There’s a quote I read recently and I can’t get it out of my mind. So, I hope to get it stuck in yours too. It comes from Zack Eswine’s superb book, The Imperfect Pastor. And it’s not so much an inspiring or earth-shattering sentence that’s easily tweetable. Rather, it’s a short series of soul-pricking questions that rattle my heart with reverberations that register on the Richter scale. Zack proceeds to ask . . .
Do I possess a stamina for going unnoticed? Can I handle being overlooked? Do I have a spirituality that equips me to do an unknown thing for God’s glory? (61)
Read those questions again. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Let them sink in. Let them pierce your heart. Let the truth of the queries and the rhetorical negative reply linger in the quiet as you ponder what these words mean. For me, these are paradigm-shifting questions that change the way I think about life and ministry. So often, I crave after events and opportunities that’ll get me noticed. I want the speaking gigs. I want the writing invites. I want the applause of friends that see me doing “great things” for God. I want to hob-knob with the someones of Christianity and pretend I belong. I want the “Amens” of quotable sermons. I want the acclaim of the congregants and the retweets of my “followers.” I want people to know my name and shake my hand like I’m a someone. I want those things. And I’m afraid that many a young minister wants them too.
But when I read those questions, I’m speechless. At a loss. Because then I realize the truth that shatters my visions and dreams of “ministry.” Then I understand that my lust for applause isn’t fueled by the gospel at all. The old Adam rears his ugly head in the deceitful ambition of doing something “for God.” Satan’s never one to sit on his hands. Always he’s marring the very good things of God into wretched things. And it’s no different with the ministry. He’s perverted the office specially designed as the voice of God into a fame-seizing, soul-swindling, platform-hogging, money-grabbing scheme that nullifies any “ministry” one actually accomplishes. And the sad part is that young preachers see that and want that for themselves, continuing the cycle and feeding the beast of false preaching.
But the truth is — and this is something I’m learning every day — pastors ought to get used to being invisible. We must to pray for “the stamina to be quiet when slandered, silent when gossiped about,” resolved never to bask in whatever glories are rained down, “entrusting our reputations more and more to Him and less and less to our words, emotions, or record keeping.” (Eswine, 96) Somewhere along the line, preaching replaced pastoring, and delivering sermons supplanted sitting in silence as the marks of successful ministry. The smallness of people’s problems became the hurdle of climbing the ladders of evangelicalism instead being the precise version of what it means to be a shepherd. “When did it happen that a life purposed to help ordinary people in their ordinary struggles to locate God became too small a thing? . . . If I am bored with ordinary people in ordinary places, then am I not bored with what God delights in?” (Eswine, 153, 40)
Ministry doesn’t happen in the spotlight, it happens in the silence. Gospel ministry is most clearly seen in small occurrences, not in thunderous sermons. The things in ministry that truly matter “will require you to do small, mostly overlooked things, over a long period of time.” (Eswine, 26) They require you to sit in silence with shattered souls and learn to find Jesus among the rubble. The beauty is, He’s always there to be found. We’re often just too busy to notice.
I guess you could say that I’m learning to love being invisible — it’s a lifelong lesson that rubs raw my innate craving for platforms. I’m learning to embrace the “fame-shy work” of the gospel that our Lord so embraced. As a sort of three-quarters-of-the-way review of Eswine’s book, I can say that my life and purpose are changing because I know that I don’t have to be everywhere for all, know it all, or fix it all for everyone. I don’t have to accomplish “great things” for God by being a stupendous preacher. I can let the silence speak to me and give me the courage to be invisible for Him. I can love family, friends, and neighbors in new ways because they aren’t seen as stepping stones or hurdles, but as the very purpose of grace.
“Do I possess a stamina for going unnoticed? Can I handle being overlooked? Do I have a spirituality that equips me to do an unknown thing for God’s glory?” No, not yet. Probably not ever. But by Jesus’s grace and the Spirit’s presence, “I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14) I push forward and lean into the grace in the silence and invisibility of ministry, knowing that even if no one else sees, God notices. He sees. He cares. He knows.
- Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).