What matters more: Container or content?

The comparative value of what is proclaimed versus who proclaims it.

Randall L. Roberts, DMin, is the senior pastor of the Loma Linda University Seventh-day Adventist Church, Loma Linda, California, United States.

In ministry, what matters most is not the container, but the content. "Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we're proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, 'Light up the darkness!' and our lives filled up with light as we saw and under stood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.

"If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That's to prevent anyone from confusing God's incomparable power with us. As it is, there's not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we're not much to look at" (2 Cor. 4:5-7, The Message).

As a minister, I have an odd job. Don't misunderstand I love it. But it is an odd job, and that is because of the two realities Paul states in the above passage.

Not about us

The first reality appears in these words: "Our Message is not about ourselves; we're proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master" (2 Cor. 4:6, The Message).

In 2 Corinthians, Paul defends his call to apostleship. Some have depreciated his call to ministry, questioning his apostolic credentials, so he addresses the issue. In so doing, he speaks to any called to ministry: "This call to ministry is not about us, it's about someone else." This is the reverse of what is commonly the case in professional life. Ministry, there fore, is an odd job, first of all, because it's an upside-down job.

It's upside down to the way we normally do things. We say, "If you don't take care of yourself, no one will." Our world is pock marked by shameless self-promotion. In the world we work to advance our own agendas, not those of other people.

Throughout his football career, Deion Sanders was a flashy, brassy personality. A while back, Sanders, a Christian, stated that the position he plays on the football field ought to be renamed. Instead of calling it "cornerback," Deion says that he has so redefined the way this position is played that it should be called by his name. In other words, when a professional football scout asks a prospective player, "What position do you play?" the player shouldn't respond, "I play cornerback." No, says Sanders, the player should now simply answer, "I play Deion!" Maybe this is just part of his act. Most would never be so brazen. Yet we all are tempted to self-promotion. Even our most noble accomplishments come from mixed motives. But Paul says, "We do not preach ourselves. We preach Christ." In fact, we're simply errand runners, delivering messages for the King.

D. M. Canright was a gifted but vacillating and volatile preacher in early Adventism. During the summer and fall of 1880, along with a number of students from Battle Creek College, Canright attended Professor Hamill's School of Oratory in Chicago. Canright and his friends sought to fine-tune their develop ing oratorical skills so they could communicate the gospel more successfully in the pulpit.

Each student was assigned a critic. Canright's teacher and critic was D.W. Reavis. During the time they spent together, they became quite well acquainted.

A gifted speaker, Canright was invited to preach in many Chicago churches. Reavis attended to analyze his application of oratorical principles. Canright was so accomplished that invitations flowed in, and eventually he accepted invitations only from the largest and most popular churches.

One Sunday night he addressed more than 3,000 people in the largest church on the westside of Chicago. When he finished, people mobbed him, thanking, praising, and lauding him. It took some time for the crowd to disperse so that Canright and Reavis could leave.

Finally, at a late hour, they went to a park where Reavis could offer his criticisms and suggestions. But he had been so absorbed in Canright's presentation of Bible truth that he had no criticisms to offer, no suggestions to extend. They talked for a while, when suddenly Canright sprang to his feet. "D.W." he said, "I believe I could become a great man were it not for our unpopular message." Reavis replied,

"D.M., the message made you all you are, and the day you leave it, you will retrace your steps back to where it found you."

Canright's wish? "If I could do my own thing, be the source of the missive and not just the errand runner, I could become great!" But Paul steps in and says, "We do not preach ourselves. We preach Christ." We're delivering mes sages for the King. In this job, we don't promote ourselves. In fact, the whole job is about Someone else.

Content, not packaging

Paul adds a second reality about the ministry of the gospel that warns us that it's an odd job. Not only is it an upside-down job; it takes place in an inside-out world. He says: "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." This job is not about the package, but about what's in the package. It's not about the jar of clay, but about the treasure inside the jar. In the world of ministry, the value of what is done cannot be judged by what it looks like on the outside, because it is what's on the inside that counts.

