Our great friend and mentor Kent Smith stayed with us for the last few days. I had the privilege of studying under Kent for two years during graduate school as part of the inaugural class of the Missionary Residency for North America (MRNA). Kent has preached, planted churches, taught, and now dedicates his life to the raising up of missional leaders to spread out over the continent and join God in his work in simple, reproducible ways.

On Saturday evening, Kent shared some reflections with a group that included the two of us and a church planting team working in Quincy (south of Boston). His words were both simple and disturbingly profound. Inspiring and convicting. Encouraging and piercing. They spoke (and speak) to a few of the great shortcomings of those who claim to be working for and with God, and they cut many of us to the core of our being.

Kent started by surmising how our efforts (in ministry, in particular) would be different if we were to take seriously — dead seriously — the words of Jesus on two different occasions:

“…I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)

“…apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

These are profound statements, to say the least. Tucked into stories or passages that are remembered for other verses, these passages reveal truths about Jesus and His vision for His followers that are not often talked about. Jesus said that HE will build his church. Not us. In fact, we really don’t have a clue how to build Jesus’ church, and Jesus is not interested in sharing that responsibility with anyone. How often do we in “ministry” attempt to build Jesus’ church for Him? Scary.

“Apart from me you can do nothing.” Wow. It didn’t say “…you can do very little,” or “…not as much,” but nothing. The John 15 verse really explains the Matthew 16 verse, doesn’t it? Jesus is the one building his church, so if we want to be a part of that project, we’d best remain “in Him.” Intimately “in Him.”

Back to these verse in a few.

Kent continued by saying that in his 30+ years of training, coaching, teaching, and observing ministers in a variety of contexts, he’s noticed two primary motivators for entering the kind of simple, incarnational work to which many of us have committed. The first is ministry, or the desire to do something great for God. We want to make an impact, see lives changed, see churches planted, see communities develop, see the Kingdom break in. These are all great things, but Kent suggests that oftentimes, the propensity for ministry is born out of an internal desire in our own lives to matter. We are often seeking to fill a hole in our lives that will give us some sort of meaning or significance. Ministry — or the propensity to “do great things for God” — is not sufficient, all by itself.

The other motivator Kent has observed is the desire for community. This, too, comes from mixed intentions, he suggests. A deficit of community in church experiences in our past, or even an internal emptiness and loneliness, might lead some to pursue a life of ministry. Moreover, many people carry into ministry settings a specific vision of the “perfect community,” for which they will squash any and everyone in their path to realize it. In this case, the desire for community — and specifically, a certain type of community — outweighs all other motivators. He reminded us of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together: “Love community, and you will kill it. Love your brother, and you will build it.” Community alone, Kent suggests, is not enough.

In fact, Kent suggested that ministry and community often become idols.

If ministry and community are two corners of a triangle, he suggested the need for a third corner, the base angle: intimacy. Going back to the words of Jesus, we must remain in Christ. This is an active process, not one that occurs once and is over. If we believe that Jesus is still building his church, and that he still speaks to his people, we must — we must — seek intimacy with Him. Every day. Ministry will fall apart and lives will be crushed in the process if we are not seeking intimacy with Christ. Community will self-destruct and lives will be crushed in the process if we are not seeking intimacy with Christ. So simple, and yet so disturbingly profound.

I confess that I have often been driven by one or both of the false idols of ministry and community. I have strived to do great things for God, but so often this drive comes from feelings of inadequacies in my own heart. I have desired to see “authentic community” built up, but so often this is derived from a lack of community in my own life and a selfish idea of what “perfect community” looks like. When it comes down to it, I confess that I have acted in a way that suggests I can build Jesus’ church better than he can. And looking back, the times in which that sin was so apparent, things have failed, fallen apart. Those times when I have been desperate for Christ and sought intimacy with Him first and foremost (for the reward of Christ himself), He has worked through me to build his church and reveal his kingdom.

I don’t want to go another day in which I am not desperate for Jesus. When I — when we — become desperate for Christ and seek after him daily and relentlessly (paying close attention to what He is saying to us, and obeying those words), the ministry and community will fall into place. We were put on this earth not to do great things for God or form community, but to draw close to our Creator.

All too often, I miss this. Thanks, Kent, for allowing yourself to be God’s mouthpiece to a living room-full of young people who really, really needed to hear these words. Your plea for us to capture and live into the need for intimacy now — in our 20s — as opposed to 10, 15, 30 years down the road did not fall on deaf ears.

Father, make me desperate for you. I confess that my ways are not your ways, and I want to dial into your life, and thus your ways. May Christ be my one and only true Desire.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Pam on November 19, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    Wow, Steve, that was some good encouragement. Thanks for writing and bringing to mind those verses. I definitely get caught up in the specific “hows” of church and community instead of simply knowing my Jesus, and letting Him be the one to take care of all the details. Here I get overwhelmed so often, when really, He made it pretty easy for us… Love the Lord your God. Just love Him. That’s really all I want to do anyway. I’m so quick to forget that’s all He’s really asking of me.


  2. Posted by priest on November 19, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    gotta say I love that man. he’s spoken piercing words to me at much needed times. i, too, so often succumb to the two thirds of the triangle, without regard for the third corner. thanks for the post–I continually need to hear those things.


  3. This is awesome. I heard Kent at ACU in September at the New Church Cafe classes. I heard wisdom in his words there, and he probably said the same exact thing. I’d have to check my notes. But for some reason, I needed to hear (read) these words today. I often say, our faith community is not thriving simply because we are not closer to Jesus. So why don’t I tackle this problem?


  4. Posted by Lynn Holt on November 20, 2007 at 10:22 am

    I wish that I in my “fifties” had the passion that you do in your “twenties”. I’ve thought the same way for so many years, that it’s hard to break out of it. Praise God for you, Stephen!


  5. This is very interesting to read in the midst of two days of deep reflection on who I’ve been mistakenly trying to be in Christ (prompted by the book “The Emotionally Healthy Church”, for those interested). I have clearly been making an idol of both ministry and community – but especially the latter, as I try and fill this deep void by surrounding myself with other people in the hopes that they will meet a need I already know is only found through my relationship with God. And I wonder why I feel so frustrated in my efforts this year … thank you for sharing some truth!


  6. Stephen, you are an encouragement. I’m glad to have you and Chrissy in my life, even from Boston all the way to Texas.


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