Sundoulos - Fall 2010

The Pastor & the Fringes

by David L. Talley

What to do with “time”? You only have so much of it. As a pastor or church leader, there is always some level of tension between using time for intentionally meeting with people versus using time for committees, prayer, sermon preparation, etc. Let’s consider for the sake of this article that in a particular moment you have made a decision to spend time with people. Once this decision has been made, there still remains the question of whether or not this decision will reflect a good use of time. A simple way of thinking about time with people is that it can be “spent” or it can be “invested.” “Spending” time can be understood as time with people who never really grow in the Lord or invest in eternal things. In other words, they simply do not respond to the investment of time. “Investing” time can be understood as time with people who grow as disciples and in turn begin to disciple others, a multiplying affect. This is clearly an investment of time.

In ministry I have had a tendency to be drawn to “fringe” people. These are the people who present a challenge because the purposes of God are not a central concern in their lives. Their hearts are inclined toward earthly things and God is only given a slight acknowledgement in the midst of their busy schedules. As a result, they remain on the “fringe” or periphery of the body of Christ and are not growing as disciples. Since there is no return on the investment of time, they could be considered a waste of time in ministry, not “worthy” of focus; therefore, they often get lost in the fray. Are they a waste of time? Should they get lost in the fray? Many reasons could be provided to justify regarding them as time–wasters, reasons that contain elements of truth. However, can a different conclusion be drawn? Is there another way to look at this issue?

In this article, I would like to set forth some of the reasons why fringe people might be considered a waste of time, justifying a lack of ministry focus. Then, I want to build a biblical case for us to consider otherwise. And, finally, I want to propose some principles to consider in developing a “philosophy of ministry to fringe people.”

Reasons Why “Fringe” People are a “Waste” of Time, Justifying a Lack of Ministry Focus

First, the church is missional. The task of the church is to complete the Great Commission to the glory of Jesus Christ. So, when people in our flock are serious about this calling, then our responsibility is to train them to live as kingdom–minded believers and encourage their continued faithfulness as we await the soon return of Jesus. A lot of time can be wasted on trying to awaken earthly–minded people out of their stupor. It is much more advantageous to focus on those who have “put their hand to the plow” so that more and more people can be reached for Christ and the body can be built up, because the time is short.

Second, we like to be with people who have similar passions. The synergy that results from this cannot be underestimated. When “stimulating one another to love and good deeds” is reciprocated, then growth in the body of Christ is accelerated. As people grow, the church is strengthened and mission is intensified.

Third, ministry is more joyful when we minister to people who respond to our ministry. In part this is because we minister with the goal to have an impact. We only have so much time so we need to think strategically as to how we will use the time available. This makes sense when there are so many ministry demands facing a pastor daily. However, in part, this is because of our egos. We like results. Results make us feel more fulfilled. When progress with people can be measured, then there is clear data that our ministry is effective, and we want to be effective. We want to be able to point to measureable results. But we must be careful of this reason.

Fourth, each of us can point to individuals with whom we brought an intentional ministry focus in hopes of their growing into faithful disciples, only to see hours and hours fade away as their lives remained in a perpetually stagnant state. This can be very discouraging for those in ministry, but it is no doubt a reality. There are obviously better ways to spend precious time.

Many more reasons could be offered, but it is not the ultimate focus of this article. These at least point us toward good solid reasons for viewing fringe people as a waste of time, justifying a lack of ministry focus. There is nothing necessarily wrong with these reasons, and many may hold to them for the glory of the Lord in a way that is faithful to their calling as ministers. However, the reasons must not be held without truly wrestling with other principles from Scripture.

Some Biblical Reasons to Consider Otherwise

Before we consider the many passages on this point, we must recognize that an initial issue is whether or not fringe people are even disciples. Simply put, are they saved? Rather than argue the ins and outs of this, suffice it to say that regardless of one’s position on this, the hearts of fringe people need to be made alive or be revived. The gospel will be key to this. At minimum, they need a ministry of gospel proclamation, and that makes them an important investment of time.

