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Strange Things, Strange People, Strange Places: The Unorthodox Ministry of Jesus

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Looking at how Jesus approached His mission can breathe new life into our own.

When I am over-tired, discouraged, or perhaps confused about my progress as a small-time spiritual leader (and that has been a more frequent occurrence than I care to admit) I turn to my library.

There I find accounts of scores of men and women who heard a call from God and committed themselves to some form of Christian ministry. Reading their stories often gives me a kind of "jump start."

I grow excited as I see how—in any period or culture—one person’s insight, plan of action, or exemplary deed can turn people’s attention and actions toward new possibilities.

In these moments my curiosity is always aroused. Where did these people come from, and how did they reach a point of such pacesetting opportunity? How did they achieve certain results? What can I learn that will make a difference in the way I do things in my time?

When I turn to the Bible—a textbook of sorts on the subject of leadership and ministry style—I again find an array of leaders' methods for study. For example, there is the cut-and-slash style of Elijah, the people-developing style of Barnabas, the apostolic-teaching style of Paul, and the pastoral (amending and appointing) style pressed upon Titus.

But then there’s the ministry style of Jesus. And suddenly I have a difficult time reducing a procedure to a simple word or phrase. Some use the word servanthood. Others prefer redemptive. Still others like compassionate. But none tell the whole story.

It’s no simple thing to fully describe the results of the Jesus-style, partly because those results are still being tabulated two thousand years later.

I'm startled by the thought that the way Jesus made His ministry happen might not be entirely acceptable among many orthodox and conservative organizations today. What does one say about a person who never seemed comfortable with a title beyond "teacher," who never raised money, who never formed a large organization and built a building, and who never wrote a book?

When I scan the narratives concerning our Lord’s life and ministry, I am always newly surprised at the uniqueness of the way He did things. We follow a Christ who did strange things with strange people in strange places. Yet seen in the light of two thousand years of history, what He did and how He did it makes such wonderful sense. Then why does my style (I am self-conscious in admitting to a style) of ministry often seem to diverge from His?

Let me itemize some of the things the Son of God did that impress and sometimes rebuke me.

Fanfare for a Common Man

To begin with, you could say that Jesus spent thirty of His thirty-three years fashioning a style of public ministry that was grounded in unvarnished reality. "He grew in stature and favor with both God and man." No small thing. Thirty years spent establishing credibility as a family member, a neighbor, a carpenter, and a rabbi of sorts: a kind of common man first before he ever started saying and doing messiah-like things.

You have to assume that He knew how to make, fix, and sell things: that He knew how to forage for a living. It’s clear that His character and personality were not developed in a classroom but in the home and marketplace. In the streets and at the workbench, He evidenced citizenship, neighborliness, and responsibility. These values are at the root of a believable ministry. And they mark His words and sensitivities in relationship to the world about Him.

Jesus knew small-town life and little people. It gave Him the ability to distinguish genuine need from parasitic dependence. His ways and language suggest that He understood toughness, gentleness, sickness, fatigue, poverty, and hopelessness. One learns these things if, somewhere along the line, he has been kicked around by a Roman mercenary, cheated by a merchant, and propositioned by sleazy people. We cannot assume that the Son of God was exempted from the crudities of the real world as a teenager and a young man.

But these were the same years in which His extraordinary mind was being influenced by His mother Mary’s insightful view of history (see the Magnificat), by the systematic teaching of the Scriptures in the synagogues where He attended "as was his custom," and in His unusual ability to occasionally intersect with temple scholars who seemed awed by His questions and conclusions. Ministry style begins with the things poured into a person in the early years.

This earthy and profound knowledge came into play when Jesus would later tour the countryside as a teacher and developer of people. As I said before, He spoke in a tongue and in thought forms that simple people understood. He knew how to make them both glad and angry. He knew how to penetrate to points of human vulnerability and press people to reaction. It doesn't often occur to us that Jesus knew how to draw people and repel them because He knew what was important to them and He knew what was in them.

It’s important to begin a discussion of the ministry style of Jesus at this point: His intimate knowledge of the human condition. It is significant that He did not walk straight from Heaven into messianic ministry. Rather, He journeyed through Bethlehem, Egypt, Nazareth, the desert, and towns like Capernaum first. Thus His redeeming work came wrapped in an awareness of the sights, sounds, smells, and pain of those places. Effective ministry is shaped by things like that.

The Few, The Weak, The Disciples

A second distinctive in Jesus' way of doing things centers on His commitment to people-building as a central ministry method. Some prefer to describe this process as discipleship. The Lord did naturally what I struggle to do daily: He forsook the seduction of the crowds for the quiet places where a few men and women could be crafted (like the wood in His earlier vocation) into spiritual giants. A friend of mine calls it life-on-life activity. Not glamorous; not pain-free; not immediately profitable. But oh, the long-range results!

When I brood upon Jesus' candidates for people-building, I am disturbed to note that there isn't one I would have selected. Their credentials, their temperaments, their attitudes, their backgrounds, their group behavior when in crisis all suggest at the outset weak people with limited possibilities. Ask anyone experienced in "executive search": fishermen, corrupt tax collectors, doubters, cowards, and right-wing zealots do not often change worlds... unless they are changed first.

