Ministry for the Sake of Christ and the World

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a conversation with a Navy veteran yesterday who served as a flight-deck officer for nearly 25 years.  I thanked him for his service and was grateful that he had sacrificed his safety in order to protect our freedom.

He reminded me of the time I wanted to serve in the armed forces too.

I was a senior in high school when recruiters visited our classes and encouraged us to make a sacrifice for our country.  They visited on behalf of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard.  My uncle had served in the Air Force, and I felt compelled to look into serving in that particular branch.  I am afraid of heights, but since I wore glasses I figured that they would not let me fly airplanes anyway.

When I came home to tell my father, he was not happy.  I did not understand why he was frustrated, and I began to explain all of the great things that can result from serving our country, and Uncle Joe served so why not?  Dad wanted me to go to college instead.

Although I trusted and followed my father’s advice, I still remember clearly–more clearly than ever when I spoke with that Navy vet yesterday–of the feelings I had in wanting to serve in something bigger than me, to make a sacrifice on behalf of a nation I loved and people that I longed to protect.

Since then, there were only two other times when I had that profound feeling of being called to something so profoundly inspiring.  One time was when I worked as a teacher assistant for an online college course through Ashford University.  It was a writing class, and many students I assisted were in the military or just released from the military.  Educating our troops and vets was my way of helping our nation yet again.

The second time came in college when I heard Christ calling me into the ministry.  I had gone through a litany of career options, praying for the right job that would allow me to serve others while supporting a family.  When it came down to either vocational ministry or practicing law, I met with my New Testament professor, and he gave me the lecture most of us ministry students receive.  Its the advice from the old Buechner adage that says that your calling is found where your deepest passion intersects with the world’s deepest needs.  I plunged headlong into ministry.  My father was happy.

Although I love church and ministry–I know I’m called to this because I cant’ do anything else–I often forget why I got into this business in the first place.  Yes, the Holy Spirit swayed my heart and Christ compelled me to serve His church as a full-time minister.  But there was also that profound feeling of serving others, the very same feelings I had when I spoke with those Air Force recruiters in the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School.

I think that when we ministers forget the source of our inspiration and the emotional reasons why we responded to God’s call–logic aside!–we forget the joy and passion that we are to bring to our vocation in church.

And I wonder if one of the reasons why churches plateau or die is partly because of us: We somehow lose that feeling of joining God at work for the sake of the world, and we fail to inspire others as our own passion dies a slow death under the weight of sermon preparation, balancing a congregation’s expectations with being true to yourself, and doing the busy administrative work that churches require.

I figure that if you do not have a love for every aspect of church and forget to rely on Christ’s love to fill you–whether visiting someone in the hospital or making a copy of your time sheet for your church administrator–then you might as well close shop and go home.

I enjoyed my conversation with that old veteran yesterday, and together we enjoyed a good meal as we celebrated a newlywed couple whose wedding I had just performed.  More significantly, I enjoyed what the conversation reminded me of: That we who call Christ Lord are to give of ourselves, and that there is no higher calling than to serve Jesus…To give one’s life for the sake of others, for there is no greater honor and privilege.

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Giving the Invitation

george-whitefield-preaching

Joe LaGuardia’s new book, Awe and Trembling: Reflections for the Christian Journey, is scheduled to be released in late May.  As an anthology of articles and homilies from the Baptist Spirituality archives, the book encourages, inspires, and deepens a life of faith and our pilgrimage with God.  This article, originally released in 2013, is included in the book.  

By Joe LaGuardia

Like so many churches in the South, the church I pastor, Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Georgia, still has a time of invitation after the sermon every Sunday.  It consists of an altar call or a request for worshipers to reflect on the message, along with a moving hymn to stir the heart.

Although this might seem a bit antiquated—a hold-over from a simpler, revivalist tradition of yesteryear—it still holds a meaningful place in the midst of our worship to God.  It is, at its basic level, a time to respond to God and reflect on a personal challenge for the week ahead.

I realized long ago that our church is too small to give an altar call every week.  I’m not one of those preachers who make the pianist play the hymn repeatedly until someone comes forward, so over the years I’ve had to expand my invitation to include other calls of response.  I now urge my parishioners to take the initiative to respond to God on their own terms.

