Recently, I was watching a Sunday church broadcast as a very well-known and highly respected pastor was talking about the local church as the hope of our nation. He appropriately spent most of his message talking about the kind of pastors we need to lead the local church and, accordingly, facilitate a powerful advancement of the gospel in our society. In articulating these essential pastoral priorities he noted the importance of preaching, managing, and doing the work of an evangelist. One vital priority, perhaps the first one, was not mentioned in the sermon. The priority of being a man of prayer and leading a supernaturally empowered praying church.
The fact is, this message represents the dominant mindset of pastoral ministry in our nation today. The priority of leading a dynamic praying church is secondary in most seminary training and sidelined by other commitments in our modern-day pastoral ministry. Many pastors feel defeated over their lack of conviction and competency in this essential biblical imperative.
Like any of us, pastors are tempted to “do” ministry based on their own skills, learning, personality, and pursuit of what they view as their professional calling. We are all susceptible to this temptation. As I often have to remind myself, when I find it more attractive to serve Jesus than to seek Jesus, I run the risk of doing His work in the power of the flesh and even making ministry itself an idol. As my friend, Vance Pitman, has testified, “I used to think I was called to ministry. Now I realize, I am called to intimacy and ministry is simply an overflow of that intimacy with Jesus”.
When we find it more attractive to serve Jesus than to seek Jesus, we run the risk of doing His work in the power of the flesh and making ministry itself an idol.
Let Us Not Forget
We all need to renew our minds and hearts in the truth of Jesus’ declaration, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17). In other words, God’s priority is that the lives and gatherings of his people should be distinguished by the priority and humble dependence of prayer. Of course, now in the new covenant, we are his temple, individually and collectively. And, we must remember that the allurement to shift our focus to something else (whether a den of robbers – or anything other than a house of prayer) is always beckoning us.
When Paul was giving clear instructions to Timothy about his leadership of the church he commanded this young pastor to make prayer the first priority. (1 Timothy 2:1) This was not a reference to Timothy’s personal prayer life but to his pastoral leadership of the church in prayer.
Paul commanded the young pastor Timothy to make prayer the first priority (1 Tim. 2:1). This was not a reference to Timothy’s personal prayer life but to his pastoral leadership of the church in prayer.
A Clear and Compelling Call
Of course, a passage that has dramatically shaped my life and ministry is found in Acts 6:1-7. This passage shows that even good things, in fact biblically essential things, should not distract the primary leaders away from their primary calling to “prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4)
You probably remember the story. The church was growing exponentially. This faith community was keenly aware of God’s command to take care of widows. They were vulnerable members of society – like the fatherless, aliens, and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:29; 16:11; 24:20; 26:12). Jesus confronted the Pharisees for their ill-treatment of widows (Mark 12:40). Later in the New Testament, Paul urged that same compassion and gave detailed instructions for this priority of the church (1 Timothy 5). James commanded that widows were to be treated with honor and compassion as a mark of true religion (James 1:27).
The Church in Crisis
This was an incendiary moment. In the course of trying to obey this biblical imperative, the system broke down. The Greek speaking widows (some of which were Jews who had been raised in Greek communities but had returned to Jerusalem as Christian converts, and some who were likely Greek speaking gentile converts) were not getting the food. The accusation was that they were actually being “neglected.”
Like similar challenges in the church today, this moment had the potential to disrupt and divide the church. There were undertones of prejudice and intentional disregard. There was an uprising of complaint, perhaps even accusation. The unity of the church was severely threatened. The people wanted the apostles to fix the issue. And, they attentively and strategically did so – but not as we might think.
The shocking response of the apostles is insightful, “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.’ ” (Acts 6:2). They went on to declare their resolute corporate focus as the leaders of the church, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4).
A Wise and Caring Solution
We must keep in mind that the apostles were not insensitive or apathetic about this important need. They made a focused decision to resolve the crisis. They clearly knew the biblical and relational importance of this predicament. But, they also had a clear conviction about their primary calling and a high view of the Spirit-empowered wisdom and competency of gifted others in the church. They knew the resolution would come through careful action and supernatural intervention, best accomplished in an environment of extraordinary reliance on the Holy Spirit in prayer.
As you may know, this moment ended powerfully. Seven godly men took on the task of quelling the division, fixing the distribution, and advancing the dynamic impact of the gospel. The clear leadership of the apostles and the affirmation of the church resulted in the selection of these men, all of whom had Greek names, showing a deep sensitivity to the disenfranchised widows in this context. The final comment of this incident states (don’t miss the unprecedented gospel impact here): “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7)
Could It Be?
Could it be that some of the problems in our local congregations today could be resolved by a similar approach? Could it be that some of the hot-button issues of our times could be helped by the wisdom we see in this story?
It must start with leadership. I’ve reflected countless times on the fact that the devil does not have to destroy church leaders, he only has to distract them. The enemy is launching weapons of mass distractions on pastors today – and the most dangerous distractions are the “good” ones. The good options are endless: management, leadership, organizing, fund-raising, initiating programs, fixing programs, counseling, visitation, and giving countless energy to various issues. Of course, good leaders make sure important matters are addressed. The best leaders create an empowering environment where issues are addressed through other gifted saints, so they can keep vital, biblical priorities intact. Their passion is not that church become a well-oiled machine but that it stay on mission for the sake of a truly supernatural advancement of the life-transforming gospel.
The devil does not have to destroy church leaders, he only has to distract them.
My friend and fellow pastor Keeney Dickenson notes, “We pray in the context of ministry, but Jesus ministered in the context of prayer.” The apostles had seen, felt and been forever changed by how Christ lived, taught, and implemented the Gospel ministry. They were imitating the One who only did what He saw His Father doing, and who lived with divine spiritual insight and power every day through His life of prayer. They dared not create a different paradigm. They had to walk in His steps through prayer and the ministry of the word. So must every wise church leader.
“We pray in the context of ministry, but Jesus ministered in the context of prayer.” -Keeney Dickenson
These are urgent days for church leaders to say “no” to the myriad of distractions in modern pastoral ministry in order to say “yes”, in heart and time allocation, to “prayer and the ministry of the word.”
If you are not a pastor, pray diligently for your pastors to have keen, biblical discernment in these complicated times. Become like those seven men – live a godly life, be filled-with the Spirit, walk in wisdom, and become available and involved in serving strategically and sacrificially in your church. Be the solution. Engage as a passionate participant in advancing the prayer culture in your church.
And who knows, perhaps we will see the Lord supernaturally resolve the many issues of the day as the word of the gospel spreads, as disciples “multiply greatly” and as the many overt opponents of the gospel are gloriously transformed by Jesus.
This article originally appeared here.