I remember where I was standing—walking actually, with my head bowed and my spirit beat down yet again as the pastor of a church I wanted to grow.
I’d been pastoring my fourth church for five or six years. We’d made some progress and there were some things to feel good about. As a young church plant, what that meant on daily terms was that we’d had a decent number of people coming to be viable and enough money to see our way into the next three to six months.
Confession: I admit that my ego, identity, and self-esteem have always been too tied to how well the last sermon came off, how many said affirming things about it or some program we ran, and certainly to the number of people and dollars that showed up on a weekly basis. God deliver me and us from that!
But there were also some big challenges.
Working for God
About eighteen months prior to this, we faced a massive controversy. In fact, it was the third and biggest problem in a series that created enormous pressure.
In the worst of that season, it looked very likely that our young church would implode and disintegrate. It was here that I learned that church plants often face a crisis in their first decade that threatens their existence. I only have anecdotal evidence to make this claim, but I suspect it is true.
As I wandered aimlessly through my house that Tuesday, I was grousing to the Holy Spirit about why things weren’t going better.
Why couldn’t we generate and maintain real momentum that would propel us to consistent and increasing growth both spiritually and numerically?
Why did it always seem to be a “two steps forward, three steps back” kind of experience?
Even the best seasons could be described as “three steps forward, two steps back,” which is progress but seemed way too little for the effort invested.
Another confession: for thirty-plus years, I’ve not been great at separating the best of Jesus’ Great Commission to “go and make disciples” in Matthew 28:16–20 from the worst of the so-called “church growth movement.” If you sort that out, please let the rest of us know the insight.
Prayerfully, I complained again that I was doing all I could to work for Christ and his church with little to show for it in my opinion.
Then the Spirit spoke.
Working with God
He made it very clear to me that he wasn’t interested in what I was trying to do “for Jesus and the church and the kingdom.”
He explained that I was not called to that kind of relationship or that kind of work.
Instead, I had been saved by Jesus’ grace, adopted into God’s family, and invited to work with the Spirit in the work they were doing.
The difference between working with Jesus rather than for Jesus has been a big point of clarity for me since that conversation twenty years ago. It has brought me ongoing clarity, recurring conviction, and not a little amount of comfort.
Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17 NIV). Making disciples who love and live for Jesus is the greatest of all work. But it is not my work or your work first and foremost.
Since human words and works cannot change human hearts, we must remember that this is divine work that only God can do.
The additional miracle of love and grace is that our Father lets us join him in any part of it. What a compliment to us as daughters and sons of God that he shares with us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5). What an astounding affirmation of our identity and value that he wants us to be “coworkers” with him (1 Corinthians 3:9) in the sin-forgiving, joy-inciting, peace-producing, and eternity-changing work he is doing daily.
No, we don’t ever work “for” God as slaves or servants. Those metaphors have some use, value, and instruction for us. They are biblical ideas. But we are way more than what these images express.
So, take a breath.
Take your eyes off the problem or page you’re reading.
Lift your fingers off the keys.
Stop the prayerless striving.
This is his work that he makes our work.
What’s most important to our Father is the ongoing, moment-by-moment connection we have with him. This really is a “co-mission,” and our efforts ought to be the most excellent they can be for his glory.
But we never blink, breathe, speak, or step without him going before, behind, and beside us.
That’s something to smile about.