Monday, September 15, 2014

Ministry like Jeremiah (Part 3: Faithfulness is Success)

God has recently prompted me to read through the book of Jeremiah. I'll admit, I wasn't too excited about the idea. This lengthy prophetic tome is filled with blistering passages about God's wrath for the sinful nations, as well as Jeremiah's suffering at the hands of his own people. Yet as I read, I am reminded over and over again of God's faithfulness, His covenantal love for His people, and the nature of ministry. It is this latter point--the nature of ministry--that I wish to unpack here more fully.

Ministry Lesson #3: Being faithful to God is the vital metric for ministry success. When God first calls Jeremiah to be a prophet, he responds like nearly every other leader before him--he responds with doubt and uncertainty. Who me? I'm too young! I don't know how to speak. But God touches Jeremiah's mouth and commands him to speak His words, to be His voice to the disobedient Israelite nation. Then God says something alarming:
Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them.
"I will terrify you before them." This divine pep talk has some frightening implications. Who are you more scared of--people or God? Who is the one really in charge here, who calls the shots and is sovereign over circumstances? The answer is clear, so Jeremiah obeys. He isn't alone though; God clearly promises to be with him and protect him along the way. His purpose is to please God, not people.

If Jeremiah was trying to please people in his ministry, he certainly didn't do a great job. He's arrested, thrown into a cistern, and mostly ignored. For example, a large group of Israelite leaders approach Jeremiah after Babylon has invaded and taken many people captive. They have the following exchange:  

“Please hear our petition and pray to the Lord your God for this entire remnant. For as you now see, though we were once many, now only a few are left. Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do.”
“I have heard you,” replied Jeremiah the prophet. “I will certainly pray to the Lord your God as you have requested; I will tell you everything the Lord says and will keep nothing back from you.”
Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the Lord your God sends you to tell us. Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the Lord our God, to whom we are sending you, so that it will go well with us, for we will obey the Lord our God.” (Jeremiah 42:2-6)

They promise to trust and obey Jeremiah, to listen for God's heart and be faithful to His guidance. After ten days of prayer and listening, Jeremiah tells them to remain in the land of Israel and not go to Egypt. Whatever you do, just don't go to Egypt.

How do the people respond? They call Jeremiah a liar and head for Egypt, the very thing Jeremiah told them not to do, the act they promised they wouldn't do. The results: God's judgment continues to pour out on the Israelite nation and Jerusalem burns at the hands of Babylon. God continues to remain faithful to Jeremiah to the bitter end, and He promises a future salvation for His people. But the present remains pretty bleak, and Jeremiah never experiences a significant "success" moment in his ministry.

When I am discouraged in ministry, I have to come back to the specific vocational calling God has revealed in my life. It's not about my own frustrations, nor is it about my personal triumphs. My motivation must stem from outside myself in the mission God has invited me to join. Think Jeremiah who was called by God at a young age to be God's voice to His people. Jeremiah preached and prayed and prophesied for his entire life. The result? No one listened, the people continued their downward spiral into sin, and ultimately were dragged away into exile while Jerusalem burned.

Was Jeremiah a successful ministry leader? Not by our standards. Zero converts, tons of sinners, and the city burned down. He didn't write a best-selling book (in fact, Jehoiakim burns Jeremiah's scroll). He didn't have thousands of followers or a thriving multi-site megachurch, unless you count exiles in Babylon, Jerusalem, and Egypt as "multisite." He probably wouldn't have been invited to speak at leadership conferences, as he likely would have cried the whole time anyway.

Faithfulness is success. Was Jeremiah faithful and obedient to the calling God gave him? Yes. That has to be our standard for success as a leader in the church. We need to fear God, not people. May you hold fast to the truth of who you are in Christ and your vocational calling, regardless of circumstances, people's opinions, or the apparent response. Our metrics for success in ministry must be obedience to Christ.

What is your metric for success in ministry? Are you fearing God or people?

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