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Near God or Near Ministry?

 

A number of years ago I noticed a number of pastors burning out and leaving their churches. Some left out of exhaustion, others out of moral failure. Then, I attended a funeral of a pastor who committed suicide, leaving behind a weeping wife and several children. Suddenly, I was keenly aware that, I too, could succumb to a similar fate.

Detecting Burnout

I began to reflect on my own motivations for ministry and evaluating my habits. During this time I read Leading on Empty by Wayne Coirdero, which helped me identify the physiological warning signs of burn out. It suggested that a general lack of motivation may be the result of overworking and under-resting, which in turn depletes serotonin and adrenaline levels. We need these hormones for active productivity. We’re not made to run full throttle for long.

My first book had released early that year. After a cannonball run of speaking engagements, I showed up at my last church for the year, invited the host pastor into his office, and shared with him that I was exhausted and needed prayer, but was confident God had a word for his people. His church responded with a level of hospitality and concern that has yet to be matched to this day. It’s remarkable what we’ll receive, if we let people in.

After returning home, I confessed to our church leaders that I had focused on outward ministry at their expense. I stepped away from speaking engagements for about a year and reset my focus on family, leaders, and church. I could have easily burned right through the warning signs.

When leaders near burnout, they tend to withdraw from things they find difficult—counseling, preaching, service—it depends on the pastor. Burnout is accompanied by a malaise that dulls your senses. You begin to lack excitement for anything, not just the hard things. Natural strengths slowly become weaknesses.

But burnout is preventable. And leaders are responsible for how they respond to ministry pressures, congregational expectations, and outside demands. They also have to be cautious about overreacting.

It can be tempting to withdraw from everything, without processing, confessing, repenting, and seeking unity in your actions. Most of all, we have to be aware of Christ, who he is and how to walk in his Spirit. After all, the fruit of the Spirit isn’t rest, withdraw, ease, and isolation. It’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness in the face of adversity. This fruit is impossible to bear alone. Awareness is very important; accountability and obedience even more important.

Burning Up

But what is burnout? Nothing more than idolatry of ministry, and behind the idol, the lure of significance, approval, and productivity. The kingdom of Self, not the kingdom of God. In the end, our habits reveal our hearts. Perhaps burnout should be called “burn up,” the charring of spiritual appetites by an idol that is too hot to handle.

As my heart lit up with warning signs, I reacquainted myself with life-giving habits. Knowing my soul lifts when I spend time in creation, I began to walk the quay next to a lake that runs through our city, praying out loud and listening to God. I began to pray on my knees more, where I sense God’s greatness in a way that is hard to grasp sitting or standing up. I also returned to a devotional I have found life-giving over the years. While reading, I fell upon a quote that changed my life:

Love for God may be fine sentiment. It may be sincere and capable of inspiring holy enthusiasm, while the soul is still stranger to fellowship with the eternal, and ignorant of the secret walk with God.

In essence, Kuyper is saying that it is possible to love the ideas of God without loving God himself. We can love the ministry of the gospel without loving the Lord of the gospel. I may love preaching, teaching, writing, or counseling while not loving the object of all these things, without adoring Christ himself.

Lest we are tempted to judge this as slicing the Bible too thin, we do well to remember Jesus who warned “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:23-24).

You can preach, perform miracles, and grow a church all in the name of Jesus without Jesus even knowing you. This all led me to deep repentance, and the quote continues to pop up and correct me.

These things helped me revalue communion with God, as well as adjust some of my habits. To this day, the sense of God’s nearness rises and falls but he remains ever-present and with me. And I know, in my bones, the nearness of God, not the love of his ideas or ministry, is my good.

Published on by Cassie Littel.

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Should We Kiss Evangelism Goodbye?

In the Huffington Post, writer Cindy Brandt recently declared she “kissed evangelism goodbye.” Many have joined her in the break up. According to one survey, two out of every three active Christians have all but abandoned evangelism. Another study notes that only 25% of believers ages 18-29 look for opportunities to share their faith. Ed Stetzer concludes: “we need a lot more evangelizing going on…” Evangelism is in decline in the U.S. How should we respond?  

Good Reasons Not to Witness
The typical evangelical response to an ebb in evangelism is to beat the evangelistic drum louder. Leaders preach the Great Commission more, tell us to value comfort less, and ask us to consider the cost by “considering people’s eternal destiny.” But appeals to guilt, sacrifice, and an “eternal perspective,” even if biblical, often fall on deaf ears. 

This is especially true for younger generations who prefer their doubts and concerns be taken seriously before being told to “just share the gospel.” Bible thumping and conference rallying don’t cut it. These approaches don’t explore the intricacies of genuine intellectual objections to evangelism. Nor do they address the motivational issues people encounter. 

The fact is people often have really good reasons for not evangelizing. Some of those reasons include the evangelists. The popular impression of evangelism isn’t positive—impersonal and uncaring, preachy and self-righteous, bigoted and hateful. None of those impressions would stick with Jesus. Evangelists who talk about Jesus without acting like Jesus are discrediting. 

