A few years ago, my family and I were traveling in the southeast on vacation. Late Saturday night, a storm covered the entire area with a sheet of ice. Power lines and branches lay scattered throughout the region. Nevertheless, being proud Hoosiers who knew no fear of snow, we went to church. We arrived with six other brave souls. The song leader knew the situation. He traversed two hymns, a prayer, communion, and announcements in ten minutes. Even then, our eyes watered from the fumes of a kerosene heater. After the invitation song was announced, a guest speaker began his 45-minute dissertation. His subject was … can you guess? Of course, “church attendance.” What is more relevant to those who braved the harsh elements in order to attend? These are moments that define the phrase, “preaching to the choir.” And these are the moments that cause us to laugh because they are sad and too typical. Sometimes church is discouraging. Sometimes we all lose heart. Sometimes we just want to quit. Where is the glory?
Much of contemporary church life does not appear glorious. Preachers and teachers disappoint us. Infighting, sectarianism, meanness, and selfishness become our identifying marks. Sometimes the mire is public for all to see. The indecent exposure of the volunteer at the youth retreat is broadcast by the local news. The man who converted my father committed adultery with an elder’s spouse. The deacon curses in the foyer at the nursery attendant for being late. But mostly, the bitterness and bickering of folk are hidden corrosives that gnaw and bedevil. Insinuations and whispers occur in the corner more often than Twitter. Sometimes we just want to quit. Where is the glory?
At ACU, I hear story after story of churches picking apart young ministers who leave school with such high hope and confidence only to return with disappointment and despair. The church appears to be just one of many human institutions filled with the gunk humans are prone to display. I remember one congregation where a group of men decided to build a play set for the kids. Fathers, carpenters, handymen, and a preacher came together on a Saturday to start the project. Also on the scene was a “Systems” engineer. He started measuring every board so that five screws could be evenly spaced before attaching. Every board was stamped with the five spots of a dice. He stopped anyone who missed the mark. Next, he demonstrated how to use a router so that every edge would be rounded and freed from splinters. He made a measuring stick to ensure the proper depth of the ground cover. And as the morning unfolded, he successfully took over the administration of the entire project. By noon, only three helpers remained. On the next Saturday, he was the only worker. Church can be discouraging. Such disappointments undermine our own confidence that God is at work in the context of the church. It is enough to cause us all to lose heart. Even the mundane and the boring are better than what is seemingly our lot. Where is the glory?
If only we could see the kind of glory that is described in the “mountaintop” experience of Sinai! Now Moses had a glorious ministry (Exod. 34:29-35). Imagine the scene where the ministry is so glorious that the minister’s face glows with God’s presence. Images of Charlton Heston fill our minds. Wow! What a ministry? Moses leads his people from bondage to freedom. Moses gives his people Torah, a way to walk in the paths of God. Who would want to be compared to Moses? If only Paul’s ministry had glory like Moses’.
And Paul agrees (2 Cor. 3:7-18). He states that the old covenant “came in glory.” Paul knows the misgivings of some about his local ministry. And that is when Paul changes the conversation. The Israelites could not even bare to look at Moses’ face (3:7). The central issue with Moses’ shinning face was not its glow, but its fade. Moses’ glory was passing. The central focus of 3:7-11 is not the denial of the glory of the law, but the comparison of the Sinai covenant with Paul’s own ministry of the new covenant. Indeed, Paul refers to the two covenants as two ministries. Moses’ ministry was glorious. But Paul says he knows about an even greater glory, a glory that will not pass away.
Despite the appearances, Paul’s ministry is even more glorious than that of Moses. Moses veiled his face to hide its fading glory. He placed a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from seeing the end of the glory. As Paul changes the conversation from Moses’ glorious ministry, he does not set himself up as the point of comparison but speaks instead about the local church at Corinth. Paul allows the church to shine with an unveiled face as evidence of God’s glorious ministry. “We all” refers, not only to Paul himself, but to all who have “turned to the Lord.” This community of faith, as Paul’s letter of recommendation (3:2) beholds the glory of the Lord (cf. Exod 16:7, 10), just as Moses did. However, unlike Israel, the Christian community beholds the glory of the Lord “with unveiled faces.” As we turn to the Lord we are “being transformed into the image from one degree of glory to another.” Despite the appearances of ineffectiveness, the testimony to our ministry is the transformation of the church into God’s divine image. By the message of the cross, we are transformed into the image of Christ. It is the church that stands as God’s letter of recommendation, the fact that you have believed, you have responded, you have become people of God.
Despite the appearances, we have seen God’s glorious ministries in the face of Jesus Christ. We see transformation taking place wherever we see a cup of water given in his name, a people who sacrifice themselves for the poor, a people who care for the bereaved, and a people who show hospitality to a stranger. God’s glorious ministry is an effective practice when God’s ministers partner with God to apply theology in all its forms in contemporary contexts in order to transform the community of God into the image of Jesus. God’s glorious ministry is seen at a church of all places when the people actively practice theology as a way of life for the sake of the world.
I don’t know your stories. Nonetheless, let me venture to guess. If your church conducted an evening service with an open microphone where various congregants were asked to come and share stories of times when they experienced the loving face of Jesus shinning in the face of one of their brothers and sisters, then all in attendance would behold the glory of the Lord. The Effective Practice of Ministry shares several stories of glorious ministries. This book is a microphone for storytellers of God’s kingdom to share what God is doing among other faithful people. Elders are appointed in God honoring ways. Leaders are trained to serve with integrity and grace. Teachers are prepared to open new eyes of faith. Parents are formed to raise their children in the Lord. Strangers are welcomed with the peace of Christ. And pew sitters are prepared to hear the Gospel with new ears. Whenever we see people abandoning themselves for the sake of others, we see the transformation of lives from one degree of glory to another (3:18). Because of God’s glory, we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:1-6). Because its God’s glory, we plunge in with both feet and eyes wide open. And that’s the call of the gospel.
From the Introduction to The Effective Practice of Ministry, forthcoming, June 2013.