Sunday, July 16, 2006

When Only Heaven Knows Your Name

Yesterday Awakening Theology began commenting on the phenomenon of popularity (or unpopularity) of preachers. Today we will continue our topic. Below are some generalities. No, they aren't universal truths; there will be exceptions. However, I don't think I'm being unfair in mentioning what I believe to be unwritten "rules" that govern Christian thinking today:

1. the more spiritual a pastor, the larger his church will be

Put another way, the most godly ministers always rise to the top. If you are a small church pastor then you aren't holy enough.

2. the larger the church, the greater God's pleasure is with the minister and congregation

In other words, if your church is large, you must be in God's will; if your church is small, you must be out of God's will.

These two unwritten and unspoken "rules" in many Christians' hearts reveal that God's pleasure with a minister and congregation can be gauged by how popular the preacher is and how large the church is.

What's wrong with this thinking? It's wrong.

Notice God's words to Ezekiel:
"And he said to me, 'Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.' And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. And he said to me, 'Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD.' And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.'" (Eze 2.1-5 ESV)
Quite an ordination service for a prophet! God told Ezekiel, "whether they hear or refuse to hear...they will know that a prophet has been among them" (Eze 2.5 ESV).

In other words, the popularity/holiness of a preacher or the favor of God toward a congregation can't be measured only by the size (or lack, thereof) of a church.

Size and popularity alone isn't a yardstick to measure the worth of a minister or church.

John Wesley made this own observation. A few days after he preached atop his father's tomb, he recorded on June 13, 1742 in his Journal:
At six I preached for the last time in Epworth churchyard (planning to leave the town the next morning) to a vast multitude gathered together from all parts, on the beginning of our Lord's Sermon on the Mount. I continued among them for nearly three hours, and yet we scarcely knew how to part. Oh, let none think his labor of love is lost because the fruit does not immediately appear! Nearly forty years did my father labor here, but he saw little fruit of all his labor. I took some pains among this people too, and my strength also seemed spent in vain; but now the fruit appeared. There were scarcely any in the town on whom either my father or I had taken any pains formerly but the seed, sown so long since, now sprang up, bringing forth repentance and remission of sins.

Don't rush past the importance of Wesley's words: "Nearly forty years did my father labor here, but he saw little fruit of all his labor."

Now, are we to conclude that because little visible results happened after four decades of pastoral work that Samuel Wesley, John's father, was out of the will of God? Perish the thought! We just can't make such judgments. We must leave such judging to the Lord.

Conversely, just because someone pastors a huge church, earns a huge salary, is in demand to preach all over the place and makes a mint off of the royalties of runaway bestsellers doesn't automatically mean that he is in the will of God.

It brings up another point, perhaps a sharp and disappointing one to most preachers today: most will never find great "success" in ministry. Most won't have huge salaries, won't have people begging to hear them and won't make a killing off of the royalties of national bestsellers. Most won't be pastor-executives of sprawling multi-million dollar, multi-acre church complexes and most won't come close to making names for themselves like John Wesley did.

For every one person who earns a page in Church history there are a myriad of ministers who are forgotten by Earth. Why? Only God knows. A minister is called to be faithful to God--even though he may live (and die) in obscurity.

All that matters is that Heaven knows his name.