Everything I touch dies. Not people of course! That would make for a tragic and inefficient ministry. But over the course of the past four years, I have watched every small green thing I have planted in our yard die. It wasn’t until I was praying with another local area pastor that the significance of this caught me. He had been riding down the Delaware River and observed how our little valley here in northwest New Jersey is a thin topsoil that barely covers layers and layers of rock. It is no wonder that our little plants struggle so!
His comment was also telling as we prayed that day: surely this is reflective of hearts in our region as well. I am not complaining, of course. In this day and age ministry is difficult everywhere! But as I have gathered weekly for prayer with other pastors, one after the next has shared with the group as they open up: it just doesn’t seem like we are reaching hearts. Hearts here seem so hard and resistant to the Gospel! One pastor summed this up perfectly – all he sees of his neighbors is their garage door open, a wave as they drive by, and the sound of the door closing behind them. How does one minister and build an intentional Gospel-rooted community of believers in a place where people have use for neither Gospel nor community?
Among the rich doctrine and poignant moments of praise and benediction that Paul offers to God in his letter to Timothy, it was a single word that struck me in a fresh way recently: “first.” It is easy to look at a ministry challenge like the one you perhaps face, and maybe we begin to do the preliminary work of strategizing and planning. Some even perform demographic and ethnographic studies to get a handle on how the Gospel should be contextualized. But one part is often left out of the conversation, and it is the very thing Paul says should happen first, and highest, and best:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…”
1 Timothy 2:1
A Gospel-centered church is built first with a people that pray. It is prayer that God is looking for from us, His people. He esteems us with His merciful willingness to incline His ear (Ps. 40:1) and hear us as we pour out our hearts and empty ourselves (Psalm 62:5-8) in His presence like a drink offering. He hears us and acts (James 4:2) when we pray in the name of His Son (John 15:16) in accordance with His will (1 John 5:14-15). Prayer rightly is an act of worship that rises up like a sweet-smelling offering of incense (Psalm 141:2) as we lift up hands washed and made clean (1 Timothy 2:8).
Or in the words of Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock.'” (Ezekiel 36:37) In other words, it is a privilege and an honor to offer up our incense of prayer and intercede for the lost. And make no mistake: we are surrounded by the lost! This is not a matter of cultural preference native to our region or district; we are surrounded on every side by a torrent of the lost! Who but God can save them? And yet one cannot help but wonder: is it possible our churches are not growing, our faith is not being strengthened, and the lost are not being rescued and added to the house of Israel precisely because His people are not asking?
One final picture for you. I participate in two clergy groups, both totally unaffiliated with the EFCA. (I will spare you a guess which one I am advocating for.) One is weekly in prayer, on bent (and admittedly worn out) knees for the lost and for one another, so that our sister churches and fellow partners in the gospel grow and are strengthened. The other group of similar composition meets monthly for food. At the former, we often find other pastors are alone, sorrowful, and bewildered at what they see happening in the world around them. At the latter, I am often asked only two questions before or while we eat: ‘are you a senior pastor?’ ‘How big is your church?’ At the former, we are finally realizing that we don’t compete with one another, and rely heavily on our pastoral prayer and care for each other. At the latter, sushi.
Beloved of Christ, I love sushi. But we are surrounded on every side by the lost. A river of the lost, a flood of the lost! Their hearts are like stone that only the Holy Spirit can change. It is time that you and I are able to answer some very simple questions. Do the Gospel-confessing churches in your region compete or complete?
But maybe the questions should be more deeply personal: Are you alone in this effort? And why? Are you certain other pastors don’t need prayer and encouragement? And most importantly, do you pray? Or, more to the point, do we pray?
Under-shepherd, if not now, when? If not us, who? If not here, where? And if you find no one is willing to join you in prayer, grab me or give me a call. Let’s go all in…together.