February 15, 2010
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I had never spoken to an adult Sunday school class before, and, as a young seminary student, was anxious to make good. I had worked hard on my talk, choosing as my topic Christian love.

But now I was late getting to the church and, of all things, stuck behind a Sunday driver. The nerve of him, doing only thirty-five in a thirty-mile zone! This is Washington, D.C., not Kansas, and I’ve got an important ministry to perform. Such was my state of mind--and patience--at that moment. I edged my bumper within a few feet of his, hoping he would catch the vision and accelerate.

No such luck. Within a few blocks he had slowed down practically to the speed limit.

Then, several minutes later, I watched with dismay as he turned into the parking lot of the church where I was scheduled to teach the class. When I got up to speak, he was sitting in the front row, and he seemed to be giving me a knowing stare. I flashed my best pastoral smile, and went ahead to talk about the importance of loving each other with Christ’s love. He did not seem terribly impressed.

The Real Message

I’ve always known that ministry is not something you simply prepare for and do, but a way of life. People listen far more to what you are than to what you say.

But my experience that Sunday demonstrated dramatically to me what ingenious ways God has of letting people know exactly what you are. In a large metropolitan area like Washington, the odds are infinitesimal that someone whom you’re tailgating is heading for the same destination that you are. But as Einstein once put it, God doesn’t play dice. He wanted to impress upon me, I’m sure, that he intends to communicate to others not merely through my words, but through the small aspects of my life.

Fortunately, I had another experience as a young Christian that showed me the positive side of this truth. I was driving on a busy highway late one evening when I noticed an older couple standing beside a stalled car. I stopped and offered to help. They asked if I would drive them home, which meant a trip of some distance into the country. As we drove, the man asked me about myself. I mentioned that I was a seminary student, and told him about my ministry in music, but I didn’t witness to him directly.

About a week later, he shared with me that this act of kindness had restored his faith in Christ.

Walking Is Talking

Experiences like these are rare. But I believe that God brings them about from time to time in order to give us a window on an ongoing phenomenon—the fact that he is continually using our life to make an impression on others for Christ.

This fact should concern us. If we desire to have a ministry for Christ, then the most essential thing we can do is to watch over our relationship with him.

But we should be encouraged by this truth as well. For if our relationship with Christ is what it should be, we can rest assured that he is using our life in abundant ways to influence others for himself. It’s to this end that Jesus assured us, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (Jn 15:5 RSV). As a healthy branch in a vine bears fruit naturally and spontaneously, we will unavoidably be effective for Christ when we are rightly related to him. Ministry will be inevitable.

We fail to fully appreciate this factor most of the time, I’m certain, because we see only a faint picture of all that Christ is doing through us. I gave my life to Christ initially because, when I was 18, several co-workers on a summer job demonstrated Christ’s love convincingly to me. I lost touch with them shortly after that summer, and to this day I doubt that any of them have any idea that their lives drastically changed the course of mine.

View from the Top

Too often we think of ministry purely in terms of doing certain things--reciting a memorized evangelistic routine, giving an impressive talk, counseling with a proven approach. Or ministry is something you “go into” professionally, by becoming a pastor, youth leader, Christian counselor or missionary.

God does call some of us into such roles, and they are vital. And all of us can benefit from learning how to minister to others and express our faith more effectively. But we must not think that we’re ministering only when we’re involved in “ministry activities.”

I suspect that when Paul was imprisoned in Rome, many must have felt he had been deterred from his ministry. That wasn’t how Paul viewed things. “I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment, and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear,” Paul insisted (Phil 1:12-14 RSV).

Many of think of our jobs or our time in college as a “prison” to be endured, preventing us from having a real ministry. Yet Paul’s experience suggests that we are having a crucial impact for Christ at this very time, through our relationships with those in these settings, and through every activity of our lives.

Christ also uses our life and our unique gifts to help others in countless ways, and this is a vital part of our mission as well. The ministry of Christ touches every area of human need. He gives to each of us a unique mix of abilities and opportunities, which enable us to serve others in ways that no one else is as well-equipped to do.

Each day brings with it the opportunity to use our gifts to help others, and to draw others to Christ through the example of our life. As we are faithful to these roles, God gives us special opportunities to speak directly with others about Christ. Yet--and far more often than we think--our life is speaking volumes to others about him, and Christ is using it in remarkable ways to awaken others to their need for a relationship with him.

Ministry is not something out there somewhere; it is now.

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