Written in 2007
BEING FRUITFUL FAILURES
What a challenge Stephen is to us! His ministry was so wise and so Spirit-anointed that people could not withstand his message (Acts 6:10). Yet they arrested him and brought him to the Council. And they found themselves confronted by a strange dilemma. The man whom they accused of speaking against Moses actually had an angelic glow on his face similar to what Moses had when he came down from the mountain after being with God (6:13-15)! Their response was to kill him.
But over 2000 years later he is still speaking to us and challenging us to follow God’s way of grace-and-power-propelled (6:8), Word-saturated (7:2-53), Spirit-and-wisdom-filled (6:10) ministry. It is acknowledged that he had a major role to play in freeing Christianity from being confined to Judaism and the Temple. He was the theological precursor of all missionary theology. He is considered the father of Christian apologetics and was the model for those great heroes of early Christianity, the apologists who defended and helped establish Christianity in the first few centuries.
Stephen’s long-term fruitfulness tells us that the key to assessing whether or not a ministry is blessed by God is not the immediate results which that ministry exhibits. The important thing is eternal fruit. By the world’s standards Stephen was a failure; by God’s standards he was eternally fruitful. He was a fruitful failure.
We are faced with a serious challenge today. This is an era where we have seen the inadequacy of ministries that claimed to be faithful to eternal principles but saw no real growth because they did not boldly go forward into new and creative ventures. Reacting to this, the church growth movement rightly reminded us that we must target numerical growth, because each person represents a person rescued from hell and given a place in heaven. They said we need a theology of harvest rather than simply a theology of sowing. So there has been a new thrust for numerical growth among Christians during the past thirty-five years and success is often measured by such growth.
Then there’s what we may call the “projectification of ministry.” Ministry is viewed in terms of projects. Funds are raised, measurable goals are projected, a contract is signed and the job is done in a way that will produce the measurable goals. If ungodly people are the agents of these projects, that anomaly is ignored because of the impressive results they get.
A challenge comes from the business world too. There the important thing is getting profits now. If there are no profits now the share holders are advised to invest elsewhere. So a great effort is made to show that the business is having a good profit, and the results are reported each quarter. Sometimes companies will hurt faithful employees, doctor accounts, withhold information and publish false reports in order to give investors the idea that they are making great profits. Recently we have seen some respectable corporations falling into this trap. Christians don’t work to make quarterly profits for businesses which usually don’t last for more than a few decades and which are sometimes taken over by the same company they’ve been competing with. Our work is a building block that contributes to the construction of the eternal kingdom that is competing with, and will one day utterly destroy, Satan’s kingdom.
In this environment, the attraction of immediate results to Christian groups could be so strong that it could blind us from seeing the priority and value of eternal fruit. Christians and Christian groups could fall into the trap of being addicted to immediate results. Addicts ignore a lot of vitally important things as they relentlessly go after that which they are addicted to. Because of this we need to constantly keep reminding ourselves of the values which drive our lives; those values which will reap eternal fruit.
A SPECIFIC APPLICATION
All this has been coming to me strongly during the past few days as we are working prayerfully with our leaders and Board on a document presenting our dreams for the next five years. We are hoping for much growth in new and exciting areas, and we have written down those hopes. However, it soon became evident to us that before writing down our dreams we must first and foremost write down our values. If we are to bear eternal fruit the dreams must be fulfilled without compromising our values. So we need to keep repeating and emphasising our values.
Growth takes place in Youth for Christ through the nurturing of leaders. When there are sufficient leaders to start a new venture some are released to do it. We will not start a new venture without sufficient leaders. We will not build a new building without first developing a strong group of trusted people who will ensure that the building is used in a way that is in keeping with our organisational values.
It is very easy for us to come to a situation of growing and recruiting capable but ungodly people to manage the new ventures we start. They may perform the volume of the work they are given to do. But the way they behave could bring great dishonour to God. The result would be that we move away from being who God intends us to be.
In Christianity doing comes from being. Doing good is a result of being good. Unholy people should not be the custodians of the kingdom agenda. If that happens we would have grown at the expense of our values. We would have become earthly successes and eternal flops. We are constantly faced with this danger in our YFC ministry and are sometimes alarmed by how we too have succumbed to this wave of seeking growth even at the cost of principles.
Spiritual Fellowship. Let’s take one example of how the method of growth can clash with the values of the organisation. Finding people of integrity is not easy in today’s world. We can easily be deceived into entrusting our work to smart-talking go-getters who are not saints. So we have to be very careful in the selection of leaders and staff. The people we put to serve in a given area must be people who strive to obey God and ensure always that they are filled with the Spirit. Curriculum vita sheets rarely reflect the character of a person. Sadly, letters of recommendation written by respected leaders also often hide serious character flaws in a person.
Let’s take Asia’s besetting sin: lying. Most religions say it is wrong to lie. But Christians claim that the uniqueness of our religion is that God gives us the strength to give up lying. If Christians continue to lie they are proclaiming to the world that what Christianity teaches about the power of God is a lie! The damage to the cause of Christ is immense. So we must be very careful to ensure that our leaders are not liars. However, a liar can easily become a Christian leader. That person then becomes a cancer in leading the church into becoming like the world.
How can we detect lying and stamp it out of the church? Perhaps the most effective way is through close spiritual fellowship where spiritual accountability is practiced. In such a fellowship one who lies will be pushed into either giving up the practice of lying or leaving. The biblical lifestyle of walking in the light as the basis of having fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7) will result in a spiritual climate which makes liars uncomfortable. An organisational culture where the members lovingly confront those whom they feel have been untruthful would be a strong impetus for giving up the habit of lying. Sometimes God will supernaturally act to expose lying and purge the church of it as he did with Peter’s confrontation of Ananias and Sapphira and their resulting deaths.
But for such spiritual fellowship there has to be a jarring deceleration from the high speed quest for results so that the members can linger with each other in unhurried spiritual communion. Where’s the time for such fellowship in this fast paced world? It is very dangerous to neglect such fellowship. If we are too busy for it, we are simply too busy. We must change our schedules; slow down our growth and clear our diaries so that there is time for deep fellowship.
Discipling. A key activity that must accompany spiritual fellowship is the individual discipling and the nurturing of people until they become leaders. This also takes time—time that may temporarily hold back superficial growth, but that will foster healthy long-term growth!
My prayer for YFC is that all our leaders will continue to give priority to the slow, hard work of caring for our people. That is what discipling is: caring for our people. That would include
- visiting them in their home settings;
- having regular appointments with them and spending whatever time is needed to minister comprehensibly to them;
- teaching them the Word and instructing them about how to live for and serve God;
- advising, warning, rebuking and praising them;
- earnestly praying for them regularly;
- dreaming about their welfare and progress in life and ministry; and
- providing opportunities for them to blossom as effective servants of Christ.
If we do this, then we will have leaders who facilitate growth that will not compromise our values. Fruitless short term success is useless on the long run. We need to be people who are willing to look like failures so that we can truly bear eternal fruit.