The shift in emphasis from invitation to initiative is a reminder that there are many ways to respond to God aside from an altar call, decision for baptism, and prayer with the preacher.  In fact, all of us—no matter where we are in our faith—should realize that an invitation is a time to follow God’s leading.  God is in the business of calling us to action, obedience, surrender, and mission.  We are obligated to respond if we claim to believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

One way we can respond is by committing to a life of praise and song.  I don’t envy the Christian who only hears or sings praises to God for a few hours a week.  Ours is to be a life of song, and we can sing and recite hymns or choruses wherever we are, no matter the day or the hour.  The Bible is full of praises that intend to respond to God: “How good it is to invite us to respond to God,” Psalm 147 states, “for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.”

Another response is to do something for the Lord each and every week.  This action can be as simple as writing a card to a friend in need or a church member who is struggling.  It can be something more demanding, such as “paying it forward” by purchasing a stranger’s groceries at the store.

You may also choose to do something based on the sermon.  I’m sure your preacher’s messages include at least one challenge for the week ahead.  When your pastor gives a challenge or sermon application that is fitting, write it down so you don’t forget.  Consider posting or tweeting your commitment on social media so that people can hold you accountable.

A final way to respond to God is to live a “life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1).  I realize that people are called to do different things in life: one is called to be a teacher while another is called to be a missionary.  All of us, however, are included within the calling we are all obligated to fulfill—namely, to practice the Great Commission and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  This requires holy integrity and obedience to God’s empowering Spirit, to walk in righteousness, and to advocate for justice and grace.

Some churches have done away with the traditional invitation, and more than one church has put hymns such as “I Surrender All” aside.  But all of us, whether in a church with revivalist leanings, contemporary praise songs or formal liturgies, bear the weight of responding to a God who calls, seeks, knocks, and commissions with relentless passion.

Change is difficult, but a part of Christian conversion

hymnsI am not a fan of change.  I like my routine, and I like the predictable, boring, and mundane.  My feathers get ruffled easily if things are out of order.

Just ask my church: I’ve been pastor of Trinity for quite some time now, and the only thing I’ve changed in worship in the past three years is where the pastoral prayer takes place in our liturgy.  When an influential deacon in my church once recommended that we change the seating configuration in the sanctuary, I gasped as if he told me we declared nuclear war.

If I were a bettin’ man, I’d venture that most folks in our community are not prone to change.  Here in the southern part of Rockdale County, I am used to meeting neighbors and churchgoers who’ve lived in their homes long enough to remember when most roads were made of dirt.  Many remember when the Honey Creek country club was among the newer subdivisions and Deer Run only had a few homes.

I would also guess that we suburban and rural folk also like a God who doesn’t change either.  We like God to be predictable, consistent, and, yes, boring and mundane at times.  Why else would we have liturgies at church that don’t change other than the fact that we assume that God is like us and likes things just how they are?

Unfortunately, things do change.  Eventually, some folks will join the worship committee and recommend that the Doxology not be included in every worship service.  Someone will come along and move our cheese; others will replace the pulpit with a plexiglass podium or move the pulpit altogether and get themselves fired.

Since change happens, however, I also know that God changes too.  Now, don’t rush off so quickly and send me emails; I know that the Bible says, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6).

Sure, we know that God does not change the overarching goal of redeeming all humanity and inaugurating a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1).  That is not the change I am talking about.

I am talking about the type of change that happens when we pray and see God differently in our lives because we get to know Him better and have an ever-deeper relationship that matures over time.  You see, it is not God who changes when we pray and grow closer to him so much that it is we who change.

Sometimes the only way to grow in our faith is to change, even when change is chaotic and unpredictable. Gasp.

Yes, God changes when our perspectives of God change.  For example, years ago people assumed God preferred segregated schools only to find out that God probably did not intend that way of life after all.  It was not God who had a change of heart about race relations, it was us.

Other perspectives about God change also.  When we get on our knees and “pray unceasingly,” we realize that God is just as much a loving, compassionate and gracious God as He is one who will eventually “judge the living and the dead.”

When we grow closer to God through an intentional and consistent life of discipleship, God goes from being an aloof “grandpa” figure to a compassionate Abba who loves with us.

Jesus goes from being an ancient figure in history to a brother who “walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own” (from the hymn, “In the Garden”).

We change and realize that we need to break some bad habits for healthy ones, to be compassionate and take risks rather than cower in fear from supposed threats to our well-being.  Change is scary indeed.

Jesus calls us to follow him; but, I’ll be honest: I’d rather sit on my couch and eat potato chips because that’s my routine.  It’s inconvenient to get out of my comfort zone.  However, if I really want to follow Jesus, I will have to replace my cup of Coke for the cup of God’s will, get up and follow Him.