Even though God has reminded me over and over that I am nothing without him, my prone-to-wander-heart often falls into the trap of thinking I am sufficient for the work to which God has called me. I have a hard time admitting I am not able to do it on my own. I enjoy the feeling of accomplishing something after putting in a lot of work and effort, which can be a good desire. That desire can quickly become dangerous, however, when it’s brought into ministry.
Saying “I don’t need any help. I’ve got this!” while playing sports or doing a project around the house isn’t nearly as dangerous as saying it in when we’re leading those whom God has entrusted to our care. My pride is at stake when I am attempting to accomplish something without help—but the message of the gospel is that I am approved by God based on Jesus’ merits, not my own! Meanwhile, eternity is at stake in the calling to make disciples, and students need to see the gospel lived out.
Through COVID-19, God has helped me see my tendency to “fake” ministry by doing it in the flesh, and to acknowledge that I am in desperate need of him.
Ministering in the Flesh vs. Ministering in the Spirit
Shortly after beginning my first full-time ministry position, Zoom suddenly became my key means for connecting with students. The first two months of my job were filled with so many blessings: I was connecting with my leaders and parents. I was getting to know the students themselves. I had an opportunity to help out with the track team at our local high school. We were seeing a lot of visitors at our youth gatherings. When the COVID-19 shut-downs began, things turned quickly from excitement about the work of ministry to wondering what on earth I should be doing. I found myself frustrated and bewildered. I have thought, How am I going to connect with students? How am I, the new guy, going to lead my adult volunteers? How much can I expect of them when they have their own COVID-19 chaos going on?
The sovereignty of God has been a comfort to me as I was reminded that all things happen for the good of God’s people and that nothing can stop the advancement of the gospel. We see this in Job 42:2 when Job writes, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” I was also reminded that connecting with students and leading my volunteers is not dependent upon me. Our God is sovereign over all things. Paul affirms this truth in Acts 17:24-25, “ The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” It is an amazing truth that this God, who has no needs, desires to use you and me to reach teenagers with the gospel!
At the same time, it is terrifying to think I could go through my whole ministry and see students discipled and become disciple-makers, to see our ministry grow, but to do it all in the flesh, failing to acknowledge my dependence on the work of Christ. I pray that God would deliver me from that possibility! If I don’t seek the Holy Spirit for guidance and wisdom; if I don’t seek the face of God through his Word and prayer, then I am probably going to do ministry in the flesh. To the contrary, students need us to lead and teach from the overflow of our intimacy with Christ.
I often let myself believe that the key to fruitful ministry is planning and strategizing, or reading books on leadership, preaching, disciple-making, etc. While all of those are certainly important, communing with the Father and receiving power from on high is of utmost importance and the true key to fruitful ministry. Why in the world would I believe it is possible for me to have a cold and distant heart towards the Chief Shepherd and still be a faithful under-shepherd to the students he has called me to lead?
Ministry in the flesh is a surefire way to have a great sermon or a great vision, but not be truly gripped by it. In order for it to grip us, we must passionately seek the Lord and have intimacy with him. Our best preaching will come when the text has first captivated us. We will lead best when the vision has first captivated us. I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn from others — it’s helpful to read broadly and listen to sermons online. Commentaries are immensely helpful; however, our preparation should begin with reading and praying over the text repeatedly, instead of immediately jumping to what others have said. We can learn from the vision statements of other churches, but ultimately we need to seek God with our teams and hear from him about our unique contexts. Human beings are insufficient, including you, me, and the best leader or preacher out there. We need to rely on the Spirit’s power.
The Way Forward
I often listen to (and highly recommend) The Vance Pitman Leadership Podcast, and I frequently go back to an episode called, “God’s Primary Call on Your Life as a Leader.” In it Pitman says, “The primary call is not to do something for God, the primary call is to be with him.” God can accomplish more through us in 1 minute than we can accomplish on our own in 100 years.
While a lot of important aspects of ministry have been removed during this season, the most important aspect has not been removed: interceding for the flock of God before the throne of God. I have started trying to pray every day by name for a certain group of my students and their parents, and for my team of adult volunteers. In my flesh, I look at a long list of names and feel overwhelmed at how long it might take to mention them all. I start praying and find myself restless.
I must often remind myself that the goal of prayer isn’t to check a box, but to experience intimacy with the Father. It’s not about getting something from God; rather, it’s about being with him. I have asked that God would make me more of a praying Christian. Why don’t I cherish time with him? Why am I so restless and quick to do something else? Could it be that I have seen time with God as a chore instead of communion with him? My restlessness is often a result of losing the wonder of the gospel, that God has chosen me, adopted me and loved me long before I loved him (Ephesians 1:5).
Fellow youth minister, you are not alone in your efforts to make disciples in this chaotic season. The demands of ministry are even more difficult with COVID-19, and we will not be able to do it in our own wisdom. We must remember that nothing in 2020 has caught the Lord by surprise. Jesus is interceding for you as you read this. He will meet you where you are and use you for his glory. Being aware of our limitations is actually a blessing; God doesn’t use those who think they’re strong and sufficient, but those who know they’re weak and insufficient, totally dependent on him.