he become a force for good and God in this world. I fear the passion of this generation to jump into front-line social justice and compassion ministry will end much the same as Wesley’s early ministry if they are ill-equipped in heart and mind.
In fact, the only strength I see in many volunteers today is pity and concern. There is no doubt they care, but they have no real solutions or hope to offer the world. They can sit and listen and offer some degree of physical care … but they can’t speak with conviction about ‘victory’ because there is so little victory in their own lives. They can’t share the wisdom of God into the lives of the unwise because these believers have spent such little time devotionally ingesting God’s wisdom for their own development. They can’t offer supernatural help and deliverance because God’s power is not evident or resident in their own life. As a result, those who so desperately need deliverance and victory, remain lost, hopeless and enslaved.
Perhaps, it is time for those of us who preach to raise a warning flag that ministry without substance is a sham. Mission without character is doomed. Service without power is meaningless.
Perhaps, it is time for those of us who feel called to the ministry of preaching to look inside ourselves to see if we are first transformed, enlightened, and empowered before tackling the mission God has given us.
Stephen Elliot is the Director of Pastoral Ministries & Church Planting at Kingswood University in New Brunswick, Canada.
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