Wednesday, October 29, 2008


"And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: 'The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. "'I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.
(Rev 2:18-19)

There's that word διακονία (diakonia) rendered "service" but often translated "ministry" and from which the word "deacon" is derived. Obviously, it's meaning is related to service or servant-hood. There's a lot of talk about "ministry" in the local church today but I am having a tough time finding anyone really interested in doing it. In the passage from the Revelation quoted above, the Lord Jesus is telling a local church "I know your ....service...." That gets my attention. It should get the attention of some of the pastors I've had dealings with recently.

I know without asking that a lot of my "problem" derives from the fact that I work in prison ministry and my "congregations" are convicted criminals, felons, some guilty of really ugly stuff. The "church," including the pulpit, is jam-packed with folks who think they are far and above more holy than "those people" who are incarcerated. That's probably the root of my problem....

Nevertheless, it is really frustrating to call upon "fellow ministers--servants" and find that they are totally unable, unwilling, to remove themselves from their book-lined offices and mingle with the common people. Let me give you a couple of stories from my recent experiences:

We had an inmate in a 6-month "boot camp" program for first-time felons, a program designed to send men deemed by the state to be "salvagable" home on parole rather than spending 5-8 years incarcerated, learning how to be more successful criminals. A high percentage of these guys are under 30 and locked up for various drug charges. This particular young man was 25, had a good testimony of conversion and said he felt God's call on his life to be a preacher of the Gospel. He was from a city where there is a church which fellowships with my home church so I called the pastor to ask him to visit the man's mother who lived within rock-throwing distance of his church building, to meet the young man when he got home, etc. I had given the inmate the church's address and phone number, and although his early church attendance had been in pentecostal circles, his Bible study had pretty well given him an understanding of the doctrines of Grace, so he was excited about going to a doctrinally-sound Baptist church.

So, I called this pastor and told him what was going on, gave him the guy's name and the date when he'd be home and the first words out of this preacher's mouth are: What was he locked up for? Now, in a way, that's a legitimate question, but what does he think.......I'm gonna send him a serial-rapist, axe-murderer? The man had absolutely no interest in ministering to any ex-convict, no matter what. That telephone conversation was brief, centered on the Big Question. It had taken me two weeks to even get him on the phone because he never returned my calls prior to me finally catching him. After that conversation, I resorted to e-mail have never received any response to any communications since that day.....nor have I heard from the young inmate who, if he met with the same level of "ministry," probably drifted back into his pentecostal world or abandoned the idea of "church" altogether. Well, pastor, Jesus Christ says: I know your service.......

Another story: In another prison, another congregation, I have a faithful "member" who has a wonderful testimony and a heart of the type which can only come from God. He and I have spent many a time praying and weeping over his family over in East Tennessee, which includes a wheel-chair-bound sister and her mother-in-law with Alzheimers--a family where most of the men are in prison right now. This sister for whom the inmate was providing most of the care and assistance had attended a local Baptist church for some time until her disabilities further restricted her ability to get around. I talked with her on the telephone several times and kept her brother apprised regarding her surgeries, etc. The inmate, I'll call him "Bob" has a real burden for her soul and for that of others in the household and because it's too long a trip for me to make over there, I decided to contact a nearby congregation to see if they would send a minister to visit this family and share the Gospel with them. Once again, this is a congregation with close ties to my own church--people I should be able to have confidence in, right?

After two or three tries to get any of the pastoral staff on the phone, I got an associate pastor during a week when the rest of the staff was out of town for various reasons. I gave him all the information: phone numbers, addresses, names, situations, my contact numbers, etc. He said that on Monday of the coming week, he'd be on the case, as soon as some others were back to cover the office. That's the last I ever heard from them. Bob's sister never had a call, never had a visit, nothing. (I will state right here that I did not call them back to find out why....just the way I am--like Barney Fife, I don't chew my cabbage twice. I have no confidence that the second promise from them to "help" would be of any more value than the first)......and, Mr Associate Pastor: Jesus Christ says "I know your service......."

