These thoughts plague ministers today. As a chaplain, I am no exception. I find myself lodged between a church culture that is enamored with public perception and a community of displaced youth who are intensely wounded. With an increasing number of books on church growth, public relations, and evangelism, it seems that the local church is leveraging the same techniques as the surrounding capitalist culture; grow your platform, publish your accomplishments, leverage social media, and win converts! Many times, I am tempted to jump on board with such strategies.
But the pressure to accomplish and convince pushes us to treat others as a means to reach a productive and impressive end. Such considerations are also foreign to the ministry of our Lord. Christ, by all modern measures, had a relatively unimpressive and unsuccessful ministry. Imagine the “unsuccess” of Jesus’ ministry under examination of the result-driven voices of our day:
- His ministry only lasted about 3 years. “Wow. He must not have planned for sustainability.”
- He only had twelve disciples, one of which betrayed him, one of which denied him, and others who left when things got hard. “How sad. Sounds like he could have used some leadership training.”
- At a point when many people were following him, Jesus gave an unpopular teaching and almost all of them left [John 6:60-70]. “This could have easily been avoided if he had learned how to connect with his audience.”
- After being totally impressed with His teachings, the same crowds who welcome his triumphal entry with “Hosanna” turned around to shout “Crucify him!” “He must have failed to be relevant to the concerns of his niche.”
- He suffered an ugly and horrible death on a cross. “He must have failed to win friends and influence people…”
But it’s not the case. Even Christ’s powerful resurrection happened in obscurity. There was no crowd to see it. A few women (who in ancient Roman culture were not valued as intelligent or credible figures) found an empty tomb with the stone rolled away; an angel told them what had happened. They didn’t see the event themselves. The resurrection happened in such obscurity that even some of Jesus’ disciples found it hard to believe.
It is as if it was not enough for Jesus to be born in a manger, live a normal life, engage in a short-lived ministry, only have eleven disciples at the end of his earthly work, and die a horrific and disgusting death . . . even His resurrection happens behind the scenes, with no cameras and no PR campaigns. “Ah, Jesus must have failed to capture the event via Facebook Live and stream straight to his ministry page.”
The humility of God is further demonstrated in the way that the Gospel spreads shortly after Christ’s ascension to the Father. The message of the cross spreads across the Roman empire (and the rest of the world for that matter) through the simple love of small communities of Christians who came together to pray, observe Jesus’ teachings, and gather around base elements (bread and wine) to celebrate His victory over death. These people were often treated like Christ himself by being persecuted, mocked, misunderstood, and killed. They were not professionals or managers of public perception. Their witness to the risen Christ was one of weakness, finding God’s strength to be sufficient in their suffering.
In spite of all of this, the temptation to manage public perception and force growth remains with us. Whether we’re parents or pastors, we feel the pressure to make something big happen! When the simple retelling of Christ’s death and resurrection doesn’t produce the result we are looking for, we are tempted to entertain people into the faith. We begin to ask questions of how we can better match youth culture and utilize media platforms to reach them. Based on audience responses, we change our tactics, as though we are as eager to get their business as Microsoft or Apple.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I totally believe that Christ meets people right where they are… but He doesn’t always give them what they want. He heals those who are suffering, but he refuses to answer the Pharisee’s questions. He identifies with the broken but frustrates those who try to test him. For all the ways that Christ meets people right in the midst of their suffering, he also refuses to be their entertainer and he is perfectly fine to continue on without their approval. Henri Nouwen writes that in the desert, Jesus “was tempted with three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (‘turn stones into loaves’), to be spectacular (‘throw yourself down’), and to be powerful (‘I will give you all these kingdoms’). “There,” Nouwen writes, “he affirmed God as the only source of His identity (‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve Him alone’).
By tying these temptations to our identities, Nouwen gets to the heart of the issue. We are surrounded by the idea that you have to make something of yourself and that your worth is determined by your level of accomplishment or popularity. In ministry, this can, of course, take the form of proving one’s worth by the number of salvations, baptisms, commitments, responses, programs, events and the like.
But as God leads me out of the need for external validation and into His validation of me as a son and minister, I am free to give the Gospel freely and leave the results up to Him. I no longer have to push for outcomes or control public perception. I can rest in the peace of the God who is working for the good of every person, knowing that His way of drawing people does not take the form of modern marketing tactics but is something more like the work of a patient gardener (planting, watering, weeding, and waiting) as is demonstrated in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13).
So whatever change we hope to see in a person or group, it must come by the awakening of God’s Spirit rather than by the implementation of our anxiously devised methods. God can carry out His will in the most awkward and lowly places by the most unaccomplished, unpopular people. As E.M. Bounds classically wrote, “The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men - men of prayer.” We, as pastors, parents, and leaders must turn from the temptation to manipulate the experience of those we shepherd and surrender our ministries to God. He has redeemed the world by His cross and leads them into resurrection, not from the spotlight of center stage, but behind the scenes.