When I first started out in ministry I had no idea what I was doing. I was 19 years and suddenly found myself in charge of a youth ministry. Organizing budgets and car washes to get students to camps and conferences. Organizing drivers, planning events. All things I had never done or even seen because I never went to a youth group before. My first experience at a summer camp was as the youth pastor. I can’t even count the number of odd looks I got when people asked me who was in charge of these students. It was definitely getting thrown into the deep end with out a clue of how to swim. So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I PRAYED! A LOT!!!
As I grew older and discovered the different gifts and talents I had I somehow forgot about my humble beginnings and what truly produced the greatest fruit. I had found myself in the place where I was relying on my gifts and talents to get me through in youth ministry. I grabbed at things that were good. I thought, that will work! That will get students hungry and passionate for God! I even thought they were great things, not just good. I needed better strategy, better leadership, better change management process, better leader meetings, better prayer, better worship, better discipleship practices, and better teaching. After all it fit my motto fit: More is not better, better is better. Just try harder!!! I was way past the days of trying to draw a crowd. I just wanted students to be on fire for God! Isn’t that what God wants? People who’s hearts are for His heart. So why wasn’t any of this working?
If you are at all like me you may desire to see results and to see them soon. I get frustrated after putting so much time and energy and resources into something only to find myself saying at the end of the day, “Well, that was a flop!” Somethings just don’t go the way we hope for. But maybe that is our problem. Maybe it is what we hope for, not what God truly hopes for. So, what if we wait to see what is better? What is actually better? What is actually the real fruit Jesus was talking about when he said, “You will know them by their fruits” (my paraphrase of Matthew 7:20) How do we even measure that fruit?
What if all the things I am doing are actually keeping me from being fruitful? Alan Fadling in his book, An Unhurried Life, says, “I think pruning is the experience of God taking away from us something we thought was very fruitful but was in fact keeping us from being as fruitful as we could be.”
Then it hit me between the eyes and right in my heart! I was burned out. Actually, at the time I couldn’t even tell if I was on the edge of burn out, if I was burned out, or even if I was way passed that. My wife and I had to take my 5 year old son to get an MRI on his brain to see if there was a possible mass on his brain. But then it had to wait because he caught a slight cold. I was leading a mission trip to Guatemala with students and because of the timing it had to wait until I got back. I had also just received a very discouraging email about all my efforts into youth ministry. I was crushed. Thoughts and memories of watching my mom die of brain cancer flooded my mind. Now possibly my son. I could not handle this. The youth ministry seemed to be struggling. I was a deeply broken man. I came back from Guatemala and had to face one of any parent’s biggest fears. Thankfully the MRI came back 100% clear, but there was something still broken inside me.
I was exhausted, discouraged, frustrated, angry and without hope or vision. I went to a conference about equipping parents to disciple their children. I was still thinking what could I take back from this and implement into our ministry. But the whole theme of the conference rocked me. It was called ABIDE. John 15. Those words Jesus said to his disciples in that chapter pierced my heart. “Apart from me you can do nothing!”
It brought me back to my beginning. The only thing I knew how to do then was pray. So I went back to the basics. The simplicity of doing work with God, instead of for God. I had to (rather God had to) strip away all the things I thought were bearing fruit and show me that He is the one who allows fruit to grow! I needed to be at the place where I completely trusted him for everything. So, I came back from the conference and literally told my supervisor these words, “I am going to learn what it means to abide, I don’t care if I get fired!”
Well, I am still on that journey and thankfully I still have my job. I did learn that pruning hurts, but it is necessary to bear fruit that will last. Pruning doesn’t happen just once either. It comes every season. The longer we wait the more it hurts. What if we approach it differently though? Could we look forward to the pruning knowing we will bear more fruit? Just as pruning happens every season, so does the harvest! What if we learn to keep “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”?(Hebrews 12:2 NIV) Jesus knew the joy set before him and took the cross. Instead of rushing and grabbing at all those things we think bear fruit shouldn’t we focus our attention on abiding in Jesus so that we actually bear fruit? So that doing work with Jesus becomes natural. Then it begins to feel like the way he described it: an easy yoke and a light burden.
I also had to allow God to reshape my identity to trust and rest fully in him. To pause and realize that what I am doing does not matter as much as who I am becoming. As John the baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease.” In order for people to see more of Jesus in me than myself shouldn’t it make sense to spend time with him! We cannot neglect the process by which He desires to form us into His likeness. It is a slow and hard work, but it is one that bears fruit and fruit that will last!
I leave you with the words to a beautiful chorus by Hillsong:
All I want, All I need
More of you, Less of me
Take this life, Lord it’s Yours
Have my heart, Have it all