The power of an effective ministry lies in practicing the spiritual disciplines. What are the barriers to spiritual growth, and how do we overcome them?
"I haven't prayed privately for months. My only prayer life has been the prayers I prayed in public as pastor of my church." With these words a weeping pastor explained how he lost his hold on God and plunged into immorality.
At times in the experiences of each of us, our human sinfulness erupts, threatening to destroy our ministry for God. Our service loses its power, its focus, and its joy. Feeling that we are living in a spiritual desert, we wonder how we got there and where we can get help.
In the words of the Adventist Church's leading light on spirituality: "The reason why our preachers accomplish so little is that they do not walk with God. He is a day's journey from most of them." 1
We need not forget our dream of God using us for His cause. But to realize that dream we must find strength in a life strongly rooted in a living spirituality.
Too often we don't realize that the power of our ministry in the local church and in the community springs from spirituality─ which, in turn, grows out of a personal encounter with Christ.
Members truly respect their leaders as the reality that Christ dwells in their lives confronts them. Credibility grows as the lives of the pastor, church elders, and other church leaders unveil the beauty of a Saviour who meets the challenge of a contemporary society going berserk in self-fulfillment and the sensational.
Spirituality must have a private dimension before it can have public influence. Spirituality is a response to God's initiative, a movement of the entire person toward the God who first loved us. Our response leads us to center ourselves in Him to be open to God and to submit totally to His will. Christ becomes the passion of our lives─a passion fueled by intimacy with Him.
The experience of salvation remains the basis of our spirituality. Only as we accept the gospel are we equipped to grow in the likeness of Christ. His compelling love conquers our doubts and fears. The fact that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8) strikes at the very roots of our selfcentered lives.
An ongoing struggle makes up another part of spirituality. We may experience peace in Christ, but continued growth in Him comes as the result of a continuing struggle with self. In the words of Paul, "I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway" (1 Cor. 9:27).
Maintaining a disciplined Christian life is part of the battle. Both the surrender to Christ and the walk with Him result from a disciplined, intentional focus of the life in following Him.
The call to ministry on any level is first a call to spirituality. We share in Christ's ministry only as far as we share in His spirituality. In one of its primary forms the public dimension of spirituality creates dynamic spiritual preaching. On the other hand, preaching that has no roots in a personal spirituality quickly disintegrates into pompous exposition of cold theory,neither touching nor transforming the heart.
The spiritual church leader models a humble, authentic, and intimate walk with God. This modeling becomes one of the key elements in teaching spirituality.
Barriers to Spirituality
I have found six common barriers to a growing spirituality.
1. Impossibility thinking. A church leader, John, could not believe that God wanted to have the same type of experience with him that He had shared with Enoch. When someone talked of an intense experience with God, John discounted it as some form of mysticism. This denial closed the door to deeper encounters with God. As he opened that door, growing in the use of spiritual disciplines, his life turned around.
2. Busyness. I find it easy to be so intensely involved in ministry that I have no time for God.
Ellen White warned: "As activity increases and men become successful in doing any work for God, there is danger of trusting to human plans and methods. There is a tendency to pray less, and to have less faith. Like the disciples, we are in danger of losing sight of our dependence on God, and seeking to make a savior of our activity. We need to look constantly to Jesus, realizing that it is His power which does the work. While we are to labor earnestly for the salvation of the lost, we must also take time for meditation, for prayer, and for the study of the word of God. Only the work accomplished with much prayer, and sanctified by the merit of Christ, will in the end prove to have been efficient for good." 2
Far too often our busy schedule results from our own needs, not God's will. As Eugene Peterson says, "It is far more biblical to learn quietness and attentiveness before God than to be overtaken by what John Oman named the twin perils of ministry, 'flurry and worry.'. . . Flurry dissipates energy, and worry constipates it." 3
3. Ignorance of spirituality. Many of us live for years with a strange yearning for more of God that we can neither identify nor satisfy. We must face the tragic reality that we have not developed many ways to find intimacy with Christ. Too often we don't realize we can do some things to foster a deeper experience with God; we assume it will just happen.
While there will always be a mystical dimension to our walk with God, there are specific skills and experiences that open one's life to Him. Integrating an expanded prayer life, meditation, fasting, devotional Bible reading, and other disciplines into my devotional life has revolutionized my relationship with God.
