I just got back from a retreat with some of my church members. We went to an Indonesian island retreat centre called Telunas. Had a great time except for the second day when I had diarrhoea. No need for a blow by blow description of how that day went for me. As a result of my diarrhoea, I couldn’t join the group that went on a day trip to a separate island to hike to a waterfall. It was a shame because one of the main reasons I came on the trip was to spend time with the folks. And I really felt bad that I couldn’t join the group when they went around clearing rubbish from the beach later in the day. I was one of those who had mooted the idea. The exercise was meant to give concrete expression to the call to care for creation, one of the themes of the retreat. The folks must have been exhausted from their day trip. But they went out and cleaned up the beach anyway. And I wasn’t with them. And everyone knew why. Well, talk about your clay feet.
This Sunday I will be preaching in my own church community. I will go into my bible exposition mode. And there will be a group in the congregation who know that I had diarrhoea, that the chap up there trying to preach authoritatively from the Bible, is only human. And I am glad. The preacher is only human. If anything good happens during a sermon, the glory goes elsewhere. The congregation must never forget this, and what is more important, neither must I.
This is one of the reasons I prefer to preach in my own church community. They have no illusions about my humanity. They know that sometimes I reflect Christ, other times I am an arrogant, impatient bully. I find particular joy in preaching when my family is in the congregation. They have no doubts whatsoever about my humanity. They know the gap that exists between what I preach and how I live. Their grace keeps me rooted. Preaching in front of my family, and my church family, reminds me that I am but a jar of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). And I need to be reminded often. Preaching is heady stuff. It really gets to your head. And my hat size is big enough as it is.
I get invitations to speak in other churches and groups. I accept some of them. I am glad to go and encourage folks with my friendship and with the Word. But I never forget what my friend and co-worker, the late Prem Kumar, used to say — a speaker’s anointing doubles every mile he or she travels away from his or her home church, a variation of Jesus’s comment that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown (Luke 4:24). It is easier to be an anointed superhero when you play away. There are only two problems with speaking away from your own church.
Firstly, no matter how good a speaker I am, there is only so much I can teach through instruction alone. In the bible, truth is caught as much as it is taught. Therefore modelling is key to the impartation of spiritual truth. Hence Paul reminds Timothy of his teaching but also about his “way of life” (2 Timothy 3:10a).
“You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance . . .(2 Timothy 3:10 NIV)”
Paul didn’t just tell Timothy what to do. He showed him how to live. He illustrated his teaching with his life, and that is something that a visiting speaker — who parachutes in, does his thing and leaves — can never do. I am not against speaking away from your own community. I do it quite often. But I am aware of the limits of ministering this way.
(I must confess that this is one of the main reasons why I hardly go to lectures or conferences featuring famous speakers from far away. For one thing, I prefer to read rather than listen. More importantly, I get little help in connecting what the speaker says, to how he lives. This is not the fault of the speaker. It is just what happens when you speak to a group that doesn’t really know you.)
My other worry about speaking away from your home church is the ease with which you begin to believe your own press, how quickly ministry becomes performance, and how quickly you begin to see yourself only through the grateful eyes of the people you came to serve — and how quickly that becomes addictive. In addition, if one travels a lot on ministry, fatigue kicks in, and when you are tired, your spiritual defences are more easily compromised. Pride and fatigue is a deadly combination that has claimed many.
So what can we do? I travel and minister with Bernice as often as I can. I prefer to speak to my own church and do so as often as I can. And when I minister to groups that do not know me personally, I remember that I have a family and a church family that have little illusions about who I am, and who still love and accept me. And so no, it wasn’t fun to get diarrhoea during my recent retreat but in a strange way I am glad it happened.