I entered the ministry with the same ambitions many young pastors do. I sincerely wanted to reach people for Jesus, but I was also pretty interested in making a big name for myself. I wanted a large church, and I was pretty sure God was into that, too, because it seemed like a win-win for both of us.
But as we’ve seen, God won’t bless what you claim as your own, even when it’s a good thing. And so, one Friday afternoon, during a time I had set aside for prayer, God asked me if the church was mine or his. I was praying for massive revival in our city—the kind that would lead to thousands of people getting saved and would rewrite the story of our entire city. The kind they would write about one day in history books. It seemed like a good request, but as I was praying, the Spirit of God impressed something on my heart that left me speechless: “And what if I answer this prayer, sending a revival into Raleigh-Durham beyond all you’ve asked or imagined, one that will reshape the city for centuries—but I choose a different church in this city to accomplish that? What if that church grows, and that pastor gets famous, and your church stays the same, and you do not? And what if one day when they write the history of the movement, they never even mention you or your church?”
I knew the right answer to that question. I was supposed to say, “Oh, yes, Lord! You must increase and I must decrease!” But while that may have been the right answer, it would not have been the real answer. I didn’t just want the kingdom of God to grow, I wanted the kingdom of J.D. to grow, too. I realized that somewhere along the way, “thy kingdom come” had gotten jumbled up with “my kingdom come.”
God showed me that my ministry was something that still belonged to me, and I needed to lay it down in death. By his grace, I did. And while I can’t say that I’ve completely gotten over all sinful desires for success and acclaim, that afternoon marked a turning point in which the eyes of my heart shifted from building my kingdom to being used by God to build his.
Practically speaking, for me that has meant leading our church to give away a substantial part of our resources—both our money and leaders—for the mission of God. Around our church we regularly say, “We send our best!”
It’s hard. Because, in case you don’t know, the kinds of people who respond to calls to go out on church planting teams are not usually “sideline” people. They are heavily involved, giving generously, and usually leading ministries. Sending out the best of your leaders is usually in direct conflict with growing your budget and attendance.
A few years ago, I sat around a table with four of our church planting residents, listening to the lists of those they’d recruited from our church to go on their plants. (Every year we bring onto our staff a handful of potential church planters, pay their salary for nine months and give them one primary assignment—to recruit as many people as they can from our church to go with them). As these four guys shared their lists of commitments with me, I heard the names of friends. Elders. Worship leaders. Key volunteers. Big givers. (Not that I know who gives what, but … er … big givers).
I had a sick feeling in my stomach. What were we doing? Had we thought this through? How on earth could we survive without these people?
It was then the Spirit of God gently nudged me again, “Whose church is this?” This time I knew the answer. I reached my hands under the table and stretched them open before God. Quietly I prayed, “God, this is your church, not mine. If you want to grow us large to reach this city, so be it. But if you want to take out the best of our people and our resources to start churches elsewhere, that’s OK, too. It’s your church. Do with it what you will.”
Just a few weeks ago we commissioned our 1,200th member to leave our church on one of our church planting teams. Every single one of them has been a painful loss. Trying to build community in our church sometimes feels like trying to hug a parade! But to date, those members have planted more than 300 churches around the world. And our studies show that for every one we’ve sent out, there are 30 new people attending a church. I may have to wait until eternity to reunite with some of these friends we’ve sent out, but I’m sure when that day comes, I’ll say it was worth it.
You see, what’s best for the kingdom of God is not always best for us personally (in the short run!). Sometimes, you have to choose which of those you are going to prioritize.
But in order for their to be life in the world, there has to be death in you. In order for the seed of the gospel to multiply in the world, it has to be sown. Only what you give away will you keep.
The question for you is: What precious seed has God placed in your hands? Have you put it into God’s?
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said Christ’s call on our lives is not to “come and shine” or even “come and grow” but “come and die.” That’s how the harvest works.
The first and best of what you are has to be laid in surrender at Jesus’ feet. Only then will it bring life to the world.
If we haven’t done that, can we really say we are following Jesus?