A Mess May Mean Success!

The world in which we live is a mess. Lives are dominated by sinful habits. People live with little if any restraint, and it shows in their behavior, their dress, and their language. Sinners are messy. Indeed, even when sinners come to Christ, they bring their messy baggage with them. Thus, ministry that engages sinners is messy. What do I mean?

First, our churches must aim to reach the lost where they are.
I’ve been prone in the past to judge the effectiveness of a church by the condition of its attendees. If the people seemed to “have it all together” (e.g. they dressed up, had high standards, knew the Scriptures, etc.), I assumed the church was strong and effective. On the other hand, if the people had “issues” (e.g. they dressed immodestly or informally, were biblically illiterate, smelled of smoke, etc.), I assumed that the church was weak and ineffective.

The truth is, my means of measuring a church’s effectiveness was simplistic, and perhaps downright backwards! If, for example, a church is filled only with people who “fit in” and have no problems (wink, wink), it may mean that they haven’t seen any conversions for many years! And if a church has down-and-outers, it may mean that they’re reaching their community for Christ—and they’re reaching lost people, not just families looking for strong churches! So a “mess” may mean “success”!

Think of it this way: a house that is perfectly clean is probably a house in which no babies reside. And a house strewn with toys and smelling of soiled diapers—as uncomfortable as it may be—is probably a house where there is new life! And that’s great! To put it the way Proverbs 14:4 does, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” Cleanliness and productivity are often incompatible. Ministry is messy!

Second, our churches must aim at regeneration, not mere reformation.
Because people’s “issues” make us uncomfortable, it may be tempting to press newcomers about issues like proper attire, hair length, smoking, and the like. Yet, we need to be careful when addressing these kinds of issues. We may needlessly offend them, whether saved or lost. Worse, we may communicate to them that Christianity is about “looking the part,” not changing from the inside out by the grace of God extended through the cross of Christ. John Owen addresses the danger of mere reformation in chapter 8 of his classic book The Mortification of Sin. I commend it to you. In short, he warns that if we succeed at getting outward change we may soothe a smarting conscience illegitimately and create a whitewashed sepulcher! Or, on the other hand, if the person tries and fails to change outside of Christ’s saving power, we may create hopelessness and cause them to doubt the gospel’s power.

Finally, we must get accustomed to the mess of ministry rather than turning up our nose at it.
We mustn’t be more “righteous” than Christ (I speak as a fool). Jesus came not to call the (apparently) righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). So He ate with publicans. So He ministered to prostitutes and adulteresses. So He—to His eternal praise and our eternal salvation!—“received sinners” (Luke 15:2). Mere improvement of morals is worse than useless; it’s harmful!

Bottom line: Don’t help damn people through your efforts to improve them! They don’t need to be more respectable in their sinful condition—though such respectability may keep Christians from feeling squeamish. They need the gospel. They need to be born again. They need heart change that results in habit change, as do those of us who have been saved for decades.

Ministry is messy, at least if it’s productive. May our churches be hospitals for the spiritually sick, and may they be messy for the glory of God!

September 2009

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