Messy, Costly, Dirty Ministry
By Mark Buchanan
The risk of welcoming those nobody else wants.
The Tuesday night prayer meeting at Brooklyn Tabernacle felt like skydiving into a tornado, exhausting and exhilarating all at once. I’d read about the meeting in Pastor Jim Cymbala’s book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, but nothing prepared me for the event itself: 3,500 God-hungry people storming heaven for two hours.
Afterward, my friend and I went out to dinner with the Cymbalas. In the course of the meal, Jim turned to me and said, “Mark, do you know what the number one sin of the church in America is?” I wasn’t sure, and the question was rhetorical anyhow. “It’s not the plague of internet pornography that is consuming our men. It’s not that the divorce rate in the church is roughly the same as society at large.”
Jim named two or three other candidates for the worst in, all of which he dismissed. “The number one sin of the church in America,” he said., “is that its pastors and leaders are not on their knees crying out to God, ‘Bring us the drug-addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people nobody else wants, whom only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole'”
I had no response. I was undone. He had laid me bare, found me out, and exposed my fraudulence. I was the chief of sinners. I had never prayed, not once, for God to bring such people to my church. So I went home and repented. I stopped sinning. I began to cry out for “those nobody wanted.”
And darned if God didn’t bring them. But then I found out why nobody wants them: they’re messy and costly and dirty. They swear at you, lie to you, and steal from you. Worse, they make you love them, and then often break your heart.
It reminds me of a scene from Entertaining Angels, the story of Dorothy Day and her ministry during the Depression. Dorothy is praying before a life-size crucifix. “Why,” she asks Jesus, “did you have to wear such a revolting disguise, covered in vomit, smelling of urine, dressed in rags, cussing?”
But when God brings messy people, it does two things: first, it makes you real, and then it makes you desperate. It makes you real, because you’ e dealing with a magnitude of sin that bromides and platitudes are powerless against. You have to name sin in all its ugliness and minister the cure undiluted. A crack cocaine addict recently agreed to go through a year of intense rehab because I knew he was bluffing me and I called him on it. I leaned into his face and told him that unless he stopped BS-ing me, and right now, I was walking. He was in rehab in three days, and has now been there for three months with nine still to go. Anything less than hard reality at that moment would have fallen short.
Messy people also make you desperate. Until I began to cry out, most of the people I counseled were struggling with sins that, for the most part, had minimal social consequences. They became angry too quickly, or gossiped too often, or ran up their credit card too high. Problems, yes. Sins, indeed. But a y of it, all of it, they could more or less manage on their own.
Ministry under those circumstances is like being in a boat when the wind kicks up. You strain against the wind and it’s comforting to know Jesus is somewhere nearby, but you can tough it out alone. You can fall back on your basic nautical skills to get through it.
But that doesn’t work with sex-trade workers and crack addicts. With them, ministry is like being called out of the boat to walk on the water: you’ve never been here before, there’s no three-step technique, and unless Jesus is with you, ready to catch you when you fall, you are going to sink all the way down.
Some days I wish things were tidy again. But if ministry and mess are inseparable, I’ll take them both.
Mark Buchanan is pastor of New Life Community church in Duncan, British Columbia, and a contributing editor of Leadership. Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”