Thursday, September 29, 2016

Evaluating a Ministry, Part 3

This series is designed to help us determine some characteristics of how ministries are often evaluated and how they might better be. The primary focus is on Mark 8, and last week, I provided a look at a likely evaluation on behalf of the Pharisees. (You can view the post here.) The Pharisees were definitely interested observers, but they had a definite agenda as well. This week, we will look at the perspective of the disciples who were called to witness and do, yet had little understanding by this point in the story.

The Disciples

Mark 8 is the pivotal chapter in this account of the gospel. The disciples have witnessed many miracles, heard Jesus teaching, but still struggle to understand. Before I continue, let me be clear that in this post, when I use the word disciples, I am concerned with the Twelve, not the seventy or more that followed Jesus. The same principles may apply to all of Jesus' followers then, but they definitely include the Twelve so I will restrict my usage to the men named in Mark 3.16-18 (and similar lists found elsewhere in the gospels and Acts – which are similar, though some list have different names due to nicknames and such).

In Mark 3, Jesus appoints the twelve whom He also calls apostles (v. 14). The word appoints is the Greek word poieo which generally means “to make.” This is an important word and will be discussed more in Part 5 of this series. For now, it will suffice to see what Jesus appointed them to do. Mark 3.14-15 says they were called to “be with him” and to be sent out “to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”

By the time these followers were called, some of them had already witnessed several miracles (cf Mark 1.31-34; 1.41; 2.11; and 3.5). Subsequently, all were present to see many more miracles including calming a storm (Mark 4.35-41), raising a girl from the dead (Mark 5.39-43, only a few went with Jesus in this instance), feeding five thousand men (Mark 6.35-44) and walking on water (Mark 6.45-52). Unbelievably, Mark 6.52 says their hearts were hardened after witnessing these miracles.

The Confusion
Based on the preceding paragraph, it is evident they were often with Jesus (Mark 3.14). But they had also been sent out to preach and cast out demons (Mark 6.7-13), and did so successfully! However, the feeding in Chapter 8 brings hostility and then evidence of a lack of understanding. The disciples were confused (at best) about Jesus feeding these people. “These” seems to be a derogatory reference here as Jesus was with the Gentiles. Like the Pharisees, it was perfectly acceptable for Jesus to feed the Jews (Chapter 6), but not these people.” After Jesus rebukes them for a lack of understanding (Mark 8.14-21), we get a glimpse that their understanding is beginning to change.

Perspective: Why this man helps Gentiles is beyond us, but we cannot deny His power!
Evaluation: Outstanding“You are the Christ!” (i.e. “We are going to be victorious!”)

(I am placing myself in the minds of the disciples, as I see it, for the perspective and evaluation – both here and below.)

This perspective and evaluation may represent the thought process in Mark 8.27-30. The others consider Jesus to be a great prophet, but they know Him even better. The problem isn’t that they don’t know Him better, it is how they understand what they think they know. Jesus is more than a prophet...He is Messiah. And, if that is true, then it is time to rise up and overthrow the oppression (Rome) and restore Israel. But Jesus came to be raised up in order to overthrow the oppression of sin (not Rome). He told the disciples He must suffer, be rejected and die (and be raised again.) This did not compute in the minds of these twelve men, so just after The Great Confession comes the The Great Rebuke.

Perspective: You are Messiah! What is all this nonsense about having to suffer and die.
Evaluation: Failure“You must not understand what being Messiah really means. You have the power to do anything. So do it. We will help you.”

Jesus begins to clarify what He means, but again, that is His perspective and so we must wait for how that piece fits into our evaluation puzzle (post 5). For now, let us look at the point of this post and draw a conclusion or two from it.

The Point
The disciples had a calling. Their calling was to follow Christ (“Follow Me”). Their appointment as disciples/apostles was to be with Him and to go for Him. By being with Jesus they would not only learn what to do, but why it was important to do it. By going for Him, they would learn to prove themselves capable of extending Jesus ministry when He would no longer be with them. But that was the problem. They did not have a big enough perspective to see a time when He would be gone.