4. Laziness. One must work hard to experience spiritual growth and a consistent devotional life.
5. Inconsistency. Bob, another friend, shared the typical story of a spiritual walk with God filled with highs and lows. The climb to the mountaintop seemed too rare, and the plunge to the depths too sharp and too fast. As I listened to him, I saw in my devotional life a mirror image of his experience.
6. Our concept of success. This insight came during the most painful moment of my life. I discovered I had shut God out of control of my life by trying to determine just how I would work for Him. I had my own picture of what success in ministry would be. As I sought to achieve that "success" I repeatedly ran ahead of God, racing down detours and finding only pain and frustration. Learning to trust God to control my spirituality and to define my success was an unforgettable experience of freedom and faith. This struggle cannot be won once for all time. We must fight the battle again and again.
Dimensions of Spirituality
Four basic dimensions of the personal life form the foundation without which pastoral spirituality cannot stand.
1. The committed and submitted life. We must submit to the will of God and place Him first in our lives and ministries. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness" is a basic principle of the kingdom to which we belong. Submitting self is so difficult and painful that Paul describes it as dying—as being crucified. Yet to the degree in which self remains in control, to that degree we fail to grow spiritually and be effective in God's hands.
Commitment results from a relationship and grows into a passion for Him to whom we commit ourselves. While commitment is not an end in itself, the passion for Christ must be one of the controlling dimensions in the spiritual life. This passion for Christ grows to be greater than any other passion. It is this commitment that leads us to focus all that we do on Him.
2. The disciplined life. It is through spiritual disciplines that we regularly open ourselves to God. Disciplines such as prayer, fasting, study, and meditation help attune us to God. They become tools through which He transforms us into His image.
Disciplines also involve consciously choosing to develop God's lifestyle in contrast to that of the world.
3. Lifting up Christ. As we focus on Him, He draws us to Himself. And the only way in which we can get others to change is by, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, lifting up Jesus Christ. He said, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32).
4. The ministering life. True Christian spirituality can never retreat into monastic isolationism. True spirituality bears fruit in ministry modeled after that of Christ. In fact, in the context of leadership spirituality, our work is an extension of Christ's. As our connection with Christ grows, He leads us to lives of service. He transforms our ministry so that we focus on Him instead of on functional or institutional goals and purposes.
We can never find spirituality in ourselves. Instead it is rooted in and empowered by the presence of Christ. His presence is nurtured in the devotional life—in prayer, meditation, and study of Scripture.
"All who are under the training of God need the quiet hour for communion with their own hearts, with nature, and with God. . . . We must individually hear Him speaking to the heart. When every other voice is hushed, and in quietness we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God. . . . This is the effectual preparation for all labor for God." 4
This intimacy comes through openness and authenticity as we enter God's presence. The intimate knowledge of God and His way with human beings puts our sinfulness in the context of His saving grace. We grow in trust as we immerse ourselves in His Word. Through meditation on Scripture we become familiar with those who have walked with God in past ages and we see how He wants to walk with us now.
"With the Word of God in his hands, every human being . . . may have such companonship as he shall choose. In its pages he may hold converse with the noblest and best of the human race, and may listen to the voice of the Eternal as He speaks with men. . . . He may dwell in this world in the atmosphere of heaven, . . . like him of old who walked with God, drawing nearer and nearer the threshold of the eternal world, until the portals shall open, and he shall enter there. ... He who through the Word of God has lived in fellowship with heaven will find himself at home in heaven's companionship." 5
Walking with God can be an exciting adventure. He has made us for Himself. He longs to have the intimacy of father and child with us. More than anything else, He wants to help us become all that He created us to be—His children, made in His image. We can meet the challenges of ministry successfully only as we center our lives in Him.
"With the risen, victorious Jesus at the center of your life, you win. That was all the early Christian community had against Jerusalem, Rome, Athens—and the Christians won. That's not rhetoric; that's history. They had only Jesus and we keep thinking that we need something else." 6
Let's nurture our hunger for God. He promises to satisfy us: "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled" (Matt. 5:6). When our hearts hunger for Him more than for anything else, we will find Him. He longs to fill our lives with His presence.
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, p. 434.
2 ————, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 362. (Italics supplied.)
3 Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (Carol Stream, 111.: Christianity Today, 1989), p. 34.
4 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), p. 58.
5————, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), p. 127.
6 Brennan Manning, Lion and Lamb (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1986), p. 115.
Ben Maxson is ministerial and stewardship and development director in the Upper Columbia Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Spokane, Washington. The above article was taken from an article he wrote for Ministry, January 1991.