Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ministry in a Needs-Based Culture

SCRIPTURE: Matthew 11:28-30
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: October 26th, 2013

28“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

SYNOPSIS: This week, I write about the ministry of meeting needs. In fact, there are organizations that have built themselves on the premise of meeting needs, so much so that they have forgotten that it is only in Christ, needs can be truly met.

"There are so many needs around!"

Those who know what to do will offer generously: "How can we help?" Those who do not know what to do will be quick to refer them to someone more knowledgeable, more resourceful, and maybe more pastoral. Those who absolutely do not know what to do, but just want to be nice will say things like: "Don't worry. Things will be all right."

Comforting? I am not sure about that. Somehow, such words sound good to the aching ears but feel empty to the perceptive heart. Come to think of it, everyone has needs. Babies have need of milk. Adolescents have needs for attention. Youths need pocket money.  Singles need a companion. Marrieds need a regular renewal of their vows. Churches need revival. The sick needs prayers and healing. The discouraged needs hope. The panicking student needs calm nerves before exams. The grieving needs comfort. The Sunday School needs teachers. The gospel needs workers. Hey, I need a new cell phone!

A) Many Needs; Few Workers

In the pastoral ministry, there are ample opportunities to observe and notice the kaleidoscope of needs. There are needs here. There are needs over here. There are needs over there. Someone used to tell me that churches are like "black holes." Aim at any direction and whether the "black hole" is big or small, it sucks one in. We know from science that "black holes" are those voids in space that consumes everything, log, stock, and barrel. Burdens of needs are in a way like black holes. There is no end in sight. The needs grow and grow. Where are the workers? Will they be sucked in by the black hole of unending needs?

With such overwhelming burdens, it is no mystery in knowing that pastors often do not know where to go except to take it to the Lord in prayer. The words of the popular hymn says it poignantly.
"Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he'll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there."

Whether you call meeting needs a privilege or a burden, it depends on the pastor's own inner health. Frankly, I admit that at times, I do feel helpless as the needs overwhelm the resources available. People share deep secrets with you. They trust you to keep it private and confidential. They bring you through the ups and downs of life. They even entrust some of their precious thoughts and hopes to you. Holding these in secret, where can the pastor go? To whom can they share without breaking confidence? Where can the pastor himself find someone who can completely understand him; and to provide solace and comfort amid the many demands, needs and expectations? How can any one person carry such heavy burdens? No one. That is why pastors (need to) pray a lot. I feel that pastors and those in the caregiving arena need soul care. More importantly, they need a way to find comfort and solace, without going into all the world and to add additional burdens to an already overwhelmed world of needs.

It is this helplessness that sheds light on David's plea:
"Save me, O God, for the waters have threatened my life. I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me." (Ps 69:1-2)
When he is in distress, David knows exactly who to cry out to: God. That is a sign of spiritual intimacy.

B) Ministry with Eyes on Needs

In ministry, caregivers will know that needs will always be there. In fact, the young and inexperienced will be so charged up with a desire to do good that he/she may give and give to the point of burning out. At that point, instead of resting and recuperating, they continue to push forth and make themselves vulnerable to all forms of discouragement. Worse, pastors who are so focused on meeting the needs of others, neglect their own families. Look at the following complaint by a wife of a minister.
"For those of us who are pastors’ wives, our husbands’ ministries are public and visible. They are in front of the people, preaching and teaching. While this is happening, we are often in the nursery or in the pews trying to keep our children quiet. While our husbands are out meeting and fellowshipping with other members, we are often stuck at home with sick kids! Our needs and our contributions to the family and to the church tend to get overlooked. Sometimes we are hesitant to even let people know we have needs in the first place." (Brian and Cara Croft, The Pastor's Family, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, p75)

Sometimes, there are those ministry workers who see meeting needs as the sole criteria of Church growth. In pastoral circles, sometimes we call this, firefighting. When there is one fire, the pastor becomes the fireman who puts the fire out. A pastor friend of mine shared with me his experience with a growing Church. After several years in the ministry of "firefighting," he resigned due to burn out. He said that he was getting really tired of measuring his worth on the basis of meeting needs and putting out "fires." The reply from the Church leadership was stunning:
"But you are so efficient in putting out fires!"
Wow. If pastors are called to fight fires all the time, they will be burned up literally.