The problem with the Pharisees last week was they had an agenda – particularly to discredit and even destroy Jesus (Mark 3.6). The disciples issue was their lack of understanding the process of Jesus. Again, we can boil this down to a simple “Be with Me so you can go for Me” (Mark 3.14-15). But as they began to better discover who Jesus really was, they wanted to go with Him – to rule in His Kingdom  (cf Mark 9.33-37; Acts 1.6). However, Jesus knew they had more to learn before they would be ready for their true purpose – to reach the nations with His message (Acts 1.8).

The Conclusion

We all have people who will seek to evaluate our ministries with reasonable intent, but with a lack of understanding. That summarizes the issue for the disciples. They knew what the general expectations were for the Messiah, and Jesus did not deny their conclusion that He was Messiah. However, He did change the focus to the Son of Man (Mark 8.31) to reveal a larger perspective for them to absorb.

How does this apply to us? People within our own ministry setting will often have a perspective of what the full job entails, but they will only have a part of the picture. We may not need to rebuke them as harshly as Jesus rebuked Peter, but we should take the time to help them see the larger picture. After all, each of us are just like the disciples in the sense that we don’t see the full picture of what God has for us or our ministries. As we help others gain a greater perspective, we prepare them for greater ministry opportunities, including perhaps extending what we have already begun. Like Jesus, we must remember that one day we will not be doing what we are currently doing and thus we should be preparing the next generation of leaders to be ready to take over when necessary. So, who are you asking to “be with you and go for you” so that they might be ready to step in, or move on, to great things when the timing is right?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Evaluating a Ministry, Part 2

Last week, I began a series on the idea of evaluating a ministry. (You can view the introductory post here.) This series is based upon a question that a student asked me, and although several ideas may come to ones mind, I chose to use Mark 8 as a basis for my answer. As such, for context, I will use mostly references from Mark’s account of the gospel when relating to previous aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Using this approach provides us with the option of removing our own ministry from the immediate review (removing some of the emotion) and provides one of the most critical aspects of the evaluation process – perspective.

The perspective of everyone involved greatly impacts the evaluation. This is true in any case, but is difficult to overcome when clear expectations are not defined. But even the expectations are subject to various perspectives – unless clarified, often in writing – and thus can add to the confusion. Such is the case for us, and such was the case for Jesus. As we turn to Mark 8, we must remember our guiding question: Was Jesus ministry a failure?

The Religious Leaders

If we were to ask the religious leaders of Jesus day, the answer would be hard to obtain. In one case, the religious leaders would probably prefer not to answer the question because they might have to admit that Jesus was having a tremendous impact on the people. On the other hand, the leaders were not yet convinced, and only needed time to discredit Jesus. This brings us to their perspective for evaluation.

Perspective: Jesus will fail because we will see to it that He does.
Evaluation: Incomplete, so far. But we will expose Him as a fraud.

(Remember, I am portraying this from their perspective, as I see it, not my own.)

Sure Jesus has done many fantastic miracles, but He has not done them according to the recognized tradition of the day. He healed a man on the Sabbath (Mk 3.1-6) in the same place He had earlier cast out a demon (also on the Sabbath, Mk 1.21-28). But His disciples did not fast as was the custom (Mk 2.18-22), picked grain to eat on the Sabbath (Mk 2.23-28), and did not wash their hands correctly (Mk 7.1-5). Such action could only be caused by a leader who didn’t care about the traditions, which, of course, Jesus largely showed He didn’t. Thus, it was the intent of the scribes and Pharisees to show Jesus as a fraud and make His ministry a failure. I am sure they took some pleasure from Jesus being rejected in Nazareth (Mk 6.1-6), probably seeking to get some of those townspeople to spread some negativity about Jesus (This action is not recorded in the Bible, but the thought is likely to have gone through someone’s mind). 

