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Serve people, do not use them!

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Over the last year or so, God has been taking me on a journey. It's a painful journey. But it's a necessary journey to undertake. God has been challenging me over and over again about my motives for doing ministry.

We all know what we are supposed to do, right? We are here to serve others. After all, that's what Jesus commanded us. "The greatest among you shall be your servant." Sure, we all want to be great. So let's get involved in serving. In ministry. 

So we ask God what He wants us to do, and we receive The Calling. Sometimes a BIG calling. Maybe He wants us to start a church or a ministry. Or maybe He promises us that He will grow a ministry and reach hundreds or thousands of people. Maybe it will be a ministry with great public recognition. So we get all excited about it. And we tell God: "I'm in! Let's roll and change the world!"

Many of us start with such noble ambitions. And that's all wonderful. God loves when people respond to the huge visions He gives us. 

But then sometimes our hearts start taking a bit of a different direction. Sometimes we allow the vision to consume us. Here is my story. 

When God called us into fulltime ministry in 2011, I knew what God wanted me to do. Take the Alpha Ministry the way it is, expand it and grow it. Reach far more people than what you can envision right now. I know God told me that this ministry will grow way beyond what we had so far.

So for the first year or two everything went great. We expanded, we ran more Alpha sessions, we reached more people, there was more and more excitement. And I thought: "This is great. We're just going to continue to grow from here, it'll be a steady increase, and it'll get more and more exciting with each season we're running Alpha."

Until around a year ago. Our growth suddenly stopped. And the ministry started to slowly but steadily shrink. Numbers went down, participation within the congregation went down. And my heart sank. 

And that's when God started to reveal what was in my heart. Because when I was confronted with all these challenges, dropping numbers, etc. I suddenly had to confess what was going on in my heart and my mind. Because I realized that a lot of my thoughts were about me: 

  • What about my job? Will I eventually be fired if this trend continues?
  • What about my reputation? What will people think if they find out how this ministry is developing?
  • What about the great budget we have? Will someone eventually say that "Alpha is getting too expensive for the low turnout we have"?
  • ...

Obviously, these weren't the only thoughts I had. But these thoughts were there among others. 

Now that brought me to a point when I had to ask God some really, really, really painful questions. For example:

  • Why am I doing ministry?
  • Am I really serving people? Or am I using them for my purposes?
  • Do I find part of my identity in the success of my ministry?
  • ...

These were some really, really painful conversations I had to have with God over the last year. And I'm still not through, I still recognize having mixed motives. But it did make me realize that I have to ask myself a very important question over and over again:

Am I really serving people? Or am I using people for my purposes?

I realized how easy it is to mix up these two motivations. Of course we all know the right answer. We all know that we are here to serve people sacrificially. And we all do that outwardly. We serve others, we help others, we support others, we pray for others, we lead others to Christ,... 

But I believe sometimes we do the right thing on the outside while we have the opposite attitude in our hearts. Sometimes we actually serve people because we want them to fulfill us. Here are a few personal confessions.

  • I served on Alpha partly to feel fulfilled. The more people attended Alpha, the more fulfilled I felt
  • I wanted Alpha to grow to show off. The more people come to Alpha under my leadership, the more I had to show off.
  • Part of my motivation of wanting Alpha to grow was to make sure I keep my job
  • I eagerly counted numbers of "people from Alpha getting baptized" to keep a score and show others what a great Christian Leader I was
  • ...

Now these weren't my only motivations. Of course I was happy for anyone who came to Christ under my leadership. And I am genuinely rejoicing for every lost person coming to Faith in Christ. 

But what I am saying is: These "wrong motives" were somehow mixed in with my good motives. They coexisted. They were both driving me.

This is a very tricky topic for anyone in Christian leadership. I firmly believe that we can outwardly do all the right things, but completely miss the point. I believe there are many Christian leaders who seem to have it all together, but their work is worthless in God's eyes, because they do ministry with the total wrong motives. I believe that many people who seem to have it all together will one day stand before God and will have to confess that all their ministry years were motivated by selfish ambitions and not by serving people.

One preacher put it like this: "When you do ministry with such selfish ambitions, the people in your ministry now become fuel to achieve your own purposes. You don't serve them. You burn them so that you can achieve your vision."

Many Christian leaders find their identity in ministry. The bigger and better their ministry becomes, the better they feel about themselves. But that means that we are not serving people. Instead we secretly use people to serve us. And very often we don't even notice that we are doing that.

So what can we do? Well, we have to learn to find our identity in God unattached to the ministry we are doing. That can be hard. Praying certainly helps. Asking God to reveal our hearts certainly helps. Talking with other Christians is always a good idea.

But I believe we will never really know unless we are faced with some challenges. In my case, God revealed my wrong motives when the ministry shrunk. That's when I realized that my concern was as much about me as it was about the people we wanted to reach. 

For some of us it might help to simply ask ourselves a few questions. 

  • How would you feel if someone else takes your ministry and makes it grow bigger and better without you? Could you rejoice over the growth of the ministry? Or would you be jealous that you weren't the one at the helm when the growth happened?
  • Imagine the ministry was suddenly shrinking to half the size: Would your thoughts be mainly about you, your ego and your reputation? Or would it be about the people who don't get served as a result of the shrinking ministry?
  • Imagine you found a great person to take over your ministry. Someone who is capable, who has great ideas and who clearly wants to move the ministry forward in the way that you wanted the ministry to go: Would it easy for you to pass on the ministry to such a person? Or would the pain of "not being at the helm any longer" outweigh the excitement of seeing the ministry flourish under someone else's leadership?
  • How would it make you feel if everybody in your ministry steps into another ministry field? What if everybody on your team and in your group(s) was leaving your ministry and doing greater work in some other ministry/in another church? Would you be able to rejoice over the advancement of God's kingdom in another ministry? Or would the pain of "losing your own people" outweigh this excitement?
  • ...

These are just some of the questions I have worked through over the last year or so. Being absolutely honest before God with such questions is crucial to find out whether we are truly serving people or whether we subconsciously use people to serve us. 

What if we can't get our motives right? I guess the ultimate way of getting our motives right is an unpleasant one. But it might be necessary sometimes: Take a sabbatical! If we do realize that our motives are (partly) wrong and we can't fix it, then there's only one way: Start completely over. If our identity is partly found in the success of our ministry, and we can't get it right, then the last solution is to simply step out of ministry and find our true identity without this distraction of "serving others for the wrong reasons". And once we have found our true identity as sons and daughters of God, we can then slowly step back into ministry and now serve people out of the security of knowing that we are loved by God, no matter whether our ministry is "successful" or not. 

God has me on this journey for the last 15 months now. Over and over again He purifies my heart, revealing to me when I'm "serving" people for selfish reasons. It's a painful journey. But I embrace the pruning process to bear more good fruit for His glory later on. 



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