Parents of young children know the humbling and often humiliating experience of watching their children grow through microphases. Your infant seems to fall asleep best when you feed her right before bed, dress her in a snug onesie, and put one pacifier in her hand and another in her mouth while you rock her and play lullabies from your phone. The pattern works for a week or a month, maybe two. Then it doesn’t. She pulls at her onesie and doesn’t want to be rocked. Now she hates the pacifier, or maybe she wants one pacifier for each hand. You go crazy wishing she could communicate her desires, but she doesn’t yet have the words. Just when you think you’ve figured out the secret sauce of feedings and naps, something changes.
Such is the exasperating life of a parent, and also of a pastor. In ministry life, it’s just when you think you’ve figured out how to run your membership classes, lead your elder board, or put on vacation Bible school that something changes. The methods that worked last year don’t bear fruit this year. To say these thorns and thistles annoy pastors doesn’t do the experience justice. Pastoral ministry requires continually level-setting our expectations to the way of the cross and trusting this is best.
Pastoral ministry requires continually level-setting our expectations to the way of the cross and trusting this is best.
Grains of Wheat Must Fall and Die
Even when ministry seems to go well, I’m often surprised at how much death comes with living for Jesus—death to our pride, death to our flesh, death to our human ingenuity, death to our rosy expectations.
In John 12, people came to the disciples and said, “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). Jesus responds in a way that must have felt somewhat cryptic at the time: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he said. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone” (John 12:23–24). Jesus then adds words more familiar to us from their repetition across the Gospels: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25).
As much as I’d prefer the Christian life to be easy and perpetually life-giving, I often feel more like a grain of wheat who knows he needs to die but doesn’t love the experience of getting poked deep into the soil and buried alive.
Before I became a lead pastor, I served as a connections pastor at another church, a role focused on hospitality and getting members involved. You’d think the experience would give me an advantage as I advise the connections pastor at our church. In some ways, it does. I can relate to feeling like a Christian dating app as I attempt to assemble the varied personalities in a church into harmonious small groups. I can relate to the struggle of always having more willing participants than willing leaders; the harvest of signups is plentiful and group leaders are few.
But I find that the longer the pastor works in his role and I in mine, the fewer practical steps I can give him. I don’t know the secret sauce of getting people involved in a church—maybe because it doesn’t exist or maybe because once you learn the secret, it will change in the next season. And I don’t know how to make newcomers feel welcomed except to actually welcome them in my heart.
A large part of me wants to be able to give life hacks, or connection hacks, as it were. Instead, I must give my presence and affection, and these are harder to give; they require death. I can easily share an organizational leadership nugget, but to share presence and affection means sharing my whole self. And to do that, I must fall to the ground and die.
When Grains of Wheat Die, They Live
We often romanticize the early church, yet upon close examination, their experience of ministry involved a lot of death. The apostles preached glorious revivals where several thousand were saved, only to discover that widows were starving because they had no system in place or personnel commissioned to distribute food (Acts 6:1–6). How humbling, even humiliating.
But Jesus’s call involves humiliation. It involves honestly owning our limits and weakness. And when we do, his words also contain promises: Those who continually lose their version of the supposed “good life” find the true and greater good life (John 12:24–25). The grains of wheat that die bear much fruit. Those who humbly serve the Son receive the Father’s honor (v. 26).
Jesus’s call involves humiliation. It involves honestly owning our limits and weakness.
In other words, death before life is the way of Christ’s kingdom. As the gospel expanded across the Roman Empire, it spread through Christians with thorns in their sides and with power made perfect through weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Churches were planted, as they always are, by pastors dying daily, considered as sheep to be slaughtered (Rom. 8:36). And any pastor or Christian who continues to die today, trusting Christ for tomorrow’s needs, will live another day and another year, bearing much fruit.