If we are going to experience a renaissance of evangelism, we must stop beating the drums long enough to hear evangelistic concerns. Other concerns include cultivating an evangelical tolerance of other religions, distinguishing evangelism from proselytizing, and articulating the gospel in fresh ways that engage current cultural issues like homosexuality, immigration, partisan faith, atheism, and secularism. These concerns, if heeded and addressed, will lead to greater evangelistic wisdom for winsome gospel communication. 

Defeating Defeaters
However, evangelistic concerns can quickly turn into evangelistic defeaters. Good concerns to not come across as impersonal, preachy, intolerant, or shallow can defeat us from sharing good news. As a result, people don’t get to hear about the victorious work of Christ to defeat sin, death, and evil to make all things new. They miss the opportunity to understand the difference between religion, relativism, and the gospel. In the moment of evangelistic opportunity, these defeaters keep us from discussing the fantastic news about Jesus. How do we defeat the defeaters in order to communicate the person-liberating, sin-forgiving, life-renewing, love-imparting, world-altering news about Jesus? 

Often there is a defeater underneath the defeaters, like fear of rejection or love of comfort. Proverbs 18:25 says, “The fear of man is a snare but the one who trusts in the Lord is safe.” We can heed all the evangelistic concerns, avoid all the evangelistic pitfalls, and still refuse to speak about Christ because we are afraid of what people will think about us. Therefore, both evangelized Christians and insufficiently evangelized cultures need a fresh preaching of the gospel. To do this, I commend gospel metaphors—personally discerning and culturally sensitive ways to communicate grace. People are seeking good things in the wrong places: intimacy, tolerance, approval. The gospel offers all of this in a profound, redemptive way.

Seeking Intimacy
Our search for intimacy is in relationships seems to never end. Even the best friendship or marriage inst enough for our insatiable demand to be noticed, loved, and cared for. We all want a place where we can be ourselves and know that we are accepted. We want relationships that are secure, where we feel safe to share our innermost thoughts and darkest struggles. 

When we begin to discern that a person is seeking intimacy, we can explain that, through union with Christ, people can enter into the most intimate, loving, unbreakable, fulfilling relationship known to humanity, which can bring deep healing and joy.

Seeking Tolerance
Many people are seeking tolerance. Some don’t know the difference between classical and new tolerance. Old tolerance says every belief has a right to exist. New tolerance says every belief is equally true. Classical tolerance is spot on. New tolerance is inconsistent. This discussion alone can be an illuminating conversation that deepens mutual respect and admiration between people. 

Others will not like the exclusive claims that Christianity makes. However, before scoffing at their perspective or trying to crush their worldview, ask questions to get on the inside of their perspective and appreciate their views. Build bridges not walls. They often have good reasons or difficult stories attached to their objections. 

Respectful dialogue can go a long way in over-turning bigoted impressions of Christianity. In fact, it can open doors that would remain closed otherwise.

Getting to know someone who values tolerance, you might share that, through redemption, Jesus offers a redemptive tolerance that gives progressive people an opportunity to experience grace and forgiveness in a way that doesn’t demean other faiths. This can be very liberating.

Seeking Approval
The thoughts and opinions of parents matter to their children. What my dad and mom thought about me as I was growing up meant a lot. Their thoughts and opinions could crush or lift me in a moment. We are made for approval, and though our parents are often the first ones to give this (or withhold it from us), the truth is that we seek this approval from others all the time. 

As you get to know someone, you might pick up that they need to hear the gospel of adoption, that God the Father offers an undying approval in his Son Jesus. This is unlike the undulating approval of others. This can radically change people’s view of God, and thrill them with the hope of a Father’s love.

Don’t kiss evangelism goodbye. Instead, look at your motivations longer and harder, and set them next to the gospel, which is deeper and greater than what others think. Don’t just state your concerns; investigate them with intellectual rigor and humility. If you do, you’ll end up a more sincere and compelling witness of the good news.

Published on by Cassie Littel.

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Sharing the Gospel with Yourself Out Loud

It was one of our regular nights at The Gingerman. We worked our way past the noisy crowds into the open-air courtyard and sat down. Dave is a cellist and likes to think. We talk music and wrestle with some of the big questions. 

It started to rain, so we moved inside. Once we got situated, Dave looked at me and said, 

“Jon, do you ever doubt?” It’s funny how people can create an impossible version of you in their minds. I replied, “Well, it depends on what you mean by doubt. I don’t doubt the basic claims of Christ, but I do struggle with unbelief.” Dave glanced at me with a puzzled look on his face. 

I went on to explain, “For example, earlier today I posted something on Twitter that I thought was pretty insightful. I checked an hour later and no one had re-tweeted it. I checked again, and still, no comment. Then again, no star, no tweet, nothing. My heart sank. Why? Because I believed the approval of the anonymous Twittersphere is more valuable then the approval of God, the Father.” 

I disbelieved that Jesus is better than Twitter. 

