I spent last week with a group of 9th graders at camp teaching them about the God who made us in His image, who sought us in Christ when we went astray, and who wants to be in a conversational relationship with us every single day. And this week I will play the role of the Apostle Paul in chains in a Roman jail cell at our church’s annual Vacation Bible School where I will get to tell the story of God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ no matter our circumstances to all the children who are there.
In both cases, I know that I am playing the long game.
There will likely be no immediate measurable results from the time and effort put into these two demanding weeks of ministry. Peter preached one sermon on the day of Pentecost and saw 3,000 people repent, believe and get baptized as the result. I will put in hours of preparation and expend tremendous amounts of energy in presentation during weeks of ministry like these, and only rarely do I see the needle of faith move appreciably in anybody’s life as a direct result. Still, I consider weeks like these to be some of the most important of the year. And that’s because I know that most of the work that I do as a minister is hidden, and only unfolds over time. As Paul told the Corinthians (I Corinthians 3:6) – I plant, others water, and still others harvest. Rarely does the same person get to do all three.
Oh, there have been seasons of return and stretches of quantifiable growth in my 40+ years of ministry, to be sure, but never the Acts chapter 2 result of “3,000 souls on one day,” or anything ever even close to it. No, my experience has been much more in line with what Ole Hallesby (1879 – 1961), the influential Norwegian Lutheran theologian from the last generation described in his lecture “How Can the Word of God Be Preached so as to Result in Awakening and Conversion?” delivered at an annual conference of “The Brotherhood of Pastors Faithful to the Confessions” in Norway.
There is a mystery involved in soul work. Jesus said so Himself in His Parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29) –
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.
All we can do is plant the seed. It sprouts and grows all on its own, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. And then there’s the harvest. Summer camp and Vacation Bible School are exercises in seed planting not harvesting. My task in these settings is to sow the seed of the Word in the heads and hearts of the young so that it can eventually have its effect –
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
The seed that I sow will grow to a harvest that I myself will likely not see. I plant the seed, somebody else will harvest the crop, and I’ve got to trust the process. Al Mohler has written about the peculiar strain and stress that all of this creates in ministers –
We who are pastors have a certain product envy. We envy those who build houses or sell cars or build great corporations or assemble automobiles, or merely those who cut the grass. Why? It is because they have something tangible to show for their labor at the end of the day. They may be fastening widgets and assembling automobiles, or they may be putting things in boxes and sealing them up and sending them out, or they may be cutting the grass. They can see the product of their hands. A carpenter or an artist or a building contractor has something to which he can point. What about the preacher? The preacher is robbed of that satisfaction. We are not given the sight to see what we would like to see. As a matter of fact, it seems like we stand up and throw out words and wonder, “What in the world becomes of them? What happens from it? What after all, is our product, and where in the world can you see it?” Words, words, and more words. And then, we sometimes feel like we are flattering ourselves that people even remember what it was we had to say. We are chastened from even asking our own church members and fellow believers for the identity of our text halfway through the next week. Why? Because we are afraid that we will get that shocked look of anticipated response when a person of good intentions simply says, “That was a fine message. I don’t remember exactly what it was about, and I have a very vague recollection of something you may have said, but I want you to know it was powerful.” I think the Apostle Paul responds to this, at least somewhat, in verse 23 when he writes to the Colossians saying, “All of this is true, if indeed, you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.” Paul understood that it was possible to hear in vain and he hoped that it I was not true of this church — that their response to his preaching was not just a succession of nice accolades and respectful comments. Rather, we would like to have an assembly line of maturing Christians go out the door of the church, wherein we could at least see something and note some progress. We could statistically even mark what kind of impact this sermon had over against another. But, we do not have that sight; it is largely a hidden work in the human heart. Such a work will bear good fruit, but this will take time to be evident.
So, bring on the kids! I’ve got a story to tell, “a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light,” a story that has the power to change them, and through them, to change the world. Just like the Trojan Horse, my only task this week is to get the story past their defenses of the “ennui” of our age, and get it deep inside them so that when they least expect it, the bottom of it can drop out and the power of its beauty and truth can seize and save them. I probably won’t be there to see how the Christ story finally leads them to a Christ-decision that makes them Christ-like, but I know that it happens… because it happened to me. DBS +