Now, let’s turn our attention to this sampling of some biblical reasons to consider otherwise. The big problem, and one that I think we must consider, is that we cannot envision what God may be up to in another person’s life. God often chooses people we never would. Consider David, a shepherd boy, small in stature, and youngest in his family in the least of the clans of Judah. When Samuel saw his brother, Eliab, he thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before [the Lord]” (1 Sam 16:6). But the Lord responded, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). God has plans that are different than what we might expect. What we can “see” is not always what needs to be seen.

Simply reading the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 always brings this reminder to me. When I get to the name Samson, I usually find myself a bit surprised. He is not one I would include in such a list, but God used him in a mighty way at the end of his life (cf. Judg 16:23ff). We cannot calculate what God is going to do through a person at the moment of his choosing.

Paul called the Corinthians to consider their own calling, stating “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are…” (1 Cor 1:26–28). Wow! Each one of us is a testimony of this. Thanks be to the Lord. And what is God’s purpose in this? 1 Corinthians 1:29 continues, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” There was nothing in any of the Corinthians that could be used as a reason to support the Lord’s adoption into his family.

So, what is the point? The point is that we are limited in our understanding of what God is up to in another person’s life. I strongly caution our very normal and reasonable approach of looking at the “outward” appearance in a person’s life. We can be far too logical and less than Spirit–led in the decisions that we make about people. I truly believe that we should exercise wisdom, but we need to realize that God will lead beyond what makes sense to us. God is often interested in what we cannot see, something that he is growing and in his time will bring to fruition.

In Mark 10:17–31, especially verses 27 and 31, we find further points to consider. We may look at one’s life and conclude that the person would not be a good investment of time. However, Jesus draws a strong conclusion when he states, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:27). What is his point? People do not find God because of who they are or if they have certain resources or whether they have their “act together;” God is the one who makes it possible as he moves in the heart. In fact, Jesus makes the claim we see so often in the New Testament, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mk 10:31). In other words, God is going to turn it all upside down as he works through people’s lives. We simply have no idea what God is up to and how he is going to work in people’s lives.

John 10:7–18, especially verses 11–12, provides another point for us to consider. Jesus is using an interesting analogy of a good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. It is dangerous to take an analogy too far, but I want us to consider some aspects of this analogy that might be helpful to us concerning fringe people. When a wolf is stalking sheep, do you suppose he goes for the strong sheep or for a weak and hurting sheep? Predators have an uncanny ability to hone in on the weak, the easy prey. Might this be true in the church as well? If it is, as I am proposing, then our fringe people are “the” prey of those who seek to lure people away from the church through pagan ideologies. If they are “the” prey, then they are in desperate need for someone to “lay down his/her life” for their sake. If they are “the” prey, then they will almost certainly be the first casualties of the spiritual warfare Satan is mounting against the church. A good shepherd will do this, not just for the strong sheep but also for the weak. Fringe people need someone to lay down his/her life for them.

The parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son in Luke 15 are powerful for us as well. The big point is that, even though the person still possesses much, something or someone has been “lost” causing sorrow, but then it is later “found,” leading to great rejoicing. Several principles require consideration. First, the fringe people are our “lost” even though we still possess much with the people in our flocks who are growing in the Lord and serving him faithfully. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd still has ninety–nine sheep in his possession. Wow! That is a lot of sheep. However, his concern is the one who is lost. This has brought him sadness. It is important for us to have similar feelings for those on the fringe. They are lost in that they are missing out on what they can have in Christ. We must be burdened for them.

