Around three years ago, my friend – Mike Tindall – delivered an address at my pastoral induction. Ever the encourager, here was what he had for me:
He said a bunch of other things that you can listen to here. But this little clip is the highlight to which I regularly return.* I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be unique to me. The truth is, he was right. I regularly don’t know what I’m doing and it typically takes things going wrong before I know about it.
All too often pastoral ministry is described in terms akin to Alan Patridge’s take on Kipling’s If:
That is not the reality. If you do X, Y and Z, Bob is not necessarily your uncle. The scriptural criteria for organising the church is not a guarantee of church growth. Jared Wilson puts it this way in The Pastor’s Justification:
I was once in a place where many enjoyed the success of gospel-centred ministry, but I did not. The problem was not with the word. But in my particular ministry, the preached word was regarded like the arrival of a UFO, only much less interesting.
In my current ministry context, church attendance has increased steadily. People are finding freedom in Christ. Our giving frequently outpaces our budgeted need each month. People are excited, sparkling about the eyes and bringing their lost friends. We’re baptising adults and enjoying the gurgles of babies in the service.
And I am not doing a thing differently than I did in the lean days. I’m in a different place, sure, and I minister to different people, but my preaching, counselling, my leadership, and everything else is the same ol’, same ol’. I am the same guy stubbornly doing the exact same thing. I am insanely repeating the “methods” and expecting different results. And it appears to be working. This proves it has nothing to do with me (which is quite liberating, actually).
There is an “in season” and an “out of season”.
He goes on to state, ‘we are not charged with creating fruitfulness but preaching the Word’.
We are all familiar with the faithful ministry of Jeremiah. Unfortunately, his ministry coincided with a definite ‘out of season’ period of about 40 years. Not one single person listened to him. Like him, Isaiah responded to the call of God with a definitive, ‘here am I! Send me’. His bubble was immediately burst with this charge:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
In other words, go and speak to a people who will not listen. It wasn’t the fault of the Word and nor was it contextually inappropriate methodology on the part of the prophet. Isaiah’s ministry simply coincided with an ‘out of season’ period.
The point of all this is to say that we frequently don’t know what we are doing. Fortunately, the Lord knows exactly what he is doing. In the last three years of my ministry, we have baptised around 10 people and are just about to baptise a further four. The vast majority of these have been Persians who have simply wandered into the church. Neither I, nor my predecessor who experienced something similar, had a clue what we were doing. We reacted to the situation as best we were able, no doubt sub-optimally much of the time. But the call to faithfully preach the Word remained constant and, without a doubt in the eyes of any who care to look, the Lord gave the increase. We just happen to be ministering in a time and place where, for Iranian people in Oldham, this is an ‘in season’. We simply praise God for it.
*disclaimer: taken hugely out of context