Sometimes I miss being a painter and working on new construction sites. The visual and tangible results of my efforts were immediately recognizable and satisfying.
At the end of the job—even the end of the day—I was privileged to see and examine the work of my hands. The lustrous trim is smooth to touch. My cut-in lines are straight. The accent wall really pops. The angles of the vaulted ceiling are striking. The plastered shell has been completely transformed. Ministry is nothing like that. It often feels more like watching paint dry. As I now devote my life to discipleship and youth ministry, my daily efforts are often missing the immediate satisfaction of accomplishment. Such is the nature of relational ministry. Discipleship is meant to be intentionally and intensely personal. We are called to share not only the Gospel, but our very lives. We are called to be gentle, to tenderly care, to be filled with affection, to know and be known, and to become truly involved in others’ lives. There is no glamor or glory—certainly not any greed—in this kind of incarnational ministry. It is often emotionally/spiritually/mentally exhausting. Part of the frustration results from the lack of tangible fruit.
In his song “The Road, the Rocks, and the Weeds,” John Mark McMillan asks, “So shall I plant sequoias and revel in the soil of a crop I know I’ll never live to reap?” This profound question begs us to examine our life and ministry. Whether you are a pastor, elder, deacon, youth worker, a teacher, parent, or grandparent, your efforts to disciple others may often yield little to no return. Maybe you are exhausted, desperate, and at your breaking point. Maybe you feel over-worked and under-appreciated. Maybe you feel short-changed or empty-handed. Real transformation and lasting fruit are often not easily identified or immediately recognized. This can be taxing on our souls.
God Places Difficult People in Our Lives
Maybe after investing in someone you just aren’t getting anywhere; you haven’t made any headway. After much involvement, prayer, and counseling, you haven’t been able to break into their stubborn, self-centered heart. After hours, days, weeks, maybe even years, you haven’t seen any return for your labor. There is no observable growth, no measurable progress. This is often what relational ministry looks like.
God Places People in Our Lives for a Season
You invest in them. You pour into their lives. You spend and are spent—even overspent—for them. And then they disappear from your life and sphere of influence. They graduate. They move out and move on. They change churches. You don’t hear from them again for years . . . maybe you never will. Is it worth it? You ask. Am I making a difference? Should I persevere when I feel like I’m not making a difference? How do I know my ministry is meaningful? My discipleship fruitful? My influence impactful? My life useful? Sometimes, you won’t know.
A Phone Call from the Past
Earlier this year I received a random, unexpected call from a woman in Maryland. She called the office of my church in California looking for me. She explained that she was a friend of my mother. Well, my mother passed away 31 years ago. I was only 2 years old and it breaks my heart that I have no memory of her. But I have gotten to know her through other people’s memories and stories. This woman explained that when she was 14, my mom befriended her. On a cool and crisp autumn evening while playing at her apartment complex, my mom singled her out, gave her a booklet on the Gospel, and wrote her name, phone number, and dorm room at Washington Bible College inside the back cover. She invited her into her life. This teenager wrote the date in the front cover, “September 19th, 1980″—40 years ago this month. I hold that booklet in my hands as I write this.
Now a 54 woman, as she was packing up her house to move earlier this year, she came across the booklet and the letters from my mom. Long story short, she tried to find her on social media, came across a picture of her on this blog, and discovered that she had passed away 31 years ago. After 40 years, this woman was on the other end of the phone in tears explaining to me the impact of my mom’s personal ministry. As a young teenager, she was captured by my mother’s intentionality and found her to be a gentle person—honest, good, and kind. This kind of self-giving involvement was rare and she decided to test the sincerity of my mother’s offer. My mom answered the phone and spent time with her for a period of time in 1980. She said my mother was “the real deal.”
This phone call to me 40 years later was completely unexpected and unsolicited. I was not aware of this woman. She was not aware of me. But through God’s invisible, meticulous working, he made our paths cross. I’ve seen my mother’s senior yearbook. Being a product of a close-knit youth group and faithful leaders herself, she wrote in her senior bio that she hoped to one day work with youth. She passed away when she was only 27 . . . a wife and mother of three. I always assumed she had been too busy and too young to have ever fulfilled her dream of working with youth.
What an encouraging lesson God has sent me—a compelling example! Forty years later my mother’s words and actions are still ministering to others. Thirty-one years removed from this earth her life is still changing other lives. Thirty-one years later she is ministering even to me! Her example compels me to love others as intentionally as she did—to exude humility, vulnerability, authenticity, availability, and empathy in my interpersonal ministry. This unexpected experience has taught me that a little intentional time goes a long way in impacting others.
Don’t Discount Your Influence
We all desire to see change, progress, growth, and fruit as a result of our labor. But maybe the privilege is not seeing and experiencing the results, but the work itself. We are not called to fruitfulness, but to faithfulness. We are called to faithfully love and speak the truth in love. We are called to challenge, exhort, confront, encourage, and implore others to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. Then we are to leave the results to the invisible work of the Spirit of God. Even if it feels empty and seems unfruitful, don’t discount the influence of your relational ministry—it is absolutely worth it; it truly matters. God promised that his Word would never return void. Oftentimes we are involved in the hard work of sowing and watering, but not the reaping.
Imagine your life’s work—every hour spent with someone, every word spoken, every prayer prayed—as a tiny seed. After you are dead and gone that seed is buried and grows into a tree bearing fruit you will never see, providing shade for many you will never meet. Like the rings or height of a sequoia, our personal ministry stretches wider and taller throughout time often reaching much further and bearing more fruit than we ever expected. And we won’t always be there to see and experience it. Jesus described the kingdom of God as the incredible potential of a seemingly insignificant seed.
So yes, “revel in the soil.” Spread yourself thin “on the road, the rocks, and the weeds.” Dig in deep. Invest. Spend. Be spent. This is incarnational ministry—the very giving of your life for others. This is kingdom work. We can be confident that God will bless our ministry and use it in ways we never expected and in ways we may never realize in this life. We can trust that the fruit of our labor may outlast our time on this earth. We can know that our ministry has eternal ramifications. Simple acts of selflessness today will have monumental consequences tomorrow. Small investments in others now will yield large dividends later.
I can say with Mary Shelley, “The admiration of others for [my mother], has been the cause of most of the happiness I have enjoyed.” But the hope and joy and crown of my exultation is seeing others come to know and be known by Jesus Christ.