Preparing for Christian Ministry

A college student recently interviewed me regarding how to prepare for Christian ministry.  Here are her questions and my responses.  I’ve had to change some answers due to the public nature of this blog.

1. What kind of ministry are you involved in?

Our objective is to bring  migrant workers here in (our city) to Christ, disciple them and equip them to return to their home countries to start new churches and strengthen existing ones.

2. What is your role in the ministry where you serve?

They are various:  I am involved in language learning (yes, it’s important to see that as a ministry, not just preparation) personal evangelism and discipleship, informal mentoring of church planters, prayer, leadership of other international workers (IWs).

3. What does your typical week look like?

I have meetings with other IWs and other individuals, typically 3 to 4 meetings a week.  I also spend at least one half day in prayer and fasting each week.  I have regularly scheduled times for language learning which will continue to be a major emphasis for the next year.  I also try to get out regularly to meet people in shopping centers, bazaars, etc.

4. In our class, we have talked about spiritual gifts and God’s calling. What do you believe are your God-given spiritual gifts and what is your call to ministry?

My gifts are in the area of teaching and preaching.  I do not preach, however, in my current roles, but one of the reasons I focus so heavily on language learning is that I want to be able to teach the people I work with sound doctrine.  This is my long term goal, even more so than evangelism, which I see many people doing.  I believe God has called me to take a few of these people deeper in their faith and their understanding of God’s Word so that they can then make an impact on the larger church among their people group.

If the question refers to my original call to ministry, I had a very strong sense in 5th grade that God was calling me to surrender my entire life to him and it was in the context of hearing a missionary story (Through Gates of Splendor), so I concluded it was a call to be a missionary.  God has reaffirmed that call many times through the years by opening the doors for me to serve him in various overseas ministries (three countries on three different continents)

5. What are the threats/pressures you feel on your ministry? 

Something that is often not fully recognized is the satanic opposition to work among unreached peoples.  I believe that there is an increased attack from satan against families and individuals who are challenging satan’s territory.  For example, in our organization we have four families who work among this people group, and in every family, the wife struggles with some sort of serious physical difficulty (for my wife it is migraine headaches).  I don’t think this is by chance.  I believe that God is sovereign over satan and could heal these women with a word, but in his divine wisdom he allows us to push through these things so that his name might be glorified in some way, perhaps not fully understood by us.

Another pressure would be the inability to accomplish a lot of work due to the constraints of language and cultural differences.  We have to realize that small victories and accomplishments need to be celebrated and that we will not “produce” as much in terms of sheer volume, as what we would in our own language and culture.

Political tensions between the country I live in and the US are also a pressure.  This puts emotional strain on our staff.

In individual interactions, there can be an anxiety when talking to a new person.  I never know how that person feels about their religion and whether what I am going to say about Jesus is offensive to them or interesting to them.

6. How has being in full time ministry enhanced your spiritual life?

  • It has taught me to be dependent on God rather than on myself and my own gifts/abilities.
  • It has helped keep me humble since my abilities are minimized as I depend on God.
  • It has helped me avoid being overly attached to this world.  I own no home and don’t have a lot of material possessions.  This frees me to focus on “a better country” as it says in Hebrews.

7. Has being in ministry been a detriment to your spiritual life? If so, how? 

Absolutely not.  I don’t see how obeying God could ever be a detriment to one’s spiritual life!

8. What pressures do you face that tempt you away from serving with your God-given strengths? 

There are always people who want to make demands (requests) on one’s time and availability.  I have to be careful not to try to meet every need that comes along, but do what is a good stewardship of the gifts and calling that God has given me.

9. How has your understanding of ministry “success” changed over the years.

It has radically changed.  When I was first starting out, I was much more focused on  visible results.  I started a church in the U.S., and success for me was basically a large, self-sustaining congregation that could pay my salary!  In my first country of service, our goal was an increasing number of cell groups.

Now we are focused on contributing to the growth of God’s church in the region we are trying to impact, whether or not we or others can see that growth or not.  Most of the people we work with within a year will no longer be in our reach, but will have returned to their home countries.  If the spiritual life God pours into them through us results in the growth of his kingdom in the hearts of his people, that is success.

Another response I would give is that I think all of us, mostly subconsciously, work for the approval of others.  We want to prove ourself to our leaders, to our supporting churches, to our colleagues in ministry, or even to ourselves. The more I am conscious of this tendency and strive against it, the more I can be truly successful.  Success is pleasing God by being obedient to what he has told me to do… today!  That may or may not result in visible fruit, either to me or to others.

10. What suggestions do you have for me and my fiance as we prepare for following God’s calling on our lives? (This can apply to full-time or lay ministry.) What should I make sure I understand, think through, be sure of, be able to do, etc?

I think for many people in my denomination, and for others who are from an environment where international work is held up as the pinnacle of Christian service, it is important to recognize that being an IW doesn’t give you any brownie points with God.  I have observed many, many individuals head toward overseas service because they assumed that it was what they should do.  People often say that we have to be willing to “go”, but I think for those who come from circles where IWs are put on a pedestal, it is also important to be willing to “stay”.  I often tell young people when I am in their church that a call to ministry is not something that one experiences in a moment, but a direction in one’s life that the Holy Spirit will constantly be reaffirming.  I told my son once, I’m glad that C.S. Lewis and N.D. Wilson didn’t become missionaries!  I’m glad John Piper didn’t become a missionary.  The important thing for you guys is having a heart that is completely surrendered to his will.  For those (like you guys and like me when I was your age) with a strong desire to go, there has to be a willingness to stay.  For those who don’t want to go wherever God might lead, there has to be a willingness to go anywhere, even the moon, if God should lead you there.

