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God completely humbled me last night. If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t enjoy it at first but once I recognized that it was a healthy lesson I felt a sudden burst of freedom. It was if I had been held captive and all of the sudden the chains were broken, the noose had been loosened and I could breath. I realized I was being held captive by numbers.
I have a healthy ministry at my church. (In large part thanks to amazing volunteers and my boss/co-pastor.) Our students are solid and we’ve experienced tremendous growth over the past year. Tonight, however we were low, I mean really low. It’s not that hard to see why, it was Mother’s Day and the students that were gone were all gone for legitimate reasons but that didn’t prevent the frustration of low numbers from creeping in. Numbers were holding me captive because I was measuring not only the effectiveness of the ministry based on them but also my self-worth as a pastor. I came home feeling ineffective, frustrated and depressed because we had such a poor turnout. But as the night progressed I became relieved, even hopeful. After talking with one of my very good friends and fellow Pastor, in addition to my wife, I found myself back to where I once was not so long ago.
My first ministry out of college was a tiny little church in the Conejo Valley of California. The student ministry was small but that didn’t matter to me. I was excited to work with those students and build relationships. For the short amount of time that I was there the ministry didn’t grow much in the area of numbers but that never affected me. It didn’t have an impact on how I viewed the ministry because relationships were being built and students were encountering Jesus in a fresh way. In that ministry, I didn’t base the success of the ministry on numbers but on whether or not students were hearing about Jesus and building relationships. It wasn’t out of any profound wisdom that I thought this way, more likely out of idealism, but as I look back now I see the wisdom in that mentality. If students are encountering Jesus and growing in relationships with Him, their peers and their leaders then a ministry is successful. Don’t get me wrong, numbers are great. There is an amazing energy that flows in a room full of students and that energy is an amazing high but it an be disillusioning too. Numbers measure only a portion of a ministry’s success. If students are not encountering Jesus and growing in relationships then it doesn’t matter how large of a group you have, it is a largely ineffective ministry.
It’s freeing to not base your ministry’s worth and success on numbers because it allows you to focus more clearly on the students that are present. This is something that I need to work on but am all the more excited to do so. I will continue to strive to draw students who don’t know Jesus into this ministry but I won’t base it’s success or worth on how many are there. Don’t be consumed by numbers, they are great when you have them but can quickly turn into an idol; an idol that takes the focus off of Jesus and his ministry and onto quantity rather than quality.
It’s an image we are all familiar with, a man on a horse leading it by dangling a carrot in front of its face. The allure of the carrot leads the horse forward, the ultimate motivation for the horse is the reward of the carrot. There is no skill on the mans part, he is merely manipulating the horse to get it to move forward. The horse has no respect for the man but just clings to the hope that it will receive the reward of the carrot once the destination has finally been reached. The motivation on either end is neither pure nor healthy.
Heaven is often presented as the carrot and Jesus as the man dangling it. We are told that we must accept Jesus so that we can get into heaven. This paints a very wrong picture of what following Jesus is supposed to be like. First, it portrays Jesus as the manipulative man dangling a carrot so that he can eventually get his way by trickery. Secondly, it gives the idea that our relationship with Jesus is founded purely in what we receive from him. It creates a “What’s in it for me?” attitude in Christians and they become so eternally focused that they lose sight of the present. When the disciples were called to follow Jesus there was no hint of their motivation being about eternity. They simply dropped what they were doing to follow this man, intrigued by his message and presence and eager to form a relationship with him. If our motivation for following Jesus is because of what we will receive in the afterlife then we cheapen the relationship that we could have.
We have all too often bought into this myth that heaven is the carrot to dangle. “You should accept Jesus because he died on the cross to save you from your sins so that you could go to heaven and not hell.” But this misrepresents what following Jesus is about. This motive sounds more likes a dysfunctional marriage. It rings of a marriage where the only purpose of one spouse is to be married to them so that when they die they will receive the life insurance money. We do not follow Jesus so that we can have fire insurance. We follow Jesus because as a compelling leader he, as God’s Son, shows us the way to be reconciled to God, to live life to the fullest and be in relationship to him and the Father. Heaven is a blessing that comes from having a pure relationship with Jesus.
The eternal carrot misguides people into following Jesus for what they are going to get out of it not out of a sincere and pure desire to encounter the risen Christ. The eternal carrot dangles before people telling them that eventually they will get the reward of eating the carrot if they obey. The carrot is about following the rules; doing what your told and you will get the reward. Jesus didn’t die for rules, Jesus didn’t die to become a carrot dangling in front of your face to get you to fall in line. Jesus died so that we would be free from the carrot and have access to God the Father directly. It is out of this freedom that truly following Christ becomes real, it is out of this freedom that we encounter what it truly means to be in relationship with Jesus and it is out of this freedom that we come to know that we are loved even if we step out of line for a while.
The Myth of the Eternal Carrot is that you follow Jesus in order to get to heaven. That is not what following Jesus is about. The carrot focuses on eternity as the motivation where truly following Jesus makes love the motivation; heaven is left to be a blessing until later, not something to dwell upon. I would rather show people a Jesus that loves them so that they truly want to know him then have people become religious so that they will receive a reward.
I’ve heard a lot of statements from people over the years about church. Unfortunately, I’m not very surprised at what I hear because it has taken on the tone of Charlie Brown’s mother. Monotonous complaints about how I don’t like something, how the music is too loud, how it doesn’t serve me, etc… It’s time to cut the crap. If you are a part of a church and the only things you have time to say about it are the things you don’t like about it, then you have completely missed the point of what a community of believers is about. We all have our personal preferences and I guarantee that mine are different than yours but ultimately that doesn’t matter. It’s not about us it’s about reaching those that don’t know Jesus.
I have a student who is participating in our ministry to possibly be trained up to pursue Bible College and then vocational ministry, first thing I told him today and the wisest thing I’ve ever learned: when you become an active leader in ministry rather than a passive participant you should now be focused more on what will reach people than what your personal preference is.
(These are just reflections from random conversations over the last 5 years and recent articles that I have read.)
Okay so bonfire may be a bit of an exaggeration. Tonight I had a fire in my backyard in our fire pit. I was feeling lazy so I just lit a Duraflame log and used that. It wasn’t too shabby but definitely did not qualify as a bonfire. Sitting outside around this burning log of chemicals I began to think back to the many great nights I’ve had around fire pits. While living in California, fire pits were a staple for any great conversation. My friends and I would sit around a fire in their back yard and laugh at stories or engage in deep theological debates. We would bring wood pallets to the beach for bonfires with the waves crashing on the shore and again there would be laughter and in the best of moments some silence.
Tonight, I sat around my fire alone. It was a sad feeling, one that made me miss my dear friends in California. But as i write this now I know that the community I shared with them still exists and we are still great friends to this day. My heart breaks, however, for those that don’t have their own bonfire community. The homeless man sitting by a fire in the woods, the woman who feels alone and isolated in an abusive relationship, or the gay man who feels that the Church community he once had now shuns him. Community is huge, community is support and love and accountability. I pray that all those who are lonely will find community, with people love and care for them but most of all with Christ.
So, my question for you tonight is… Do you have a bonfire community? Or is it some other kind of community?