Minding the Gap

Instructions for young, future pastors, ministers, elders before serving in a church based on the model and ministry of Paul.

Lately, I’ve found it hard to be in two worlds. In one world, I am a seminarian devoting my time, money, energy, life, and social life to studying, doing homework, writing papers, and preparing for a lifetime of ministry in a local church. While doing so, I work as a sales representative in publishing, a year and a half away from graduating, and still very young to take many roles in a church. I have struggled, being torn between wanting to be able to spend all of my time in ministry: preaching, making disciplines, devoted the studying the Scriptures, teaching classes, and performing many different jobs in a local church. There can be times when this urge can overrule what I am doing now – does my job matter as much as ministry might? What am I doing to prepare myself? This causes a lot of anxiety, which is hard to quiet and hard to work through some days.

NT Wright, in his newly released biography on Paul (simply titled as such, not to be confused with Paul in Fresh Perspective), talks about the period between the Damascus Road event and Paul’s writing/traveling ministry. Though Scripture is silent on what Paul did between these events (save for details given early in Galatians), NT Wright extrapolates three things Paul must have been doing in the meantime.

First, “we must assume that Saul set to and earned his own living in the family business” (68). Paul refers to his job as a tent-maker in I Thessalonians, and he probably met quite a few people on the road with this job, reaching out both to offer his services and trading, bartering, and buying supplies for this business.

For those of us looking ahead to ministry, we can become discontent in our “right now” jobs. This is because I, and we, have forgotten a few core truths. We may love our jobs, as I know I do! But in our restlessness, and in our sin, we are tempted to look at them as lesser roles than our future ministries. So, we need to remind ourselves, and others, a few core truths

First, and foremost, he has called me to work as unto him (Col 3:23; Ephesians 6:7). I struggle to remember that this is where God has called me right now, and it is where God wants me to be. To devalue my responsibilities or growth at this job would be to discount God’s will and where he wants for me. We may miss the ways that God is sanctifying us through this job, and what skills he may be offering us in the current position that will serve us, and him, later in life. Second, we may miss these as mission opportunities. Just as Paul could have used his job to meet new people (“network”), we, too, have a wide open mission field available to us in these jobs that we may not in a local church. Third, we simply run the risk of being ungrateful, when we are constantly called to a life of thanksgiving (Col 2:6-7; I Chron 16:8-9; Psalm 28:7; etc.).

Secondly, “we can be sure […] he prayed, he studied, and he figured out all sorts of things” (69). For Paul, that God’s Messiah, the culmination of God’s plan to save the world, took the form of a suffering and crucified king, would have thrown his entire paradigm into question. Paul would need to spend time re-evaluating the texts that he had known since birth, figuring out how they spoke about Jesus and his suffering.

One of the best known commands in the Scriptures, but probably the hardest to obey, is that we “pray without ceasing”. Some of us struggle to pray for even a few moments, let alone pray without ceasing! But to not pray, or to not make a stronger effort to pray, is foolishness. It is our way of admitting that we think we can manage our lives, and in the future, our ministries, without the supernatural power and presence of God in our lives. We see how frequently Paul prayed for his congregations at the beginning of most of his epistles. This does not simply happen, as if one day we are raring to pray continually. No, it is something that must be shaped and practiced through the grace of God that when we do move into ministry, we are a praying people, ready to lift up the congregation to the Lord.

We, too, may think that we have it all figured out. Studying the Bible academically may lead us into some sort of arrogant pride, that we have the Bible figured out all on our own without the guiding light of the Spirit. This pride will destroy us in the future, if we are not careful. Rather, we turn to the God-breathed (theopneustos) Scriptures to both re-evaluate our own lives; to meet the living God afresh; and for correction and rebuke, but also encouragement as well.  Simply put, the Bible is a huge book: to think we have a solid grasp of that so early in life is not simply laughable, it is ultimately dangerous. We must constantly, in prayer and supplication, approach the Bible with humility, asking God to teach us about Christ and shape the way we live our lives in allegiance to him.

Finally, “[Paul] was listening to the ideas all around him. (74)” We see this most clearly in Acts, especially Acts 17, where Paul interacts with gentile philosophy in making a claim for King Jesus as the heir to God’s promises and judge of the world. Had Paul shut himself out of the world, he would be hard-pressed to debate with them in an intelligent, thoughtful, and helpful, way.

In the same way, we would struggle to preach well to our congregation if we did not know what was happening in the world around us. How do we preach to a mixed multitude of modernist, post-modern, and post-post-modern thinkers in our congregation? How do we help, through the proclamation of the gospel and the Scriptures, people take captive every thought to Christ if we know not what they are thinking?

I will admit, this one seems harder to do in practice. I find myself hesitant to suggest reading philosophy books that don’t match our worldview simply because I want to spend that time reading the Bible. But maybe it is as simple as listening to our neighbors. What do they spend their time talking about? What seems to be their ultimate goals, or overriding frameworks? What does the Bible speak into their philosophies of life?

NT Wright summarizes these three points as “Saul at the workbench; Saul praying and thinking; and, third, Saul listening to the ideas all around him (74)”. I have much restless energy to expend, but thankfully, there are good ways to expend this energy with a mind toward a future preaching ministry. My prayer this week, and maybe yours, can be: that God will give us the grace to work to the best of our ability in that we can honor him and grow from every resource given us; that we prayerfully spend time in God’s Word for a fresh look at Christ and instructions on how to live; and finally, we should be listening to the world around us, engaging with ideas or concepts that we may not normally.

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