I have spent quite a bit of time in the past year that I have been out of full-time ministry work reflecting on the various successes, failures, and learning experiences that came from my first three and a half years in ministry.
Suffice to say there is a lot that comes to mind to fit each of those categories.
When I think about failures–or perhaps “mistakes” is a better term–two related things come to mind, and both have to do with my preaching. Plenty of other errors come to mind, to be sure, but these are the ones I have thought the most about.
The first mistake that I made was assuming my audience knew more than they did theologically. I made the mistake of assuming that most of my audience understood the gospel, and thus did not need to be reminded of it. Sure, we presented the gospel regularly, but the notion that professed Christians needed to hear the gospel week in and week out could not have been further from my mind. I failed to realize, as Michael Horton has said, that the gospel–the notion that we are made right before God entirely because of what Jesus Christ has done for us and not because of anything we could ever do ourselves–is so odd even to us as Christians that we need to be reminded of it again and again. I similarly failed to realize that my audience lived in a world where they were constantly being pressured, measured, and evaluated, and thus they needed to hear of God’s unconditional love for them and of the free grace that is available to them through the cross. In short, I needed to preach the gospel to Christians.
My second error can best be illustrated with a pyramid. I spent entirely too much time talking about secondary issues–issues that would perhaps occupy the middle level of a pyramid–and not enough time talking about foundational issues. In other words, I spent too much time talking about how we were to live as Christians, and not enough time talking about the gospel, and helping the people at my church find their identity in the gospel and in what God had done for them. The result was often we had people that were willing to serve and interested in being involved in the church, but they didn’t really understand the gospel, or at the very least they didn’t find their identity in the gospel.
As I have reflected on those two errors I have been reminded of how important it is for all of us to find our identity in the gospel. I had the chance to hang out with a bunch of people from my old church last week, and we talked a lot about how every aspect of the Christian life is rooted in the gospel, and if we deviate from that and instead simply teach principles for moral or “successful” living, that is problematic.
The task of the church is not to teach people to accept criticism with grace and not get defensive. The task of the church is to help people find their identity in Christ so that when they are criticized they can respond with humility and grace, knowing that their identity is not ultimately found in whatever they are being criticized for. The task of the church is not to tell people not to be insecure, but rather it is to teach them to find their security in Christ. And the list goes on.
The task of the church is not to teach good behavior. The task of the church is to teach about Jesus, and to help people find their identity, their meaning, and their value in him and who we have become because of his cross.
If we skip that foundational level of the pyramid then the pyramid ultimately crumbles. It may produce people that will serve, participate, and reach out, but it will also produce people that have little to offer those to whom they reach out, and people who will burn out from religious moralism.
That is why wherever I go next, whether I’m working with high schoolers, college students, adults, or some other population, my number one teaching objective with Christians will be helping them find their identity in Christ.
I just don’t see anything more important than that.