“The key to congregational development is the
development of the spiritual life of the leaders in the church
to the point where the mission of God is more important
than their own comfort or preferences when it comes to
decision-making, program planning and new ministry initiatives.”
That statement has impacted my personal life and ministry perhaps more than anything else I have experienced in my first 6 months as a district superintendent. Doug Anderson, executive director of The Bishop Reuben Job Center for Leadership Development, spoke to 125 clergy and laity at our Grand Rapids District Leadership Day on November 14, 2006.
Anderson described the difference between Purpose-Centered Churches vs. Preference-Driven Churches. Preference-driven churches are filled with people who are willing to reach out to others as long as ministry stays within their comfort zone and does not threaten to go beyond their borders. Until mission becomes more important than comfort, we pander to our preferences. Church is safe, and the status quo is maintained.
Purpose-centered churches, on the other hand, are filled with spiritual leaders who place mission and purpose above preference. They are willing to forego their preferences in favor of following the Spirit’s leading. They risk rather than retreat. They take seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:24-25, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
What better example do we have of purpose-centered people than Mary and Joseph? Christmas is about a tiny, vulnerable, helpless baby parented by two people who were very uncertain about the future but most certain about God’s call in their lives. They were very uncertain why God would choose them to raise Jesus, but most certain that this story was going to be about their son. They were very uncertain where the path would lead, but most certain of their own purpose and responsibility.
The church will not fulfill its mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world until you and I are willing to make mission more important than our personal preferences. As Doug Anderson explained, “taking up the cross” is not about our problems, worries and lack of fulfillment. Taking up the cross is the ministry to which God has specifically called you and me, which may be outside our comfort zone. It probably won’t feel safe. And it may not even be something we especially like.
Have you ever said, “Lord, no, not now. Not this. It’s not the right time. It’s not the right place. It’s not the right church. It’s not the right ministry. I’m not the right person.” But God says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
Remember Joseph. To be open as Joseph was open means entering a darkness of sorts, for there is no map telling us exactly where this kind of life will lead. Joseph surely didn’t know what would happen once he decided to stick with Mary. Do you think he ever dreamed he’d end up in Egypt? Joseph gives us a compelling vision of what it means to say yes to God, to be swept up in God’s plan, not knowing where the journey will take us. For there is no clear route when we decide to worship the Christ child rather than the Bible or the law or the creed or our preferences or whatever it is whose security and certainty tempt us. To let go of our preconceived notions of who God is and be open to new possibilities, to follow the living God, to be purpose-centered rather than preference-driven, is an adventure of grace.
My prayer for you this Christmas is that you would be willing to look with new eyes at Christ’s birth and see in this story the foreshadowing of a life spent seeking God’s purpose, a purpose that led Jesus to set his face toward Jerusalem, pray in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done,” and offer his life on a cross.
Is your life being driven by your preferences right now or by God’s purpose? Are you willing to enter the darkness in order to follow the light more clearly? Are you able to give up your vision for ministry in order to be open to God’s vision for your ministry? Will you be an example for your congregation? Are you able to make the mission of God more important than your own comfort when it comes to decision-making, program planning and new ministry initiatives?
Doug Anderson was preaching directly to me on November 14. My prayer this Advent has become, “Not my will but yours. Not my preference, but your purpose.” What is your prayer?