Welcome to the Jungle

Another excerpt from Speaking of Jesus:

I attended college in Colorado Springs, married the love of my life, and began to get involved with a Vineyard church in Denver. My heart beat with the same passion that infects so many today. I wanted to change history. I wanted to be there at the moment when people were conceived in Christ. I didn’t fully understand what ministry was, but I dove in.

It was a lot different than I imagined. One day, my pastor, Steve, approached me with an offer. “Carl,” he said, “I want you to lead a small group.”

To which I promptly said, “lead? Heck, no.” Or words to that effect.

“I thought you wanted to be involved in our ministry,” he said, surprised. “I’ve spoken to some of the others, and I’ve prayed about it. I think you’d do very well.”

I took the task.

My wife Chris and I took charge of a small group. There were eight of us, and I jumped in with the most intensive teaching I could find. We studied, prayed, and persevered. For about a month.

Some churches and ministries advertise a success rate. You know, “the fastest growing church in Nebraska,” or “the most powerful ministry in Denver.” Something marketable, something worthwhile.

We were fast and consistent, all right. We went from eight people to two in a month. Put that on a brochure. It was just Chris and I staring at each other with puzzled expressions asking each other, “What just happened?” I’ll bet you can’t exterminate an ant colony that fast.

Steve, the ever optimistic pastor that he is, came up with a quick solution, rather like telling a fallen rodeo rider to cowboy up. “Carl, I’ve given it some thought, and I think you should do this again.”

“Steve,” I said, “I think you should double your medication.” I didn’t actually say that, but I did tell him he was crazy.

“Look,” he said, “There’s another group – the leaders want to you to help them out, and you won’t be alone.”

I said no. But I did it anyway. We regrouped, cut our losses, and got back on the pony. In about a month, we had lost eighty percent of our new group, meaning Chris and I had to swap uncomfortable glances with the other leader and his wife.

As I said before, ministry was different than I had imagined.

I remember thinking it was a good thing I wasn’t in charge of something bigger. Picture me trying to get twelve disciples. I’d have to start with a hundred and fifty to get odds like that. Jesus started by himself and changed the world. I could start with the world and end up all by myself.

Once again, Steve told me to cowboy up, and grouped Chris and I, with two leaders, into yet another larger group with its leaders. Are we beginning to see a pattern here?

Of course, history saw the need to repeat itself, and when the group went under, there were the six of us leaders trying to figure out what happened.

I happened. Welcome to the jungle..

Steve had a different tact. “Carl, I want you to take charge of the homeless ministry.”

“Great,” I said, “at least they’ve got no place to go to.”

“Come on,” Steve said, “You can do this and you’ve got a great heart for the lost.”

“Nope,” I said. I did it anyway.

In no time, the “ministry team” was down to Chris and I, and we were making sack lunches at night, enclosing an inspirational gospel card, and then getting up at oh-dark-thirty to deliver them to the lines of people at various relief offices in the metro area.

None of the homeless people ever darkened the doorstep of our church with our sack-lunch card in hand.

Score? Ministry: 4. Carl: 0.

We worked the homeless ministry for months, and finally gave it up. I thought about calling myself Carl the Ministry Killer. I’d approached it with all the sincerity and energy I’d been able to muster, and came out with a flat zero score, and more than a few negative feelings about it. I’m not the type to get depressed, but I had several dark moments, trying to grasp my vision for the lost in one hand while holding an unraveling rope in the other. I felt disowned by my own vision, but I prayed that a door would open somewhere, hoped that there was a place where I would be able to disciple people without driving them away.

Steve approached me once again. I tried to hide behind the furniture until he went away, but he found me, so I had to listen.

“Carl,” he said, “There’s a series of prisons down south, in Penrose and Canon City. I’m putting you in charge of a prison outreach.”

Brings new meaning to the phrase “captive audience” doesn’t it? I said, “I don’t want to be responsible for a prison break or a riot,” but, as we’ve all guessed, I ended up doing it anyway.

There were about thirty maximum-security inmates gathered in the forum, and I got up to speak, as scared as I’d ever been in my life. These were tough guys, and they were serving some of the hardest time that a federal court could give them. Some of them had committed crimes that were unspeakable. There would be no intimidating sermonizing from me, that was for sure.

So, I went to square one and simply told them about Jesus. I had a quaking voice and quivering knees. I remember my voice would falter and I was sure that everyone in the auditorium could hear it.

Paul once wrote, “When I came to you, I did not come with superiority of speech or wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing while among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.”

As that phrase about fear and trembling crossed my mind, I found I could easily relate to Paul. I found the “decision” to be weak more arbitrary and less voluntary. I trembled because there were murderers breathing the same air as moi, and one of my chief concerns was keeping Mrs. Medearis’ husband alive and in good health.

Miraculously, somehow the inmates and I connected. Honest – no bribery involved.

After a month of visiting the prison, our numbers did something I’d never seen before. They grew. The inmates were interested in Jesus, and we didn’t even have to give away cigarettes.

For me, something deeper began. Although I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, the passage that Paul wrote to the Corinthians burrowed down into my soul and cemented itself there. It would be some time before that verse became the center of my life.

My journey to the Middle East began after my recurrent failure at ministry in Colorado.

It started with a really spiritual idea. Chris and I prayed about it for a few months with a handful of friends, and then took it to the Vineyard leadership I was responsible to. Our pitch was, “We’re going to go to the Middle East and we’re going to start seven churches in seven nations in seven years.”

With such a vision, how could we go wrong? Even the triple sevens seemed somehow prophetic. The leadership came back enthusiastically with their thumbs up, and we packed our daughters and luggage and left the United States, ready to get it on.

Oh, how time flies.

After twelve years in Beirut, we haven’t started one church. Forget seven. Although we’ve seen a broad and well-connected family of friends around the Middle East begin to form, we haven’t converted one single person to Christianity. Not one.

But we’ve seen Jesus do some amazing things. This book is about the difference. Friends rather than ministry. My agenda versus his. Jesus compared to Christianity.

Comments

  1. Gwen Mapp says:

    Thank you for your honesty. This is how Jesus people should be!!!When we love Jesus and share THAT I believe people will get a sense of the reality of God!!!

  2. Robin says:

    This story made me smile!

  3. Dave says:

    “Friends rather than ministry. My agenda versus his. Jesus compared to Christianity.”

    Unpretentious and honest. This is what I’m starting to understand more, and want to strive for in life. Programs are for middle school concerts, not for ministry. Friendships in Christ are what changes lives (it changes especially those who think they’re in charge).

  4. Jared Holsing says:

    I’m glad to hear the early chapters of your personal story… Looking forward to the full book 🙂
    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we should measure and how. This post makes a good contribution to those thoughts.