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The most challenging thoughts on ministry I’ve ever read


February 26, 2017
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Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being by Zach Eswine is easily one of the most influential books I’ve read in my life.

After finishing it again, in a slow re-read, I wanted to try and summarize some of what I thought was the most powerful in an article.

I hope by hitting a few highlights you will be challenged, encouraged, and motivated to go buy the book (or its abridged version) yourself.

Eswine’s goal is to help ministry leaders see that in our attempt to bring worship to Jesus we end up trying to replace Him.

Since we aren’t designed for this sort of work or the praise that may result, we end up burning others and ourselves out.

What starts out as a high goal of changing the world for Jesus slowly slips into changing the world for ourselves, for our egos.

Thankfully, throughout the book, Eswine graciously reminds us of our humanity. He rallies us to admit with John the Baptist that, “I am not the Christ.” (John 1:20) Therefore, we must first acknowledge our limits and second admit our need for others.

We’re needy, limited people

No matter what we do, we can’t escape our humanity. By this I mean we can’t be in more than one place at a time, we have limited knowledge and power, we can’t be everywhere for everyone and fix all of their problems, and we aren’t omnipresent, omnipotent, or omniscient.

We need to admit that we can’t do everything that needs to be done.

We need to accept that there will be things left undone at the end of the day and at the end of our lives.

Jesus will teach us how to live with things that we can’t fix or control. Believe it or not, there are things we can’t know, and Jesus will teach us how to live in ignorance.

When we live on the street of “partial knowledge” we must hope not in what we know, but in what He knows.

He will show us how our admission of these truths will bring Him more glory than living in denial of them.

You see, the longer we reject these truths and live in opposition to them, the more we hurt ourselves and others.

Oftentimes when we try to help in our own strength, the more of a mess we make.

We aren’t meant to be the heroes. We’re broken clay pots. (2 Cor. 4) We aren’t Batman, and, actually, neither is Jesus.

Modern comic book heroes swoop in to save the day before anything terrible can happen. Jesus, on the other hand, will sometimes leave things unfixed even though we think He should fix them.

He doesn’t magically appear when Stephen is about to be stoned in Acts 7. He sits with Stephen in his suffering.

When Jesus doesn’t show up with His cape on, we need to be OK with this. We don’t need to think He’s asleep on the job. This isn’t our cue to hop in and pick up His slack. This means we need to wait on Him and trust Him.

These are tough times. We often fear the things we can’t control and fix. But this is the chasm that faith is supposed to fill. We must learn how to live when only God knows what is going on.

Prayer rather than hard work is the key in these moments. To most of us, this feels like an uncomfortable mess. But don’t fight this and just get busy. Get prayerful.

We must surrender to our limits. We need rest, we need help, and we don’t have control. Living as if we don’t have limits results in overwork and burnout.

Admitting these truths about our limits often means slowing down our pace. Maybe accomplishing less. Perhaps looking weak in the eyes of others.

But this is good for us. This helps us rediscover the true values in Jesus’ Kingdom.

More, bigger, better, faster, aren’t values of His. Soul work is slow work. Don’t seek shortcut solutions in the slowness of soul work. Humble, holy, faithful, obedient service are the values that are meant to color His Kingdom.

If we live by the world’s values, we attempt to reject our limits. We try to escape our humanity. But we can’t glorify God by trying to replace Him or by acting like we don’t need Him.

The fact that there are things that I will run into that are beyond my ability to mend humbles me into waiting on Jesus.

The work we didn’t get to today will be there waiting for us tomorrow. If our vision is big enough, then this should always be the case.

Our vision for our life should be longer than our life. If you can get everything done, then your vision is too small.

For now, there are kids to play with, spouses to love, and neighbors to talk with. Unplug, wind down, and enjoy.

Ministry doesn’t happen in grand moments but in ordinary places

Reaching the world for Christ doesn’t consist of large, momentous, arena rock type experiences.

All of the energetic young dreams we have make it seem like it should be this way, but Jesus shows us otherwise.

Ministry is slow. Ministry is normal. Even after leading someone to Christ, you still go home and do the laundry while you wait on your Hot Pockets in the microwave.

Somehow we didn’t imagine that our lives in ministry would look as normal and broken as they do. Or that we would spend them with the types of people that we do.

But you can’t escape the normalcy of life. Ministry is not sexy. It is service to people we often don’t like that much. It is full of conversations with others who have coffee breath like you.

Ministry happens over a plate of cafeteria food, not on a stage with lights.

Ministry isn’t about gaining an internet presence and being asked to speak at conferences. It’s about loving someone who is hurting. It’s about repeated effort without much sign of success.

Even if there is “success” it doesn’t change our status. Great things don’t exalt me out of my humanity. They reveal that no one is God, but God.

Paul’s letters reveal the ordinary and local nature of ministry. He’s giving instruction to small town pastors about how to love their small congregations. He is naming particular people, not asking for numbers and reports. He’s zoomed in. He isn’t divorcing the grand vision of reaching the world (Rom. 15:20) from the lives of real people (Rom. 16).

We often can be trying to get to some other place rather than being completely present where we are.

Real ministry requires an embrace of your place. It means we must stop, listen, and observe. All full-time missionaries will tell you this.

No matter how unreached the people are or how celebrated you were when you left, you still show up and do ministry on a local road in a specific community. (If you want to learn more on the idea of and value in a place, many of Wendell Berry’s works speak on this.)

Social media gives us the illusion of being somewhere else. Even though we’re still just in one place typing on a keyboard, it feels different than that.

Sadly, many ministers today ride the high that social media gives them rather than getting into the real lives of people. This allows us to give our gifts without giving ourselves. This destroys expectations for real ministry.

We must surrender to our limits and minister where we are. To ignore these limits is to covet God’s position.

We often are trying to get somewhere but never end up being anywhere. But when we stop trying to be everywhere we can actually get somewhere.

I’m in the middle of the fight along with you.

I desire fame and esteem. I want people to know my name. I’m essentially trying to work Jesus out of a job. I’m guilty of wanting the praise others have (envy) and wanting more of it than anyone else (jealousy) (Phil. 1:15).

I’m sure that, like me, you want to be unique. You want to stand out. But the good news is that we’re already known by Jesus. The bad news is sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough.

Do we possess enough stamina to give our lives in ministry and yet never be noticed? Can we handle being overlooked? Do I have the maturity to do unknown things for God’s glory alone?

We need to put an end to using people for our own selfish purpose of making our insecurity go away.

People aren’t props to hold up our shaky egos. They’re souls we need to point to the only King who can help them.

  • Samuel Barker

    just what I needed to hear. this is gold! Thanks for sharing, Taylor!

    • Taylor Tollison

      Glad you were nourished by it Samuel!