It happened right after a Saturday night message at a church I was visiting. I had just finished my third message for a youth retreat when a 14-year-old I’ll call “Megan” found me at the back of the auditorium. She had heard me say the night before that I knew serious things were going on in their young lives. She had serious things going on in her life, so she wanted to talk.
As the other students were shuttled off to their host homes for the night, we sat in the large open foyer while her youth pastor and small group leader waited right around the corner.
Megan felt broken: family dysfunction, abuse, separation, legal issues, depression, loneliness, a suicide attempt, and a parade of counselors whom she felt had failed her. She wanted help. She wanted friendship. She wanted to change. She said she prayed every night that God would forgive her, and she believed she was seeking to follow Jesus, but her life was filled with hurt and confusion. She had dreams and goals for her future, but her past and her present stifled those dreams.
I knew I was just being introduced to the broad categories of Megan’s story, and that there was so much more to her life. I also knew that I was only hearing one perspective, and that I wouldn’t have the chance to hear anyone else’s. But regardless, I knew that Megan was deeply in need.
Megan’s need presented us both with an opportunity. She saw the conversation as an opportunity to get help. I saw the conversation as an opportunity to give help. We both, naturally, wanted to make the most of the moment. She wanted to share whatever she could and get whatever advice she could. I wanted to hear as much as I could, and then show as much sympathy and share as much practical advice as I could. This was clearly an opportunity.
With every ministry opportunity comes a sense of responsibility. Once Megan began sharing her story with me, I began sensing not only the opportunity I had to minister to her but also the responsibility I had to help her. I wanted to listen, yes, but I didn’t just want to listen, nod sympathetically, and send her on her way with a trite “Be warmed and be filled” (James 2:16; 1 John 3:18). I wanted to help in concrete ways, and I knew I had the responsibility to help. That responsibility created a burden, a weight, a sense of gravitas that hung over that church foyer. I felt responsible to encourage Megan in the most effective ways I could find.
But my conversation with Megan was strewn with limitations. Our time was limited — she needed to get to her host home and rejoin her small group, and her youth pastor and group leader were waiting patiently around the corner. Our relationship was limited — we had just met, we didn’t know each other, and there were all sorts of boundaries I was consciously keeping with a 14-year-old girl with a traumatic past. Our trust was limited — she was sharing with someone she’d never met, and I was listening to someone I didn’t know. My knowledge was limited — we only had time to talk about the major categories of her intricate story, and I only had the chance to hear one side of a many-sided story. And then there was the geographical limitation — the next afternoon I would drive home and we would likely never talk again.
Each of these limitations hovered over the conversation. Sometimes they felt like a curse, like something restricting me from being helpful.
But far from being a curse, these limitations of momentary ministry were actually a tremendous blessing in their own unique way. How?
It was humbling to speak with Megan, not only because she’d suffered greatly and was entrusting me with her brokenness, but also because I felt so handcuffed in helping her. I’ve spoken with hundreds and possibly thousands of students struggling with sin or suffering or confusion, but that didn’t really matter here. The limitations on this conversation were almost suffocating.
Her story was long, but our time was short. Her story was heavy, so my advice would sound light. Her needs were massive, and my ability to meet them didn’t match up. But the glaring limitations of our hour-long conversation reminded me that I have no power to rescue or change anyone, regardless of the situation. This reality humbled me. It made it impossible for me to sit in that church foyer with a smug sense of self-assurance that I was about to offer a few golden nuggets of wisdom that would transform Megan’s life. I felt helpless, and humbled, in a way that momentary ministry opportunities can make you feel.
But the limitations pressing in on our conversation had a transformative effect. They forced me to focus. What was Megan’s ultimate need? Not a one-time, hour-long conversation with me, but the person, presence, and power of Jesus Christ. Who did Megan ultimately need? The God of earth and heaven who hears prayer and moves mountains. Whose ministry was most important in her life? Not mine, the visiting speaker, but the local body of believers whom God had provided to love, serve, shepherd, and disciple her.
With all of this in mind, I found a focus for our conversation. Megan didn’t need to hear every piece of counsel I would’ve given her if my wife and I had counseled her for six months. She needed just a few clear pieces of biblical, practical, tangible advice that would help her take the next step. The counsel I gave her was unlikely to be immediately transformative, though it was good and right for me to pray that it might be. Rather, it was likely that the counsel I gave Megan would be yet another small step in her life’s journey, impacting her more like a stream on a stone than a hammer on a rock.
I was reminded of all of these important realities precisely because of the limitations of our conversation.
God-given limitations masquerade as enemies but they’re truly friends. They force us to focus, unmasking the illusion that we can be everything to everyone, do all that needs to be done, or say all that needs to be said.
Once our situational limitations have humbled our hearts and focused our minds and mouths, we are then compelled to look outside ourselves for the full measure of ministry that each situation demands. I wouldn’t have any future ministry with Megan, so I needed to reconnect her with her pastors, her church family, and older women in the church who could love and support and counsel and disciple her. Perhaps she would also need wise and caring Christian professionals within the community to help her process her life, under the guidance of her pastors.
I’m a member of the body of Christ, but I’m just a member. I’m not Christ, and I’m not the whole body. Sometimes, in extended ministry situations, I deceive myself into thinking that my role is far more transformative and indispensable than it really is. But momentary, temporal, passing opportunities remind me that I’m just God’s servant for the moment, passing through people’s lives and humbly offering them the little I have to offer as God orchestrates his vast network of faithful Christians to touch the world’s many corners with his transforming grace.
MOMENTARY MINISTRY AND THE POWER OF GOD
One of my mentors often says that most ministry is unscripted. Life experience has proven him right. Structures, programs, scripts, and plans give us a sense of control and power, but the unscripted, momentary opportunities often compel us to depend on God’s power in unique ways.
I don’t know what happened with Megan, and I don’t know if I’ll ever know. I don’t have any deep or long-standing relationship with the church where I was speaking, and she herself wasn’t intimately connected with the church, either. But I wouldn’t trade our conversation, which took place years ago, for anything else I could’ve done that evening. I walked away feeling sad, broken, and helpless, which isn’t how I like to feel. But if Jesus came for the sick, not the healthy, and if the height of his ministry was his own crucifixion, and if God’s power rested on him in fullest measure, then I can only conclude that God loves to shine his light and show his power through the fractures of our weaknesses.
As the days and weeks and months and years pass by, I grow more and more confident that God raises up ministers and then retires them — with their lives and ministries passing far more quickly than they ever dreamed — so that the one constant factor in every Christian’s transformation is God himself. He is the common denominator in all the operations of grace. He is the spring, the source, and the fountain. And if I get to dispense just one droplet of living water for one of his thirsty children who’s quickly passing through my ministry, I will consider it a sacred honor and a privilege of grace to have been entrusted with such a stewardship.