I would also want to really stress the importance of understanding and living by the gospel, which sets us free from having to prove ourselves to God.  Some IWs are trying to prove themselves to God and to others, and I myself struggle with this.  We have to be willing to be insignificant before we can ever do anything truly significant for God.  We have to be willing to give up our own grandiose plans of what we are going to do for him before we can correctly perceive the wonderful plans that he has for us.  We have to be willing to give up our own desire to build something great for him so that he can build his kingdom through us.

Another piece of advice would be to “bloom where you are planted.”  This is advice that was given to me when I was church planting before I became an IW.  It’s important not to be always looking ahead to “the next thing” that I want to be doing, but to do what God has given me to do today with all my heart.  Focus on the roles that God has given you now and do those to the best of your ability.  We have no guarantees about the future.  This may be my last week on earth to serve the Lord, or my last month, or my last year.

As far as competencies to develop, much depends on what role you are aiming for, but I think in terms of missions, gone are the days where you can prepare to be a “professional international worker” (like me, whose training is in “missiology”)  In order to get the gospel to the ends of the earth we are going to need workers with broad skill sets that include professional qualifications that can insert them into the contexts where we most need workers today.  But theological acumen and preparedness should not be sacrificed either, so the demands are great.


Isaiah 37 God’s sovereignty over evil

Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, has beseiged Jerusalem during the days of King Hezekiah.  The situation is hopeless.  Sennacherib and his military commander, the Rabshakeh, are mocking the Jews and their God.  This has always been one of my favorite Bible stories because it is a hopeless situation.  The Jews are unable to do anything to answer the mockery.  They are completely powerless and unable to deliver themselves, and yet the end of the story is 185,000 Assyrian soldiers being struck down by God in a single night and the king of Assyria slinking back to where came from, humiliated and defeated, ultimately struck down by his own sons exactly as God declared through his prophet in Isaiah 37:7.

Part of God’s answer to Hezekiah’s prayer for deliverance is the following,

   ““ ‘Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should make fortified cities crash into heaps of ruins, while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops, blighted before it is grown. “ ‘I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. Because you have raged against me and your complacency has come to my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.’” (Isaiah 37:26–29, ESV)

I think it is glorious that in God’s words against the king of Assyria here, he doesn’t just say that he is greater than the king of Assyria, and he doesn’t just say that his power is greater.  He says that everything the king of Assyria is boasting of is actually only what he, God, has brought to pass!  The king of Assyria boasts of his conquests, and God says, “I planned this!  I determined it long ago!”  God is the one who caused the king of Assyria to “make fortified cities crash into heaps of ruins.”

Because the king of Assyria rages in pride against God (note that “complacency” in the ESV is “arrogance” in NASB and “insolence” in NIV) God declares that he will drag him away with a hook in his nose!  What a picture!  A “bit in your mouth” pictures a man guiding a horse.  In the same way, God directs every motion of this wicked king in accordance with his eternal plans (v. 26).

Surely this truth of God’s sovereignty over Sennacherib can be extrapolated and applied to his sovereignty over every human and spiritual power, from unjust governments and forces in the world today to the power of Satan himself.  Through all of this evil, God is “bringing to pass” what he “determined long ago.”

Bible Study Theology

Psalm 5 Does God really hate evildoers?

This is a psalm that challenges our paradigm of how we often view the world.  Are we ready to reckon with the fact that according to Psalm 5:5, God “hates all evildoers”?

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. (Psalm 5:4-6)

What in the world does this mean?  How are we to understand this?  What are the implications of this for our relationship with others?

The first thing we should say is that according to many, many other scriptures, this includes all of us.  Just consider Romans 3:10-20.  We are all evildoers.  We are all God’s enemies.  Therefore, the only way that we can “enter God’s house” is through the “abundance of his steadfast love”.  The psalm goes on to say:

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me (Psalm 5:7-8).

As the psalm continues, in vs. 9-10, we see David’s expression of the paradigm given in vs. 4-6.  David does not desire that those whom God abhors be absolved of their guilt.  He actually requests that God would “make them bear their guilt.”  He asks God to “cast them out” because of their rebellion.

For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue. Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you (Psalm 5:9-10)

What are we to make of these verses?  How should we pray this same psalm?  It is the Word of God!  Shall we overlook it and just conclude that to pray in such a manner is incomprehensible to us?  Actually, I think that might be a good way to respond.  Let me explain:

If we have trouble praying according to a certain scripture because it seems in our minds to contradict other biblical truths, then we should be careful not to discard those other truths in favor of the scripture we are seeking to follow.  If we cannot pray from a pure heart with no doubts asking God to “cast out” evildoers, then we should refrain and simply ask God to give us insight into what he is revealing of himself here.

That said, here is my best understanding of how we  can reconcile these strong verses with those verses that talk about God’s love for sinners and his lack of pleasure in killing the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32; 33:11).  What we are asking God to do is to not forgive sin where there is no repentance from that sin (see also Psalm 7:12).    This is why he says, “let all who take refuge in you rejoice…”

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover him with favor as with a shield (Psalm 5:11-12).

David asks for salvation, joy, protection, love, blessing, and favor for ALL who take refuge in the Lord.  Our prayers for evildoers, then, should be that God would graciously bring them to repentance.  We should pray that God would give them a heart that flees to him for refuge.  May God give my non-believing friends a heart that loves his name and exults in Christ Jesus.

Only when we let verses 4-6 sink in to our hearts can we begin to understand the depths of God’s love and grace.