Poor Is Better

A third observation about Jesus: He avoided getting enmeshed in institutional activities. Which is not to say that He was anti-institutional. He did worship and instruct in synagogues, and they were probably not unlike some of our churches. Occasionally He used synagogue services to highlight some of His major themes. But to the extent of our knowledge, His ministry venue seems to have been parties (with wine), boats (where people were making or not making a living), fields (where things were being grown), and on the roadside (where people were traveling). His pulpits were on mountainsides, in people’s homes, and at the lakeshore.

He chose not to own anything, but He wasn't afraid to use what was available. He never invited people to join anything; He just challenged them and gave them the power to become something. He never asked for anything; He just gave things away. And He seems to have run from every attempt made by crowds and dignitaries to make Him president or king of something. This has to be instructive to those of us who measure people and organizations (even the blessing of Almighty God) by size, numbers, dollars, sales, and ratings.

A deceased show-business personality once said, "I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better!" I hear the incarnate Lord saying the opposite: poor is better! I hear Him expressing content with what Henri Nouwen calls "littleness, hiddenness, and powerlessness," and I wonder if a lot of us are missing something in what seems to be a compulsive race toward size, notoriety, and influence. As I said, the ministry style of Jesus is different.

Seeing the Real Enemies

Fourth, Jesus did not major in debating theology; rather, He denounced self-righteousness and injustice. Study His controversies with the Pharisees and Sadducees (seemingly His major adversaries), and you will discover that He engaged in polemics only when challenged, questioned, or when He saw the poor being exploited and abused. He seems to have reserved His most vigorous attacks for those who would make themselves the judge and jury of another’s theology or lifestyle, who nominated themselves as the "doorkeepers" of salvation.

"We saw a man casting out demons and told him to stop because he wasn't one of us," the disciples reported to Jesus. The darker side of me can think of those who would have told the Twelve that they'd done the right thing.

Not Christ: "He who isn't against us is for us." The generosity of this perspective says reams about a person who was secure enough in His "faith" and strong enough in His mission that He felt no threat from someone walking a slightly different path.

This isn't to say that Jesus would have been averse to naming heresy for what it was. But it is to point out that Jesus' anger was targeted at real enemies and not at those who were at least walking in the same direction. You could say that He measured folks by the "set" of their hearts, not the intricacies of their theologies or their methods. Again, that might set Him apart from some today.

The Heart of the Matter

In a similar vein, the Lord majored in the hearts of people, not their heads. The broken heart; the repentant heart; the embarrassed heart; the bleeding heart; the ashamed heart. That heart could be in a blind person, a tax collector, an adulteress, or a Roman centurion. To each He reacted in essentially the same way. And on each occasion, it is clear that Jesus wished them to be whole, at peace, functioning, and restored to the fullness of life.

It was this heart matter that got Him into trouble with those who chose to become His enemies. "He knew what was in them." "Knowing his thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you...’" This would have been unnerving for people in organized religion who'd perfected the ability to operate from deep religious cover.

It should not go unnoticed that Jesus unleashed His compassion upon women whose reputations were marked with immorality, and men (tax collectors) whose reputations were marked with corruption. And, conversely, His greatest anger was targeted at the men with the finest minds in theology and institutional power. This greatly disturbs (and worries) me. In Jesus' ministry, brokenness and repentance get attention; arrogance, superiority, and pretense gain contempt.

Drawing from the Source

A final observation about Jesus, the Redeemer. His ministry was rooted in strong, life-giving communion with the Father. One sees it in the free flow of affirmation from Heaven into the heart and mind of Christ: "This is my son whom I love." It is seen in the numerous times Jesus withdrew to pray. And, of course, it was seen at the Cross when Jesus screamed out in reaction to the loss of that communion: "Why hast thou forsaken me?"

There is a sense that all of Jesus' ministry flowed out of these personal disciplines. When friends and crowds attempted to deter Jesus from His mission, He responded with thoughtful no’s because His inner being had been recalibrated through a touch with the Father in hours of prayer. When there were fearful moments just ahead, it was with the Father that He thrashed through His feelings and human desires. And in the desert when Evil itself lashed out at Him, it was the Word of the Father that brought Him the strength to endure and operate from inner strength.

For every hour that Jesus spent in public, there seem to have been many, many more spent in private contemplation. For every hour spent with the crowds, many, many more were spent with small-group training and teaching. For every word used to criticize the evil in the systems and structures of the world, there were many, many more allocated to the giving of compassion and restorative kindness to those who knew they had sinned and were in deep sorrow about it.

A New Style

My library contains a lot of stories about men and women who altered their times. The styles compare and contrast in numberless ways. But among them all, it is the multifaceted style of Jesus that leaves me breathless with its simplicity, its directness, its ability to inflame the hearts of people to faith and change.

Perhaps in the times then we are overly tired, discouraged, or confused about goals and objectives, we might benefit from a fresh inventory of the ways in which Jesus did and said things. After the inventory, questions: Where do we differ? Why? And with what results? And what might it take to overlay His style upon ours? Startling questions! But they are one way to new effectiveness.

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