C) Putting Needs Into Perspective

Yes, needs in any community can become like black holes. It can turn into fires that caregivers and pastors need to put out. However, when the needs become the sole measurement of ministry success, I question whether it is living as the true Church of Jesus Christ. Remember the great commission? We are to be witnesses for Christ. We are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all the Jesus had commanded. Note the final statement.

"And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:20b)

When we minister to the needy by letting ourselves and our solutions be the end, we are in trouble. We must minister in the Name of Jesus, in the Power of the Spirit, that people will know that it is God who meets their needs, not us. We can be there to listen, to encourage, to chat, and to walk with the needy. However, we must never put ourselves as "god" to meet all of their needs. That will be forming idols in the hearts of the people, to think that we as ministers are "gods." No. Ministers of the gospel are to be servants who help point people to the True Healer, to the Ultimate Teacher, to the True God. The moment we turn people's attention to our efficient or clever abilities to meet needs, we are in serious spiritual trouble. Note what Joseph Hellerman has to say about the young minister with high ideals of ministry work but low awareness of spiritual focus.

""Ideals are fragile, however, in the hands of the weak among us. Other graduates leave seminary and soon become so captivated by the American trinity of efficiency, growth, and pragmatism—principles enthusiastically advocated at many pastoral leadership conferences—that they quickly cave to culture and abandon their biblical ideals in favor of the latest trends in church growth." (Joseph Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2013, p294)"

How easy it is to try to turn needs into a ministers' playground of efficiency, growth, and pragmatism. Like narcotics, ministers who are infatuated about meeting needs all the time are digging their own graves for ultimate failure. Putting needs into perspective means remembering that every ministry worker, every pastor, every Church leader, must point people not to the solutions but the Source of all solutions. Point people not to the gifts of meeting needs but to the Giver of all gifts. Direct people's attention to focus not on the things of this world, but on the things above. Most crucially, remind people that there are no burdens to big or sorrows too deep that Jesus cannot carry or understand.

D) Growing a Family of Shining Realists

What do we do about needs? Perhaps, we can learn to establish a dual listening posture: Be grounded in understanding needs and burdens; and to be oriented to the Hope, Comfort, and Grace in Jesus. This dual-listening is what the minister needs to do. Let me share Susan Lenzkes's beautiful words on what it means to be a "family of shining realists." It is a beautiful way of putting the earthly awareness and heavenly hope into practice.
Christ died to make us a family of shining realists . . .

  • people who know where we’re headed, but recognize we’re not there yet. 
  • people who don’t pretend that victory means lack of pain and struggle. 
  • people who laugh, and love, and give anyway. 
  • people who refuse to live in denial or fear. 
  • people willing to walk through the muck with Jesus. 
  • people who see clearly that the fruits of heaven and hell coexist on this earth. 
  • people who know that such a world offers great opportunity for God’s grace. 
  • people who make God smile and live in a way that makes others smile at God. 
  • people who know how to lick honey off a thorn.

    (Susan Lenzkes, Life is Like Licking Honey Off a Thorn, Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2002, p19-20)

My friends, let me summarize as follows. In this world, there will always be needs. From congregation members to clergy personnel; from hospital patients to the nursing staff; from people cared for to the caregivers; needs are everywhere and will always be there. The key is to remember that meeting needs are to be placed in their proper perspective, but never to be enthroned as a "god" in itself. It calls for a healthy self-denial that is required of all disciples of Christ. Self denial is not about discarding away our legitimate needs. It is about dethroning the level of importance of such needs, so that they do not usurp the position of Christ. Having a sense of dual listening will then help us as ministers of the gospels to do our best to meet needs, to carry burdens, and to care for people; while constantly listening out on how to make sure that people do not leech on to us as if we are their "god" but to cling on to Jesus who is the Giver of all Comfort, all Healing, and all Grace. For Christ is the True Source of meeting all needs.

THOUGHT:  "The man who articulate the movements of his inner life, who can give names to his varied experiences, need no longer be a victim of himself, but is able slowly and consistently to remove the obstacles that prevent the spirit from entering. He is able to create space for Him who heart is greater than his, whose eyes see more than his, and whose hands can heal more than his." (Henri Nouwen, Wounded Healer, New York, NY: Doubleday, 1979, p38)


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