My wife was traveling abroad. While passing through customs at her port of entry, the agent looked at her suitcase through X-ray equipment, and then said to her, "You have bullets in your suitcase." She denied it, of course, claiming that what he was seeing were her hair rollers.

When the official opened the suit case, what did they find but bullets! Then, standing near a wall, she saw her suitcase, which looked identical to the one she had accidentally carried to the customs agent.

Moral of the story? Don't judge by outward appearance but by inner content!

Double advice

The day I was ordained to the gospel ministry, I wrestled with the competing twin feelings: the grandeur of the task to which I had been called, and my own inadequacies and lack of qualification for it. I remember two significant conversations I had with pastoral colleagues while walking toward the ordination service in the auditorium.

These two men, both older than I, offered some advice. They were standing only about 20 feet apart, but I soon realized that a much wider gulf separated their philosophies.

The first pastor said to me, "Let me give you a piece of advice, something I learned years ago that might also help you in your ministerial career." I was all ears, eager to hear wisdom from a more experienced colleague. He proceeded to carefully show me how to wear a paper clip behind my tie so it would not be noticeable, and yet would hold my tie in place. By doing that I could keep my tie in place and yet not call attention to myself by wearing an ornate tie clip.

A few paces further a second seasoned pastor stopped me and when I said that I felt unworthy of this calling, he responded, "You're right. You don't deserve it. In fact, the only reason you're here today is because He called you, not because you merit it. But since He called you, He will qualify you. You stand there in His righteousness."

Over the years, those two brief conversations have come to represent two directions to take in ministry. The first is the direction of making certain everything looks OK on the outside. The "do-what-you-do-to-please- people" approach. Do it to avoid conflict. Do it to promote your self and your programs. Spend time polishing the otherwise unadorned clay pot of the outward self.

The second choice is to take care of the inner life, the spiritual walk, the soul's health. To spend time and effort and energy understanding, taking in, and applying the message of Christ. On my better days, I have been able to choose the second. On my more ignoble days, I have fallen prey to the first.

Deepening versus broadening

During my early days of ministry someone gave me a motto I adopted: "Deepen your ministry and let God broaden it." When we succumb to the temptation of putting the broadening of our ministry first, we end up brushing and buffing and burnishing a clay pot. We become shallow public relations people, broadening our own agendas, and in the process become a mile wide and an inch deep. That's why what Paul says is so vital. When it comes to ministry, what really matters is what's inside.

The Corinthians were tempted to depreciate Paul's ministry because of the often-discouraging circumstances that surrounded it. Apparently he was a small man, had bad vision, wasn't a great speaker, and was constantly on the run. He had enemies galore and critics aplenty. He was hard-pressed, perplexed, and persecuted. If one's focus was on the clay pot of his life, many reasons existed to question his success.

But that leads to a critical conclusion about ministry, this upside-down job in an inside-out world: In ministry, what matters most is not the container, but the content, not the pack aging, but the filling, not the external elements, but the heart.

We face the same temptation, with a different slant. We may more often be tempted to feelgood about our ministry because of the blessings that surround it. People criticized Paul's ministry because of the discouraging nature of its container, as they might do with ours. But they might also affirm our ministry simply because of the successful trappings that surround it. Again, what matters most is not the container, but the content. We are still, after all, only errand runners for the King. We strive to deepen, and let God broaden.

Just before preaching my first sermon in my current assignment, I was feeling quite anxious. I was worried about what to say and how to say it. I shared my anxiety with two friends. Their words brought me back to the core of ministry and the reality of Paul's passage: "Randy," they said, "don't forget that we are just errand boys for the King. Therefore, we have only to please Him."

It may be an odd job, but what a majestic calling!

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Randall L. Roberts, DMin, is the senior pastor of the Loma Linda University Seventh-day Adventist Church, Loma Linda, California, United States.

May 2002

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