Most people enjoy a good fireworks show. Oohs and awes fill the crowd as fireworks blow up in the sky. Children’s eyes radiate with delight and smiles fill their faces. The explosions provide exhilarating moments of amazement…and then the show ends. Normal life resumes. Fireworks shows are wonderful and enjoyable but they are short lived. This does not diminish the enjoyment of the moment, but we do not live at a fireworks show.
Today, there is a growing temptation to view the Christian life and ministry like a spiritual fireworks show. The longing for spiritual-exhilaration has become a new idol. While some of this can be attributed to our entertainment saturated culture leaking into the church, many faithful believers and pastors struggle with this as well. We want to see God do great things and we want to be used by God to do great things! While this desire is not a problem in and of itself, it can slowly create an idol of simply wanting to be part of something great instead of actually living in faithfulness to God. We all love seeing fireworks, but what if there are no fireworks?
For the Christian, God graciously allows us to enjoy fireworks shows at times. We enjoy conferences that stir and encourage our souls. There are unique times of blessing and growth in the church and in people’s lives. God uses certain sermons to grip our hearts in unique ways and God brings encouraging people into our lives that spur us on at just the right time. We love when it appears spiritual fireworks are going off around us. And while these times in life are wonderful and should be greatly enjoyed as blessings from the Lord, the vast majority of the Christian life is not lived at a spiritual fireworks show. If I can use a different metaphor as a contrast, the vast majority of the Christian life is lived in the trenches.
In World War I, the majority of the war was fought in thousands of miles of 10-12 foot trenches dug into the ground. While no warfare is glamorous, the trench warfare of WWI carried unique and difficult challenges. Victories were very slow, casualties were high, and the work was hard. Soldiers would dig trenches, maintain trenches, and sit in trenches for hours upon hours and days upon days. The monotonous task of the job was a battle in and of itself. Rain would make the trenches a muddy mess. Frogs, rats, and other vermin would infest and contaminate the trenches. Disease was common. The smell was horrible. And yet to leave the trenches, or even stick your head out, was to play with death as enemy snipers were always looking for the not-so-smart head bobber. To say this was not the Hollywood movie version of war with music playing in the background and the glory of victory achieved within an hour would be an understatement. There was no glamour in trench warfare. Yet, though the work was not glamorous, faithful soldiers staying the course and not abandoning their post played a vital role not only in the battle plan but in ensuring victory.
The Christian life and ministry is often lived in the trenches. This does not mean there are not times of spiritual fireworks to enjoy, but the vast majority of our Christian life is lived doing trench work. While this is important for every believer to remember, it is specifically important for the pastor to remember. In our day of social media where it seems like there are firework shows going off in every ministry but our own, it is easy to forget what the work of ministry is actually about. It is about faithfully ministering in the trenches for the glory of God!
There are times in pastoral ministry where the fireworks go off, but the vast majority of ministry is simply being faithful to the day-in-day-out calling of shepherding the flock (1 Pet 5:2). Most sermons will not create revival. Not every evangelistic encounter ends in conversion. There are counseling meetings where the people choose not to repent right away (or at all). There are men you disciple and you feel like you have to encourage them in the same way every week. Shepherding is hard. Growth is slow and even stagnant at times. It is heart-wrenching to see spiritual casualties. And yet this is the glorious ministry the Lord has called us to! Pastoral ministry in the trenches is not easy and it is not very glamorous, but it is always glorious!
Paul understood this in his life and ministry. He had seasons of spiritual fireworks. Think of the testimony of the Thessalonians after their conversion. They became an example to believers all over the regions of Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess 1:7-8). Paul preached, they repented, and their faith sounded forth all over the regions because of the testimony of their lives. This is the fireworks show we all want. But, a deeper study of Paul’s ministry life reveals that while there were moments of exhilaration like this, most of his ministry was done in the trenches. In fact, even the spiritual fruit that God allowed him to see came from his faithfulness in the trenches.
This is why Paul describes the life of leaders with the metaphors of a solider, an athlete, and a farmer. Most of the soldier’s, farmer’s, and athlete’s work is hard, laborious, and unseen. In Colossians, he describes his ministry with words like striving and labor (Col 1:28-29). He rigorously pursued godliness in his own so he would not be disqualified (1 Cor 9:24-27). He speaks about the daily burden that his heart felt for the churches he ministered to (2 Cor 11:28). The vast majority of Paul’s life and ministry was unseen, unknown, unappreciated, and lived in the trenches. He went from city to city, preached the gospel, ministered to people, and trusted the Lord. Sometimes there were Thessalonian moments, but even they came at a cost. He was persecuted as soon as he began ministering in that city (1 Thess 1:6). This was no fireworks show. This was ministry in the trenches. And yet he understood that this was not only the calling of God upon his life, but the means in which God would bring about His work in people’s lives. Referring to his rigorous pursuit of godliness, he says to Timothy, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10).
As pastors we should be grateful for the spiritual fireworks shows we get to witness and participate in, but in a greater way, we should be eager to be found faithful in the trenches. We are called to plant and water and trust that God will bring about the growth in accordance with his plan (1 Cor 3:7). We are called to be faithful servants and stewards in Christ (1 Cor 4:1-2). This work is often not glamorous, but it is always glorious because God is at work, often in ways we will not understand until heaven.
Pastor, enjoy the fireworks when they come, but for the rest of our lives, the majority of our lives, may we be found faithful in the trenches: praying, studying, shepherding, preaching, counseling, and loving. This is the glory of Christian ministry and it is this faithful shepherding for which Peter says, “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet 5:4). Enjoy the firework show, but live in the trenches!
Justin McKitterick is one of our eleven TES campus pastors, having served as the Pastor-Teacher of Grace Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida since 2011.