Turning to Mark 8, Jesus now does the unthinkable – He feeds the Gentiles. While the Jewish leaders may have had difficulty finding fault with Jesus feeding the 5000 men, they would have been challenged by His approach (which many Jews would have seen as a direct parallel to Moses, see Mk 6.34-44). But in Mark 8, the miracle is repeated for those who are Gentile. The numbers were lower (4000 people) and this may have been attributed to the earlier story of eating the crumbs (see Mk 7.24-30). But to associate with the Gentiles was deplorable in the eyes of the Jewish leaders – to help them through a miracle was unthinkable!

Testing Jesus

So, they set out to test Jesus (note the word test in Mk 8.11). This is key in their evaluation. They are not willing to evaluate Jesus based upon what He has already done. They are not willing to evaluate Jesus’ ministry based upon what has been proven. They want Him to prove His worth in the moment.

Let me pause here to say that anyone’s ministry can be seen as a success or failure in a single act, but over time the real truth will be revealed.

To test Jesus, the Pharisees ask for a sign. When I first read this – even studied it – my response was something like, “Hello! Have they not seen all that Jesus has done?” I still think that response may have some validity, but only from a different perspective. The perspective under review here is that of the Pharisees. So what is their purpose in seeking to test Jesus?

Again, it goes to the very idea that the previous miracle was done for the Gentiles. Their intent is to find out from Jesus if God has given Him the authority to do this. In seeking a sign from heaven, the Pharisees are actually asking for an endorsement from God (heaven often being used in place of God by Jews). So, the approach is that if Jesus can do something that shows that God has decreed this, then they will let Him off the hook. Of course, they had no plans to do so, but the sentiment sounds nice.

The Sign That Was

To understand Jesus’ response, we must refer to Matthew’s account of the story. In Matthew 16.4, Jesus says that no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah. Now, this statement is often interpreted to mean that Jesus would come back after being gone just like Jonah, and that would be their sign. But I believe a much deeper meaning exists. I believe that Jesus is using Jonah’s missionary journey to Nineveh (i.e. non-Jews) as proof that God’s mercy extends beyond the Jew. (We certainly see this in the book of Acts, but that was later.)

Frankly, I wonder how the first-century Jews reacted to the story of Jonah. The story was obviously included in the Tanakh (Hebrew texts which make up the Old Testament). but did they appreciate the story of Jonah or scoff at it?
Regardless, Jonah’s story was their sign. Yet, they refused to see it (from the past) and therefore might miss it (in the future – the resurrection).

The Point

What’s the point? Well, the religious leaders of the day had an agenda. The agenda created a perspective that Jesus ministry MUST fail, and thus they were determined to see Him fail. They were ready to base Jesus entire ministry on one test, and yet their hardness did not even allow them to see how His answer fulfilled the very sign they desired.

Our ministries are often filled with the same types of individuals. Many people perceive they are more qualified, more knowledgeable, etc., and thus try to evaluate from a perspective that someone’s ministry must fail. Like the Pharisees, the actions taken are often done methodically (their process was Observation, then Interrogation) and intentionally (asking for a sign). But like the Pharisees, the opposition often comes from someone who feels threatened to lose their position, power, prestige, and potentially, pay!

The Conclusion

Nothing Jesus said or did during His ministry would change the mind of the religious leaders of that day. And, often nothing we say or do will change the minds of those in our day. So, are we simply at their mercy? No, but this explanation must wait for a later post. What I must say here is that we can infer that some of these same individuals who celebrated Jesus failure when He died at Golgotha were present on the day of Pentecost. The Bible says that 3000 souls were added that day. Several thousand more were added a short time later, and then the power of the Gospel multiplied the number being saved. If that was true then, it can be true now.

Therefore, if people bring a perspective designed to make your (or any) ministry a failure, know that God can change their hearts. You may not be there to see the fruit of that change, but the ministry may still thrive, even if it is after you are gone.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Evaluating a Ministry, Part 1

This week, while helping a student process some of her classwork, I was asked how to evaluate a ministry. It is a good question – a very good question. Before I introduce how I will share my thoughts on this matter, let me share how I answered her question. I used a technique often used by Jesus – I asked her a question. The words were simple to say, but the answer involves much more. The question:

Was Jesus’ ministry a failure?

