Do you sometimes (or even often) despair of culture and your ability to make a difference?
When I first became a pastor, I thought if our congregation could just become larger, we would have more influence in our community.
Then I became the pastor of a large church and discovered I was wrong.
Many times I put my pen down and took a walk around our church campus, wondering if my work was making any kind of real difference in the culture.
I continue to wonder the same today.
My work essentially speaks words I hope someone will remember or writes words I hope someone will read. For many years as a pastor, I mowed the grass at our house. People would suggest that we could hire a lawn service, but I wanted to do something that I could see I had done when I was finished.
You and I can point to anecdotal outcomes—people who make commitments to Christ, join our church, and otherwise indicate that our ministry is making a difference in their lives.
But our work is otherwise hard to quantify or qualify.
Doctors can point to bodies that are healed; lawyers can cite cases they won; engineers can see bridges they built or computers they produced. Looking back over nearly fifty years of vocational ministry, it’s hard for me to do the same.
One of the most important books I’ve ever read
James Davison Hunter is Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He coined the phrase culture war and is one of the most astute interpreters of Western culture today. His magnum opus is titled To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.
Reading it changed my entire outlook on ministry; it remains one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
Hunter proves that culture does not change simply by winning elections or by evangelism and church attendance. Rather, it changes when we achieve our highest place of influence and live there faithfully. He calls this “manifesting faithful presence.”
His work has encouraged me to focus on doing what I do best: engaging cultural issues with God’s word and trusting that, as the Lord assures us, “it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Salt and light change all they contact and work all out of proportion to their apparent size (Matthew 5:13–16).
So with God’s Spirit as he uses God’s people to fulfill God’s purpose for God’s glory.
Using Esther’s influence
These thoughts were inspired by my personal Bible study in which I happened to read Esther 9. You know the story. After Esther won the Persian king’s favor for herself, Mordecai, and their people, the Jews were saved and the nation preserved.
Note the top-down trajectory.
If when Haman launched his genocidal plan the Jews had attempted a popular uprising, it would have been crushed. The king would not have been overthrown nor Haman defeated. But by following the approach Hunter commends, using Esther’s influence with the king, all was redeemed.
This narrative encourages us to be faithful in God’s calling and trust that he is working in ways we cannot see at the time. He is preparing us today for the work he intends us to do tomorrow. And he is preparing the people today he intends us to influence tomorrow.
But there’s more to the story, a dimension Hunter’s book does not explore.
“Keep our souls at peace”
Diadochus of Photiké was a fifth-century theologian and bishop who is known to history as a staunch defender of orthodox Christological doctrine. In his treatise “On Spiritual Perfection,” he writes:
Clearing and purifying the mind is the task of the Holy Spirit alone—just as when a house is being burgled, the spoils can only be recovered if a strong man bursts in and despoils the burglar. Therefore we ought to keep our souls at peace so that the Holy Spirit is welcome there, so that the lamp of knowledge will always be lit—for when it is, the dark and bitter impulses of the devil will be easy to see and they will be reduced to creeping helplessness as they are caught in that holy and glorious light.
This is why St. Paul says, “Do not extinguish the Spirit”—that is, do not sadden the Holy Spirit with evil acts and thoughts, or his light may cease to protect you. Of course the eternal and life-giving Spirit is not actually extinguished; rather, it is the sad turning away of the Spirit that leaves the mind wrapped in gloom and without the light of knowledge.
I take his observation to mean that, for the Spirit to use us fully, we must be fully usable.
This means that our first work is to know Christ and only then to make him known. Our first responsibility is to our Father and only then to his children. When we engage in the various spiritual disciplines for the purpose of growing ever closer to our Lord, his Spirit empowers us in ways that make an eternal difference.
“My utmost for his highest”
When we “keep our souls at peace so that the Holy Spirit is welcome there,” he will lead us to our place of highest influence and use our “salt and light” for God’s greatest purposes. “My utmost for his highest,” as Oswald Chambers famously noted, is the formula.
So, let’s be yielded to the Spirit and then encouraged in our work. God is using us to change lives and through changed lives to change our culture in ways we can see and in ways we cannot.
You cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.