Theology in 3D

Partners in Hardship

Greg Stiekes | September 4, 2018
New Testament

One of my colleagues who has spent the better part of his ministry teaching, mentoring, and encouraging pastors recently told me we are heading for a church ministry crisis. He explained that there is a growing number of churches without pastors and too few men who are preparing to accept the call. He knows of about fifty churches who cannot find pastors, while many other churches have pastors nearing retirement.

His concern is not new, nor does it impact only one denomination or organization of churches. From what I can tell, more than a decade ago denominations began to warn of a clergy shortage as they watched a rapid decline in the number of young men entering the seminary to prepare for pastoral roles. The Barna Research Group reports that average age of men who are pastoring churches has increased from 44 to 54 since the early 1990s, and there are far fewer ministers in their 20s, 30s and 40s. These statistics indicate that while the older generation is staying longer in the ministry, the younger generation is largely opting out. Furthermore, as one might expect, the draw down on the numbers of those entering the ministry is greatly impacting mission agencies as well. For some time now, many retiring missionaries have been leaving the field with no one to replace them.

I have seen evidence of this trend in my own journey. When I was a member of the Bob Jones University ministerial class in the late 1980s we packed the auditorium and opened each meeting with a rousing chorus of “Souls for Jesus Is Our Battle Cry” reverberating in our ears. But when I was invited to speak to the BJU ministerial class about four years ago, my heart sank when I entered the same auditorium to find a large majority of the seats empty. The meeting still opened with the song, “Souls for Jesus,” but the singing seemed to me hollow, a mere echo of a former time.

There is rarely, if ever, a single factor that explains a trend. But I wonder if the deficit of young believers going into ministry fields may be due in part to the fact that ministry is, frankly, very hard work, not very prestigious, and not very lucrative. The children in ministry families have watched their parents struggle financially. They have watched them come under attack from the people in their churches or on the mission field. They have had to go without many of the nicer clothes or electronics their friends have. They see their parents busy all of the time, heavily investing in people and trying to figure out how to balance ministry and family. Some watch pastors and other full-time servants in ministry struggle to work a part-time or even a full-time job to earn the ability to minister. While others hear ministers speak of sacrifice and suffering while living what looks to be a luxurious lifestyle. And this generation does not want any part of it.

Why not? Have not these issues in one form or another—not to mention harder struggles—always been part of the job description for those who serve the church? Why is this generation in particular not signing up?

Quite simply, I believe one of the reasons is that the affluence and entertainment availability of our western culture has made us all soft, unwilling to take on hard challenges, unwilling to make sacrifices.

This is not an indictment on the Millennial generation. This is a critique of my own generation. Maybe we have been tempted more than we think to complain in the hearing of our children because we feel that our ministries should not be so difficult and that we should not be treated so unfairly. Or perhaps we speak of how much better off we would be in terms of this world’s comforts if we were not in the ministry. And when we speak in this way we betray the fact that we ourselves have grown soft. We’ve grown to enjoy too much the little luxuries of living in a wealthy country and the continual stream of entertainment or pastimes or diversions that are always on hand. Our love for the things of this world has subtly grown more acute and we have tightened our grip on our “things” and opportunities. We’ve stopped imagining what Jesus meant when he said that to come after him meant denial of self and cross carrying” (Matt 16:24). We do not communicate effectively to the next generation that to minister for the Lord, despite the challenges, despite the limitations it places upon us is still a a high and noble and wonderful calling. Maybe I’m overstating the case for many in my generation. But before we complain that the generation whom we are trusting to step into our ministry places in the future have become infected by their growing love for the things of this world, maybe we need to point to our own waning enthusiasm for the greatest privilege in all the world—serving Christ!—because we somehow imagine the price has gone too high.

In this context, I find what Paul urges Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2:3 personally convicting. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Share in suffering! That’s an imperative. In other words, suffer alongside of, bear hardship alongside of those who are also suffering as a direct result of service for Christ. So Paul tells Timothy to take the path of resistance. To put himself in harm’s way. To suffer hardship with someone is to willingly put yourself to the ministry task even though it means certain hardship, to suffer and to endure by your own volition.

