When I left Cedar Rapids in 2005, after more than 14 years of ministry at my church there, it was a huge shock. I thought that I would one day retire as the pastor of that church and I used to tell people that my goal in ministry was to leave one solid church behind that would be my spiritual legacy. God showed me that this was not his will and I didn’t understand it. We were settled in Cedar Rapids, happy in Cedar Rapids. Why did God move us?
As time went on, I began to realize some reasons that God might have moved us across the state of Iowa to Southern Hills Baptist Church.
The first realization came at a meeting two days after I announced my resignation. I had purchased an acre of land bordering the church and built a home, with the help of many of the people of the church. I wanted to sell the land and the house to the church at a price that would be advantageous to the church. But at the meeting someone said, “We can’t afford to buy the house, this church is going to fall apart now that you are leaving.”
That’s when it hit me. God is El-qanna, the Jealous God. He is jealous for his glory and the church he purchased with the blood of his son is designed to give him glory. And him ALONE. But here was someone saying that the church depended on Dave Miller for its existence. That was a compliment to me, but I believe an offense to God.
- If the church depends on me for its success, God is offended.
- If the church gives glory to me, God is offended.
My dad spent most of his long ministry pastoring 3 churches – each one was a smashing success during his time as pastor. One of those churches no longer exists. Another hired an adulterous crook as pastor and nearly folded before another pastor nursed it back to health. Another of those churches has dwindled gradually through the years. In other words, my now retired father cannot point to any of the churches he pastored and say, “This is the monument of my ministry.”
No, there is no pile of brick and drywall my dad can point to as the monument of his success. But there are people all over the world who were led to Christ and impacted by his ministry. He has made a difference, but the measure of that effect is not seen in organizations or institutions or buildings. The measure of ministry is lives changed by Jesus Christ. And while there are no megachurches that would credit him for their existence, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who would say that he made a difference in their lives.
Through Facebook, I have been able to make contact with a lot of the people from my youth ministry back in the 80s. I’d lost touch with many of them. But not only have I found out that many of them are serving Christ, but many of them took the time to tell me that my ministry had made a difference with them. They are the monument, not a building or a church.
We work awful hard to plant churches, establish churches and grow churches. These are all noble tasks. But we must remember that it is not about the churches we have built, but the lives we have impacted in the name of Christ. It is too easy to allow pride to infuse our church growth efforts. We must remember how God treated Nebuchadnezzar’s pride when he looked at the great city he had built. Nothing hinders the flow of God’s power like human pride.
I don’t think God wanted me to build a ministry monument in Cedar Rapids. Every day, he wants me to walk in the power of his Holy Spirit and make an impact on the lives of those around me. Paul told the Corinthians that they were his letter of recommendation. There are people that God calls to labor at one church and to build it up. But for all of us, the measure of our ministry is in men and women whom God has changed through our service in his name.
I love the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Mr. Holland was a musician with designs on being a great composer and writing the next great American symphony. To pay the bills, he got a job teaching music at a local high school. Year after year he got more wrapped up in teaching and found less time to compose. Finally, he is forced out by budget cuts as he nears retirement age. He is discouraged and angry. As he is leaving the school for the last time, he hears noise in the auditorium, and walks in. The auditorium is filled with his students, past and present, who have gathered to honor him.
One of his former students says to him, “Mr. Holland, we are your opus – the students you have taught, whose lives you have touched.” Mr. Holland’s opus was not a great composition, but the effect he had on the lives of his students.
It is important that we remember this. The only opus that matters is the melody of Christ’s work in the lives of those to whom we have ministered. We are people builders, not church builders. That’s not just a rhetorical difference and it is a distinction we must maintain.