Second, in the first of the two parables there is a strong emphasis on searching (cf. Lk 15:4, 8), with every attempt being made to find that which was lost. The lost item brings a discontentment even though there is much for which to still be thankful. Without disregarding what is still in one’s possession, there is a serious focus to find what has been lost. This is a desire that we must have for those on the fringe. They need someone to be “after them.” In the third parable, the father watches and waits, but does not search. The son was part of the family, but squandered his position to the point of losing it all and eventually living out of a pig pen. The father watched and waited, longing for his son to return. So, even if we do not go after the fringe, we must be watching and waiting for opportunities, with heaviness of heart until they return.

Third, it is important to note that there is great rejoicing when that which was lost is found. The father states, “it was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Lk 15:31; cf. verses 23–24). “Lost” people can be a lot of work, but there can be a great reward when they are found, leading to great rejoicing. In a unique way, the challenges that they can bring in ministry can be outweighed by the great joy they bring when they turn deeply to the Lord.

Many more passages could be set forth, maybe even better passages. My goal here is to help us to think through this issue in a biblical manner using the principles we can find in the Bible to shape our thinking as we wrestle with the decision of how to use our time.

Some Principles for a “Philosophy of Ministry” to Fringe People

In this final section, I want to offer some principles that that I have utilized in my life and ministry to differing degrees. My purpose is to build into your storehouse of wisdom so that your ministry can be strengthened.

1) Pray for the Lord’s leading as to specific fringe people he might be calling you to focus on because of what cannot be seen, then go for it and stick with it.

2) Train disciplers to reach out to the fringes. Your time really may be best invested in those who are growing in Christ, especially regarding leadership development. You are to be an equipper of the believers. However, this equipping is done with an eye toward pushing these believers toward others who need to be discipled, including the fringe.

3) Because fringe people are a part of the body, make sure that you block out weekly or monthly time to spend with them so that you keep your finger on the pulse of the whole flock.

4) In sermon preparation and presentation, bring some clear application for those who are on the fringe. If they are present, God wants to work in their lives as well.

5) If you have a small group system, spread the responsibility of reaching out to fringe people throughout your groups. Actually put names of fringe people on the rosters of the group so that they have the responsibility to check in on these individuals from time to time.

6) The Bible suggests that fringe people might well be outside the body. In other words, they may well need the gospel. However, the gospel will best take root in them the more they spend with other believers.

7) A powerful way to connect with fringe people is to get “into their world.” Schedule a time to see where they work or go to school and then go to lunch together.

Many more principles could be offered, but these at least should stir your thinking and sharpen your ministry focus. I encourage you to adopt your own philosophy of ministry to fringe people and to share it with others so that the fringe people receive a proper focus in your overall ministries.

Conclusion

Are fringe people “wastes of time”? Ultimately, there are no easy answers. However, it is my hope that this will cause you to think through your ministry priorities so that the “fringe” person has a focus in your ministry. I have been surprised countless times by a phone call from someone in my past with whom I thought that I had “wasted” my time, only to find out that it was the many times I spent with him that was the seed for the growth that God was now doing in his heart. Clearly, what I thought was “wasted” had been an “investment,” multiplied many times over through the ministries of that person’s life as he touched many other lives. This has led me to seek to be more Spirit–led in the people with whom I seek to invest my time. We truly never know what God is up to. Ultimately, “wasting” time needs to be redefined. “Wasted” time is the time we spend when we are not stewarding our life with the goal of pleasing God and bringing him the glory due his name. When we spend Spirit–led time with people, God is on the move and will work even though we may never see the results because we are right where God wants us to be doing exactly what he wants us to do. May God surprise us with the ways he moves in people’s lives to his glory until Jesus comes.


David L. Talley (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor and Chair of the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies, which is responsible for the 30 hours of Bible courses required of Biola’s 4000 undergraduate students. Dave is also a teaching pastor (with fellow Talbot prof Erik Thoennes) of Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada. Dave travels extensively with the goal of partnering with the international church and training leaders, especially on impacting Muslim nations with the gospel. Dave and his wife Joni live in Brea and have two children, Amanda and Andrew.

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