As we pass the anniversary of COVID-19 lockdowns and more churches begin to physically regather, it has been sobering to reflect on this past year of ministry. In August of 2020, I hit a wall. I was physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and not coping well. My wife and I had just planted Bright City Church in September of 2018, so naturally the lockdowns induced fears of whether our congregation would survive the pandemic.
I had dealt with some anxiety and depression in the past, and it was beginning to resurface. I realized that a major source of my anxiety and emotional exhaustion at that time was the pressure I felt to “perform” as a pastor. From how I preached to how impactful our services were to how I led my team, ran meetings, and counseled our people, I constantly assessed my value on the basis of my performance. I had adopted an unsustainable—albeit pervasive—model of ministry.
As I wrestled with this exhaustion, these precious words of Jesus filled my soul: “Remain in me.” Though deceptively simple, they allude to one of the most profound theological realities in all of the New Testament: our participation in Christ.
“Participation in Christ” means we experience Christ’s own relationship to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. It could also be said that Christ’s own life is repeated in us. Christ’s relationship to the Father was marked by at least three things—intimacy with the Father (John 1:18), peace in his Father’s presence (John 14), and satisfaction from the Father that brought contentment within himself (John 5:19). As I endured this difficult season of ministry, I began to wonder, “surely this experience of Christ’s own relationship to the Father must have something to say to this drudgery?”
What I discovered for myself is what I am recommending here: Ministry is best understood as the repetition of Christ’s own life in us, and that as pastors, we will be most at rest, most at peace, and most satisfied when we do ministry with a conscious awareness of his presence. In this way, ministry becomes the very context in which we take part in Jesus’ own relationship to the Father.
Jesus often said as much throughout the Gospel of John: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well” (14:7). “Anyone one who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love just as I have kept my Father’s command and remain in his love” (15:10). Karl Barth put it this way: “As Jesus Christ calls us and is heard by us, He gives us His Holy Spirit in order that His own relationship to His Father may be repeated in us.”
As good as that may sound, there are many obstacles to seeing ministry this way. We drift instead into seeing ministry as defining our identity, establishing our value, a means to achieving our own ends, or relaying our knowledge about God to others.
When ministry is the repetition of Christ’s own relationship to the Father in us, his covenant faithfulness defines our identity, not our performance in the pulpit. The unconditional approval of the divine establishes our value, not the fickle praise of human beings. The freedom of pursuing his ends in ministry replaces the oppression of pursuing our own. The peace of a ministry sustained by the ongoing present action of God replaces the burden of a ministry driven by our efforts. A focus on experiencing knowledge of God ourselves replaces the pressure we feel to adequately communicate knowledge of God to others.
What would ministry look like if we saw it as the repetition of Christ’s own life in our lives?
It would look like replacing the anxiety of a moment with awareness of God’s presence. It means “finding constant pleasure in His divine company,” as Brother Lawrence writes in Practicing the Presence of God. It means believing the revelation Paul received: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). It means living in true humility of utter dependence on God.
If what Christ has with the Father is what we want also (intimacy with Father, peace in his presence, and satisfaction from him that brings contentment with ourselves), I can think of three priority changes for such a paradigm shift in ministry.
1. Prioritize intimacy over efficiency
Early in the church planting stages, it was easy to become obsessed with efficiency. How quickly can I get this done? Is there a faster way? What can I delegate? Who can I delegate it to? Intimacy with God, however, leaves little room for our fascination with efficiency.
Intimacy demands time; it is slow. It cannot be hurried or rushed. Intimacy cannot be cultivated when our attention is divided. In the same way, our participation in the Son’s relationship to the Father is something to delight in, to relish, to enjoy. None of these is done best when done fast. And why would we want to? Wouldn’t we rather linger in his presence and be satisfied by peace and intimacy with the Lord? Wouldn’t we rather minister intentionally?
When we prioritize intimacy over efficiency, we discover this truth: Less done with God is still more than I can do on my own.
2. Prioritize presence over performance
The pressure to perform is one of the greatest obstacles to enjoying God’s presence in ministry. It is the internal questioning of “Am I doing a good job?” This redirects attention to ourselves rather than God, and certainly away from the church members in front of us.
When we shift our priority to presence, our preoccupation with self is corrected. We see again those we were sent to serve. We are not preoccupied with our anxious preparation. We commune with the Truth: “God, you have given me everything I need for this moment. I am here for them, not for me. I will do this in your strength, not in my weakness.”
3. Prioritize imitating Jesus over impressing others
Possibly the greatest hurdle to experiencing Christ’s own life is our temptation to focus on impressing others rather than imitating Jesus. In The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen says, “We act as if visibility and notoriety were the main criteria of the value of what we are doing.” Is my work valuable? Am I valuable if crowds aren’t huge, views aren’t viral, and followers aren’t multiplying?
Nouwen observes that this need to be impressive is tied closely to our selfhood and identity. “To be a person and to be seen, praised, liked and accepted have become nearly the same for many. Who am I when nobody pays attention, says thanks, or recognizes my work?” Unfortunately, the more insecure we become, the more desperately we need to be impressive. This restarts the whole exhausting ministry model: I need to be impressive therefore I must perform even better, and in order to perform better, I must become more efficient. It is a ruthless cycle with little space for rest, peace, presence, and intimacy.
The solution is to imitate the selfless way of Christ in the way of downward mobility, says Nouwen. That is where true freedom is found. Downward mobility was the way of Christ into the world, emptying himself of his divine privilege, and walking among us as a servant (Phil. 2). He moved from strength to weakness, from fullness to emptiness, from robed in glory on a throne to naked on a cross. When we rid ourselves of the oppressive pursuit of impressing others, we are now free to selflessly orient ourselves toward the other.
Participation in Christ is to live in the same trajectory as Christ did in the Incarnation—downward to transform our world. In this pursuit to be nothing, we leave space for God to be all. The greatest freedom in ministry is found when we empty ourselves of all we think we should be, so that he can fill us with what he wants us to be.
Ike Miller is the author of Seeing by the Lightand holds a PhD in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is lead pastor of Bright City Church in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Sharon, and their three children.