Does that sound radical? I mean, who does that!

Well, Paul knew of at least three sorts of people who suffer by their own volition. They each appear in 2 Tim 3:3–5. The soldier, the athlete, and the farmer. These men are used by Paul not to bring out different aspects of serving the Lord, but to emphasize the same aspect of serving the Lord. Paul lifts these three occupations before Timothy because they illustrate and reinforce the lessons of hardship that Paul wants Timothy to learn. And the primary lesson is this: Choose a path of suffering and hardship and pain. Suffer with me!

Paul is not saying, simply, Be willing to suffer. “If suffering comes, Timothy, then don’t complain; be willing to bear it patiently; after all, Christ suffered for us!” No, Paul is telling him to choose a path in which suffering or hardship, or ridicule, or financial strain is going to be a part of his life. Just like the soldier, the farmer, and the athlete all choose paths that make life more difficult for them.

The Soldier. Rome was founded on military might and Romans soldiers were expertly trained to stand and fight to the death. The Roman Soldier, as the soldier today, knowingly put their lives on the line to obey the orders of their superiors. Roman soldiers would march against volleys of darts and arrows They would stand against fierce Greek and Barbarian enemies and not shrink from the deadly conflict.

The Athlete. Athletics were common in the Greco-Roman culture. But just like athletes of today, they would train rigorously, regulating their diet, putting themselves through hardship, testing their limits of endurance. In fact, the phrase in verse 5, “competes according to the rules,” could refer to the strict rules that applied to the athlete’s training or to the race itself.

The Farmer. The farmer was like a sharecropper. Here is a a man who rises each day and goes to the field to till and to plant and to tend and to harvest, so that he can provide for himself and his family, intentionally and deliberately and ponderously serving.

Paul says, Timothy, you be like these. Take a path of following Christ even if you know it will mean you’re not going to do as well as someone else financially. Or if it means that you are going to be looked down upon. Or if it means that you may not be popular or have prestige. Be like the soldier, putting himself in the line of fire; like the athlete, disciplining himself through rigorous training like the farmer, plodding through hard, continuous toil.

But this sentiment is largely lost on us today, when all the world is telling us that we deserve to be respected and we deserve rest and happiness and we deserve to have what we desire. This message from the world is antithetical to the message of the NT. In fact, I do not think it is overstating the case to say, if we make choices based on what will most reduce our suffering and increase our happiness in this world then we are no longer following Christ.

Again, does that sound radical?

Jesus said that if you are going to follow him you need to take up your cross (Matt 16:24). That’s the path to death as a martyr. Jesus said that if you are going to follow him people will hate you—because they hated him (John 15:18–16:4). Paul says later in this letter, Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12). John the apostle says that people are not going to understand us if we follow Jesus, because they did not understand Jesus himself (1 John 3:1).

We need partners in ministry. But we also need partners in hardship, partners in suffering. Not to honor ourselves, but to honor Christ. And to urge those who come behind us to suffer with us, as we serve Christ together. This is how the New Testament teaches ministers to live. This is how Christ himself teaches us to live.

5 responses to “Partners in Hardship”

  1. Don Johnson says:

    Maybe the old-time revivalists were on to something, after all.

  2. In today’s climate I don’t think I want 20 year olds as pastors. They’re still playing video games and riding skate boards. They need to grow up. Even men in their 30s are immature.

  3. Ron Cochran says:

    Definitely, you hit the nail on the head brother.

  4. William Bump says:

    I just heard Dr. O. preach this and spent time speaking with him and others on this subject. It was a great challenge to me even though I am of an older generation. Thank you.

  5. Carl says:

    Here is the thing though. I am currently attending SEBTS for my MDiv and they have just hit (quote SEBTS twitter a couple of weeks ago)
    “9 years of consecutive record enrollment & now has over 4,000 students!”
    So it may seem like things look bleak, but God is still in control!

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