This blog is available for anyone to read, but addresses Christian perspectives on matters, so I realize that most people who read it are likely to say they are Christian, believe the Bible, etc. With that fact acknowledged, most of those readers probably jumped to answer the question with an emphatic, “No! But I want to us consider that our answer must depend on the context of the question.

If the question is asked of a devout Christian in the 21st Century, the answer is “No! But what if we asked a Pharisee who was living during the time of Jesus ministry? What if we asked one a few select Pharisees (those numbered among the 3000 souls added) on the day of Pentecost after Peter’s sermon? What if we asked the Sanhedrin when Jesus hung on the cross? As with any conversation, context determines meaning. That is true of the Bible, and it is true of the questions we ask of it, and the answers that are provided. The same is also true when we seek to evaluate a ministry today.

Ultimately, the answer to the student’s question involves a couple of ideas –expectations and perspective. Over the next four weeks, I plan to provide a glimpse into how various perspectives will lead to different conclusions, using Mark 8 (primarily) to evaluate the ministry of Jesus. After providing a look at the various perspectives, I will share the benefit of having clear expectations, and then conclude the series in a seventh, and final, post.

In many ways, I regret having to space out the posts, but the practice is not uncommon in a series, and as I evaluate my schedule and own ministry responsibilities, it is necessary. My hope is that the series will be beneficial and that by the conclusion of the series you will be equipped to better understand why evaluations are necessary. I imagine we will all have an understanding of why good evaluations are often elusive as well.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Where Faith Leads

I am just an ordinary guy. There is nothing particularly special about me, but I have been given some great opportunities in my life. I assure you that I do not deserve those life events which I would consider my top-five. Yes, a couple of them required hard work and dedication (my baseball achievements and doctorate), but the others (such as my wife, my family, and my calling) are completely gifts from God and I can never express enough gratitude for those blessings. But a part of receiving blessings is to make the most of them. While faith is not from works, it must lead to works. As the Reformers are noted for saying, “It is faith alone that saves, but faith that saves is never alone.” Within the past 11 months, God has provided me with unbelievable opportunities because I have been obedient and gone where my faith has led me to go.

This past Sunday, I preached from the end of Mark 7 where Jesus heals the demon-possessed daughter of a woman, and then another man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. In both cases, the healings were, in part, because someone else begged Jesus to act on their behalf. The significance of that is that people had to seek out Jesus. Sure, they may have been seeking the miracle-man, but what they received was so much more. In the case of the woman (Mark 7.24-30), we find the only person, besides Jesus Himself, in Mark’s account of the gospel who calls Jesus, “Lord.” As a mother, she wanted the best for her daughter, but it was faith that led her to Jesus. For the man, he could not respond in faith before the miracle (at least, not audibly), but obviously he would have been a part of the group celebrating his healing (Mark 7.35-37). Again, a faith in what Jesus could do led these people to seek out Jesus. The question for us is where does our faith lead us?

Over the past year, my faith has led me to complete my doctorate (Life Event #4), to spend better time with my wife (Life Event #2), watch my children (Life Event #3) mature into two wonderful adults (including seeing my daughter get married), and fulfill certain aspects of my calling as a child of God (Life Event #1). Only the baseball accolades (Life Event #5) had no bearing on this year (nor will they in the future), and yet the Royals won the World Series which takes me back to the time when baseball was my life (before any of the other Life Events had happened). Granted, I have grouped many thoughts into a collective such as Life Event #2 or #3. And that is certainly true of Life Event #1.
In the Jordan, The Tark, and the Ewaso Ngiro

Prior to 2016 (technically, Dec 31, 2015), I had only traveled outside of the US a few times. On one occasion, I traveled to Europe, but otherwise only within North America. This year, I have been privileged to go to Jordan and Israel (in Asia), and now to Kenya (Africa), all related to serving the Lord. Each of the trips had been considered for years and planned for about a year or more in advance. Many memories were made on each trip, and Lord willing, I will return to both locations in the future. But one of the greatest memories is that I had the privilege of baptizing individuals on both trips. In fact, in 2016, I have had the opportunity to baptize several in our church, but also in three different rivers (Jordan, Tarkio, Ewaso Ngiro) on three different continents (Asia, North America, Africa). Again, this from a man, living in a small town, who had only traveled outside of the US a handful of times before this year.