Well, Bob's folks still need ministry and in a subsequent phone call his sister told me that the local congregation had helped them several times and she really liked that church. I looked at their website and saw that it was probably the largest congregation in the town, about 600 and their doctrinal statement hinted that they might be more than just a First Baptist Entertainment Center so I decided to call the pastor there. It happens that I knew his father back in dinosaur days and the old man was a fine, Godly pastor. Pastor Son had absolutely no interest in taking my phone calls. His incoming calls are filtered through 2 secretaries and I never got him on the 3 weeks of trying! I won't take up space with all the reasons proffered as to why he could not come to the phone, even when he was in the office. Some light entered last week as Secretary #2 asked "Who are you with?"....and I said "Aha, he thinks I'm trying to sell him something...." Though I had told them before, at one time or another, all the following: my name, location, that I was a volunteer prison chaplain, a Baptist preacher, a friend of Pastor's father, a Baptist missionary.....Even when I told her again "who I was with" soap! After I hung up from what I had decided was my last effort, I had the brainstorm.......and called her back: Hey, does Pastor Son have an email address? Yep, so I got it and sent him an email with all the details and my hope for some help.

And, surprise, surprise......I got a reply, and he had actually done something! Their phone had been disconnected so I had been unable to check on them for 6 weeks or so. He sent a deacon out to the house and reported that they were "all right" and gave me a new phone number. Now that's all I got, far short of what I asked for or feel like I needed with regard to health reports, etc, but I can now get them first hand. He also gave me a litany of what the church had done for these folks over the last year or two.....which I already knew. But the tone was: We tried to help these bums and they came to church for a while but haven't been there for 5 months so we're washing our hands of them. The two emails with which he responded to my lengthy, detailed inquiries totaled 3 sentences. Maybe I'm hypersensitive, but I read a clear: Now, don't bother me about this any more....

I have to give this fellow credit for at least doing something but am still disappointed in the way he isolates himself, or at least isolated himself from me. I cannot understand that kind of behavior in a pastor. "I know your service........."

I've always felt that too many churches are populated with people who hold in disdain the "great unwashed" populations of the backroads and sidestreets of our communities, the down-and-outs, and no group is more in that class than the families struggling with incarcerated members. We love to look down on the criminals who got caught. It seems impossible for the average church member, even some pastors, to realize that it is only the restraining Grace of God which kept them (and keeps them) from the same end. We have modified "servant-hood" to exclude service to those who are "not deserving" those who are too far gone into sin and need to waste our time or resources on those ne'er-do-wells. (And, yes, I am quite familiar with the types who thrive on fleecing churches and other charities, and do not disdain the use of discretion and stewardship principles).....BUT,

To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. "If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
(Luke 6:29-36)


Jonathan Hunt said...

I think you highlight a sad problem with the church that myself and my fellow elder have been discussing in recent days.

We are the church and we should be going to the people the world ignores BECAUSE we are the church. I am preaching Galatians at the moment and made something of the verse in Ch 2 'they only desired that we should remember the poor, something which I was keen to do'

But when people come in to the church and they smell, or they are noisy, or whatever, what do we do? Ignore them and hope they go away?

At the same time, we cannot be doormats. We have a policy of not giving people money, but if someone came and said they were hungry we would buy them food and try and help them sort things out.

Of course there are those that take advantage, but you are wise second time around, and honestly, what is £20 of THE LORDS OWN MONEY in kingdom terms?

I almost wept reading your comments and writing these things. God save us from behaving like those pastors.

There but for the grace of God go we.

Ed Franklin said...

Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. I am merging my thoughts on this "ministry" issue with something convicting I heard in Paul Washer's "10 Indictments" sermons of last week...about the danger of trashing the "church" The problem is not with the church but with the unregenerate members of local congregations which populate the pews and are fawned over and catered to by the wolves in the pulpits. Those are the ones ignoring and despising the true ministry of His Church. And the scene is not much changed from the time the Lord walked among men in His flesh, when the Pharisees and their followers trashed Him for hobnobbing with "publicans and sinners".....those who were "beneath the dignity" of the religious community, those "too far gone" like the Samaritan woman at the well.