My friend Tim Gombis has been exploring the nature of true Christian ministry in his work lately. He wrote an excellent book called Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision of Ministry. Here is a helpful orientation to some of his thoughts on cruciform ministry. Check out Tim’s blog for his latest thoughts on scholarship, ministry, and life.
The Apostle Paul and Measuring Up in Ministry
by Tim Gombis
The contemporary ministry scene is both loaded with promise and fraught with peril. We have so many resources in conferences, books, websites, social media, and podcasts. While all of these provide us with so much upon which to draw as we consider our ministries, they also create a situation in which we are measured (and measure ourselves) against high-powered and slickly-produced performances of preaching and ministry.
Idealizing High Profile Pastors
Ministers may fear that they’ll appear inadequate. After all, the people we serve have the same access to the compelling preacher with a YouTube channel. The exposure to so many resources may cause us anxiety that we will inevitably disappoint our people. We know our failings and we’re so plain and unimpressive.
My friend Peter is a pastor in a small but thriving town nearby and he’s been at his current church for about fifteen years. He told me recently that someone came to talk with him about some of his complaints and disappointments with the church. As they talked, this person spoke excitedly about the sermons of a young and energetic pastor of a church in the middle of the state who has been promoted by a huge ministry network. The organization’s website features interviews of him alongside other internationally known figures, and he’s published several books. Peter patiently listened to all the wonderful things that were going on at this young preacher’s church and his congregant expressed disappointment that Peter’s church didn’t have the same energy and excitement.
Was Paul aware of these kinds of ministry challenges? Did he know about social media? Did he feel the pressure of competition with high-profile leaders with impressive reputations?
Indeed, Paul knew about all of this.
The Ministry Dangers of Social Media
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul acknowledges that some rival teachers had come to Galatia and were touting their connections to the really well-known apostles and well-established church leaders in Jerusalem. He makes reference to “those who seem to be something” and “those who seem to be pillars” in Gal 2:6, 9. In doing so, he challenges the Galatians’ sense of fascination with these recent arrivals that talked up their connections to high-profile leaders who were a really big deal. They were in awe when they shouldn’t have been.
It’s easy to be taken in by the illusion that we can know anyone from a distance. Rather than trumpeting his credentials, Paul talked about his weakness, emphasizing that the Galatians had seen him at his worst and most vulnerable. The only reason he had the opportunity to preach the gospel to them in the first place is that he had to crash in one of the Galatian towns after sustaining some horrible injuries during one of his missions. He reminds them of his dreadful condition during his original visit:
You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus (Gal 4:13-14, NRSV).
Paul knew well the deceptive dynamics that are in play when we are known at a distance, or by constructing images through social media. He related to his audiences through the social medium of letter-writing, and he is wary of the temptations to make more of himself than is really true. He writes in 2 Corinthians 12:5-6 about his hesitance to boast about anything “except of my weaknesses.” If he were to talk about his impressive ministry experiences, he would be speaking the truth, “[b]ut I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me” (v. 6).
Paul resisted the central temptation that social media offers all of us, including (or, perhaps, especially!) those in ministry. Paul didn’t want to create the impression in his audiences that he was more spiritual or more impressive than he was. He resisted the desire to construct a slick public image that didn’t match reality.
Cultivating Ministry Authenticity
On the contrary, he constantly cultivated authenticity, speaking of his struggles and his weaknesses. And he did so because his ultimate aim in ministry was to embody the cross, for that is the only way to minister by drawing on God’s resurrection power. To an audience that loved impressive speech and spectacle, Paul articulated his cruciform (in the form of the cross) ministry approach:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor 2:1-5, NIV).
Not only is a cruciform ministry the only way to produce the fruit of faith in a crucified Christ, but ministry in the shape of the cross is the only way to unleash the power of the resurrection life of Jesus. “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10, NIV).
Back to my friend, Peter. I think his response was very wise. He told the person to go to that church, and that he harbored no ill will and could completely understand that perhaps that was the right move. Interestingly enough, a few months later, the man and his family returned. He explained that after a while, the superstar pastor’s church was every bit as plain and unimpressive as any other church. No minister or church can live up to the hype or match the image they create online. When we know people from a distance, we don’t really know them. And in the end, none of us is spectacular.
We draw upon God’s resurrection power and life-giving presence when our ministries take the shape of the cross. That reality comes about through fostering community practices of authenticity, service, and self-giving love, while resisting the deceptive draw of cultivating an impressive and powerful image.
Read Tim’s new book, Power in Weakness (Eerdmans, 2021).