Two years ago, I had just begun to plan to lead a group from our church to go to Israel. Two years ago, I was just beginning to plunge deep into my dissertation. One year ago, I began to seriously consider going to Kenya. Now, in September of 2016, all of these have happened, and my calling (Life Event #1) has provided me with immeasurable blessings, and with an expanded understanding of what God want to do (and is doing) in and through me.

Thus, I write this post not to boast of what I have done, but of what the Lord is doing through me. But His work in my has required obedience on my part. My faith and obedience has led me to places I had only dreamed of going, literally and figuratively. Now, those dreams have become a reality, and new dreams are surfacing. My point is this...where does your faith lead? I knew I served a big God, but perhaps I wasn’t letting Him be big. Now He has revealed a little more of His greatness to me, and I want to see more. Is the same true for you? Do you serve a great God? Where might your faith lead you? What does God want to reveal about Himself to you? Will you let your faith lead you there?

Friday, September 2, 2016

Eyes Opened!

In last week’s post, I mentioned the need to keep my eyes open to what God was doing. I had several concerns about my trip to Kenya, and in retrospect, most of the concerns had a solid basis for them. However, thankfully, none of the concerns were realized.

My eyes were opened, however. They were opened to a people who are desperate for God. The team of five Americans were privileged to see God at work in His people so many miles away. Three of the team members were pastors who trained over 100 pastors combined on matters of doctrine and hermeneutics. Two members spent most of their time in the desert (the “bush”) telling Bible stories and saw over 60 people receive Jesus as Lord. In addition, relationships were developed and plans were made to continue to develop the work in the coming years. God is stirring the hearts of the people in Eastern Kenya and I am looking forward to seeing the fruit which will come.

Personally, this was the furthest I have gone on a mission trip. And that makes my return difficult because I feel like a part of me is still there. Although I have just recently returned, I better understand the words of Paul when he wrote of his affection for the churches he had visited. Having served at a few churches over the past many years, I have understood that to a degree, but the time, distance, and overall sacrifice involved to get to/from Kenya makes the separation far more real than the previous churches of which I have been a part, which I can visit by driving approximately two hours. Furthermore, as much as I have appreciated my time at each church, I have known that my time there was complete when I left as God was calling me to something new. I still have family or friends that attend each of those churches, so it is not like I have lost contact or do not care, but God’s call to someplace new brought a sense of closure to each of the churches I was leaving.

In contrast, my service in Kenya is just beginning. And yet, my next opportunity to serve must wait a year or more. My desire is to continue to help my new friends develop and grow in ministry, even as I do the same here for both the church I serve and the students I teach at college/seminary. God has confirmed my calling time and time again, and this trip to Kenya has been another confirmation. One further piece remains to be explored, and that piece was the emphasis of my dissertation, so I believe God has plans for that aspect as well. In the coming months, I plan to delve further into that area which, I believe, will complete the scope of my overall call to serve God.

So, what’s the point? The point is that God has prepared me through His calling to make me a busy man. I do what I do to serve Him because He has given me great opportunities. God has provided each time so that I can better know Him, and subsequently serve Him – for that is what each of us are to do. We are called to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him. Our salvation does not come from our works, but our works are the outflow of our salvation. In other words, we do not have a faith by works, we are to have a faith that works. This was the point that James was making in James 2. Our faith is made evident because of our works, for we are to be doers of the Word and not just hearers only. I don’t want to be known as a hearer; I want to be a doer.

To that end, my intent is to shift even more of my focus to developing others (equip the saints!) for the work of ministry. That begins in my own church, and now extends across the globe. I am just one person, but as each person does what we are called by God to do, we will make a tremendous impact for His Kingdom! Will you join me in being a doer – for His Kingdom and His glory?