On September 13th Christianity Today’s “Church Leadership” blog published a piece titled: “Epidemic: Another pastor burned out and quit last Sunday.” You know these kinds of stories well. More importantly all of us in the Acts 29 family, with our commitment to gospel ministry and church planting, are intimately acquainted with the complex constellations of dark feelings that lie behind these stories.
There is a desire in many men of God to struggle and strive and sacrifice and achieve great things. Much of this is that idolatry of self-validating achievement that masquerades as ministry zeal. Some of it may be authentic Gospel-motivated passion. However, whatever our motivations may be in the mix of the messiness we’re just losing perspective on what God wants from us and what we contribute to his work in the world.
I was called to my first church at the age of 24 and I’ll be 63 this January. I planted the church I’m at now thirty-two years ago. I’m still here somehow! One thing that has helped is a little red hammer.
My friend Dr. Jim Coffield brought it up. Jim is Professor and Counseling and clinical Director of the M/A. in counseling program at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando Florida. Before all of that he was a deacon at my church, Christ Community Church, in Daytona Beach, Florida. One day I was building a shed in my backyard and Jim came over the help. My son Alex, who was maybe two or three years old at the time, was out in the backyard with us with a little plastic red hammer. As we worked Alex hammered away.
I was unloading all my anxieties the stress of ministry and mission and the weight of my burden as a church planter to Jim. Jim listened sympathetically. Then he said something: “Larry even on your best days you are like your son Alex with his little red hammer. God is building his kingdom and his church and you’re working up a sweat with your little red hammer. You act like God needs you to help him build the kingdom but he doesn’t, He just likes having you with him in the work.” Sometimes the Holy Spirit gives a friend a word or image that cuts right to the heart of things. I’ve never been able to fully forget that image. On my best of days, with my best efforts my contribution to God building his kingdom is somewhat like that of a beloved little boy with at tiny little, three-year-old appropriate red plastic hammer.
I often forget that perspective but when I remember and recall that picture it invites me up into something bigger than me and about which there are no fears. The Westminster confession says because of our adoption we serve God, “not with slavish fear but child-like love and obedience”?
Does the perspective of humility, and childlikeness undercut my willingness to work hard and even sacrifice? No! But it gives much needed perspective. We don’t work hard because God needs us to work harder if his work is ever going to get done. We work hard because God loves it when we are all in.
It all matters in some beautifully compatibalistic way.
Scripture says so:
1 Corinthians 3:9 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
1 Corinthians 3:9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
If our all-powerful God who needs nothing calls us to come join him in the work of the kingdom and graciously includes us in the work he is doing in the world maybe it is for our good and his pleasure. If we remember that we can work out of the joy of the gospel, out of love for the Father and with childlike faith and dependence. All of this will help us to work and to minister in sustainable sacrifice. That’s what our churches and families and our very souls need. Not self-indulgence but not anxious overwrought burnout either. We need sustainable sacrifice that has joy and childlike faith all through it. Because God is all powerful the cause of the Kingdom doesn’t depend on us. Because of the grace of the gospel we are deeply loved already and so, if we will hear it, we don’t have anything to prove.
In Mark 4 Jesus tells the parable of the seed growing by itself. It’s one of the shortest but most important parables for me. Jesus said,
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
In his sermon on this parable titled “The Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly”, Helmut Thielicke quotes Luther. He writes: “Luther once said, ‘While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer the gospel runs its course.’” That is truly the finest and most comforting thing I have ever heard said about beer. (Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1959, p. 90)
How would following Jesus, planting churches, praying and living in joyful sustainable sacrifice look if you did it all believing that on your best days you are like a little boy with tiny red plastic hammer? Your Father just wants you with him in the good work he is doing in the world. Brothers, we need perspective and we will work better if, with that perspective we are a little smaller, and more dependent and God is much bigger.
Larry has been a full-time pastor for 36 years. He has been married to Connie since 1975 and they have three grown sons—Alex, Adam, and Aaron. He was educated at Florida Bible College, Calvary Bible College (MA), and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv). He is the lead pastor of Christ Community Church in Daytona Beach. Larry also teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary as an adjunct professor and serves as the Acts 29 US Southeast Area Lead for Dayton, New Smyrna, and St. Augustine, Florida. You can contact Larry via email here.