The Difference We Make

Before his death, there were rumors circulating that Billy Graham was dealing with some level of depression. According to these rumors, Dr. Graham was disappointed, after preaching all of those sermons to millions of people, the world was still as messed up as it ever was.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but I want it to be true. Some days, I found great comfort in knowing Dr. Graham worried if he had made any difference in the world through his ministry. If it’s not true, then don’t tell me. I need this little bit of solace.

It helps me to know that Dr. Billy Graham, the greatest evangelist since the Apostle Paul, worried about the significance of his work. Lord knows, there are days I wonder the same thing. You’re probably the same way. Even if you don’t work on a church staff, there are days when you’re happy with not falling off the treadmill. Getting somewhere would have been too much to ask for that day.

Somedays I wonder, “What’s the point?” I preach and people tell me they enjoyed my sermons. I write, and some tell me they enjoyed what I had to say.

But does anything change? Does anybody really change?

Here’s the irony of this moment. I’ve just finished talking with a young pastor who called me because, after three years at his church, he was worried he wasn’t making any difference. For some reason, young pastors think older pastors know a thing or two. I reminded him that wisdom only means I screwed up before you did.

So, what did I tell him? The same thing I would tell you. The same thing I tell myself. First, you aren’t the first one to feel this way. Go back and read the stories. Moses, Elijah, David, Jeremiah, Paul, Martin Luther, John Wesley and, if the rumors are right, Billy Graham all had moments where they experienced loneliness and frustration of failure and despair of not being heard. When you feel this way — and if you stay in ministry long enough, you will — know you’re in some very fine company.

Second, I reminded him Jesus said there would times like this. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus says in John, “but be of great courage! I have overcome the world.” We always put the emphasis on the last half of that verse when, in reality, more of us are living in the first part of the verse. We are facing trouble of all kinds. Yes, Jesus has won the final victory, but getting from where most of us are to that final victory can be a painful and maddening journey. We’ll be glad to celebrate that final victory, but right now, life can be painful and overwhelming.

Next, I tell him we weren’t called to be successful, only faithful. Now, before you roll your eyes and accuse me of bumper sticker theology, let me explain. In our incorporation of church life, we’ve used corporate leadership styles to structure our churches and measure church effectiveness — with mixed results. We’ve set attendance goals, baptism goals and membership goals — and all of these are out of the pastor’s control. All we can do is preach. We can’t control how people respond.

Trying to meet secular goals in a sacred work, many pastors have resorted to manipulation and methods of attraction used by Disney theme parks. Too many of us have sold our souls for the false god of large crowds. By our modern measurement of church success, every New Testament — including Jesus - would have been a failure. Instead, most of our churches are failures by New Testament standards.

My calling is to faithfully preach the Word. My calling is to faithfully teach the word. Success in drawing a crowd is never promised. If pastors doggedly study the text to understand it in all of its fullness, love their people so they understand how the passage with affect their people, and preach faithfully to the intersection of life and truth, they’ve done their job.

What the Spirit does with our work is beyond our control. How people respond is beyond our control.

And I tell them one more thing. Jesus is still working. He hasn’t given up on His mission of redemption. He hasn’t paused His mercy. Jesus is always seeking those who are lost. He’s always searching for those crying out for the Father’s love, and according to Paul, He’s using the overlooked and unimpressive of this world to accomplish His work.

He hasn’t stopped now.

I don’t believe Jesus caused the pandemic. I do believe He can work in and through it. Romans 8 reminds us God is always working for the good of His church and the realization of His Kingdom. We’re learning a lot about ourselves during this pandemic.

And a lot of it wasn’t pretty (Remember, we fought in the aisles over toilet paper) …and churches have found out the same thing. We’re finding out a lot of things aren’t working in the church the way we thought they were, and COVID is giving us permission to do some things differently.

So, I told my young pastor friend, I’m more optimistic about the local church than I have been in years. There is an urgency in our culture, a craving for truth, and there’s never been a better time to preach the Good News of Jesus than right now. All of the old models are breaking. People are looking for something solid and tested, and they’re finding that in the old message of Jesus and His kingdom.

Yeah, there are days when I worry if I’m really making a difference.

Yet, there’s never a day when I worry if Jesus is making a difference.

He has. He is. He will.

I’m counting on that. All of creation is counting on that.