Jesus died for our desperate attempts to squeeze worth from people we don’t know. The reason he had to die, for this sin in particular, is that it’s a total rejection of our heavenly Father’s love. It’s really sad, if you think about it. But the wonderful news of the gospel is that Jesus dies and rises to rescue us from sadness and replace it with joy. He gives us the delight of the unending love of a perfect heavenly Father. 

I also repented to believe that Jesus is better than Twitter.

As I shared the gospel with myself out loud, I took Self off the shelf of spiritual giant and put him where he belongs. Right there with everyone else. But in the process of being honest about my need for Christ, I also showed Dave how to repent—to run away from disappointing beliefs into the promises of God that thrill and comfort.

Dave was dumbfounded, not by fancy apologetics, but by how the gospel meets everyday needs. I could see the light breaking into his eyes. The more we reveal our own need for the gospel, the clearer the gospel will become. Try making a habit of being more honest about your need for Christ. Share the gospel with yourself out loud.

Published on by Cassie Littel.

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2 Big Reasons Evangelism Isn’t Working

One in five Americans don’t believe in a deity. Less than half of the population attends religious services on a regular basis. 

People simply find our evangelism unbelievable

Why? 

While a person’s response to Christ is ultimately a matter that rests in God’s sovereign hands—something we have no control over—a person’s hearing of the gospel is a matter we do have control over and responsibility for.  

  • “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season…” 2 Tim. 4:2
  • Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. – Col. 4:4-5
  • So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.  Romans 10:17

The first reason our evangelism isn’t believable is because it isn’t done in grace for each person. 

Paul isn’t just saying evangelism is our responsibility; he’s telling us to do it “in person.” Unfortunately, a lot of evangelism is an out of body experience, as if there aren’t two persons in a conversation. It’s excarnate, out of the flesh, not incarnate—in the flesh.

I’m reminded of the more passive Christian who looks to get Jesus off his chest at work and into a conversation. “Check!” Or the time in college when I pretended to share the gospel with a friend in Barnes & Noble so others would overhear it! Alternatively, an active evangelist might troll blogs and start conversations to defeat arguments, while losing people in the process. “Aha!” The comment section on a blog is the new street corner. 

These approaches are foolish because they treat people like projects to be completed, not persons to be loved. Have you ever been on the other end of evangelistic project? Perhaps from a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon at your door. Or a pushy pluralist at work? You don’t  feel loved; you feel used, like a pressure sale.

Paul says we should “know how you ought to answer each person.” This means that most of your gospel explanations will be different, not canned. It also implies a listening evangelism. How can we know how to respond to each person, if we don’t know each person?

When Francis Schaeffer was asked how he would an hour with a non-Christian, he said: “I would listen for fifty-five minutes, and then, in the last five minutes I would have something to say.”

A second reason people find our evangelism is unbelievable is because it lacks wisdom.

Paul isn’t just telling us evangelism is personal; he’s telling us to do it with wisdom. Wisdom possesses more than knowledge; it expresses knowledge through understanding. It considers life circumstances and applies knowledge with skill. Another word for this is love. 

Love is inefficient. It slows down long enough to understand people and their objections to the gospel. Love recognizes people are complex, and meets them in their need: suffering, despair, confusion, indifference, cynicism, confusion. We should look to surface these objections in people’s lives. I was recently having lunch with an educated professional who had a lot of questions. After about thirty minutes he said, “Enough about me. You’re asking me questions. I should ask you questions.” I responded by saying, “I want to hear your questions, but I also want to know you so that I can respond to your questions with wisdom.” He told me some very personal things after that, and it shed a lot of light on his objections to Christianity. It made my comments much more informed, and he felt much more loved, declaring at the end, “I wish every lunch was like this. Let’s keep doing this. I have a lot more questions.”

Rehearsing a memorized fact, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins”, isn’t walking in wisdom. Many people don’t know what we mean when we say “Jesus” “sin” or “cross.” While much of America still has cultural memory of these things, they are often misunderstood and confused with “moral teacher” “be good” and “irrelevant suffering.” We have to slow down long enough to explore what they mean, and why they have trouble with these words and concepts. Often they are tied to some kind of pain. 

We need to explain these important truths (and more), not simply assert them. When we discerningly separate cultural misunderstanding from a true understanding of the gospel, we move forward in wisdom. But getting to that point typically doesn’t happen overnight. 

We need to see evangelism as a long-term endeavor. Stop checking the list and defeating others. Be incarnate not excarnate in your evangelism. Slow down and practice listening and love. Most conversions are not the result of a single, point-in-time conversation, but the culmination of a personal process that includes doubt, reflection, gospel witness, love, and the work of the Holy Spirit. 

And remember, don’t put pressure on yourself; conversion is in God’s hands. We just get to share the incomparable news of Jesus. 

In sum, how you communicate the gospel matters. 

-@Jonathan_Dodson
The link to purchase his book is here:
http://www.amazon.com/The-Unbelievable-Gospel-Something-Believing/dp/0310516692/ref=as_sl_pc_ss_til?tag=creatproje-20&linkCode=w01&linkId=X5XMJCUBGARBANZF&creativeASIN=0310516692

Published on by Cassie Littel.

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