Two days ago I logged into my email account to find good news. I was awarded a scholarship by Southern Seminary that covers over half of my tuition for the first year of school. Year one will now be debt free! The award was given out based on academic considerations and ministry experience. As I wrote this essay to apply for the scholarship, I was reminded again and again of how gracious the Lord has been to give me the opportunity to grow as His servant throughout all of these experiences. Many of you have been partners with me in it all, and I thank you for that.
The most life-changing conversation I’ve ever had about ministry happened while I was sitting on top of a washing machine. I was your typical insecure freshman, just a handful of weeks into my four years at The Master’s College. Somewhere in between deciding whether this was a standard “medium” load or was large enough to qualify as “full,” up walked —– —–. In my book, —– —– was the quintessential cool senior: Biblical Exposition major, student leader of the Chapel Media department. I don’t think —– had any laundry to do that day; he just wanted to find out how this particular freshman was adjusting to life at college. And the answer was not very well.
When —— first walked up, I expected the usual quick and casual conversation. Forty-five minutes later I had experienced for the first time how ministry isn’t a just a program, but rather ministry is the gospel applied to every situation in life. —– refused to be content with my superficial answers. And then he didn’t run away when when sinful patterns of thought were discovered in my heart.
I take the time to share that story because what I learned that day while sitting on the washing machine, participating in a conversation where someone wanted to get to know me not for what they could get out of me but rather what they could pour into me redefined for me what ministry is. It isn’t glamorous; it’s servanthood. It isn’t showy; it’s dying to self.
My Dad was the pastor of a small, rural Washington church, so opportunities were plenteous growing up. I helped cleaned the church, washed the communion cups on Sundays, ran the overhead projector during worship, gained over 1000 hours of community service helping build houses for predominately low-income minority families. But starting freshman year of college, ministry became more than just doing things. Ministry became living and speaking out the gospel in such a way that people were pointed to Christ Jesus as Someone to be made much of.
My first taste of this kind of ministry was in the residence halls at The Master’s College. As an Assistant Resident Assistant, my job was people. Get to know people. Encourage them in the Lord. Point them to Christ as all-sufficient in every need, every care, every problem. This meant some late nights, staying up so I could get to know my night-owl roommates. It also meant developing an interest in things that I ordinarily wouldn’t have given a second thought about–vegetarian cooking, rugby, philosophical indie films. But gospel ministry means seeking to minister to a person. And gospel ministry demands taking a genuine interest in that person, for Christ took a genuine interest in me.
In successive years I had the opportunity to serve as a Resident Assistant and Head Resident Assistant. Being an RA at Masters’ is a unique experience. The student life department pours itself into making the RAs men and women who are leaders amongst their peers. RA training is an intensive year-long process focusing on biblical counseling and peer-to-peer leadership.
Few things in life have been as difficult as ministry to my wing that first year of being an RA. Two of my guys confided in me that they seriously struggled with depression and had recently given serious thought to killing themselves. Another was discovered to have left a trail of deceit across his schoolwork and personal life. One of my roommates was addicted to World of Warcraft; another wouldn’t speak. Ministering the gospel to people who have inoculated themselves against it by strong professions and weak living is a disheartening thing.
But there were moments of grace. —– ——– discovered his passion for teaching biology and using it as a tool in evangelism. —- ——— finally understood how the grace of God was a liberating thing, and not an oppressive master. I know these are just names to you. To me, they are my brothers with whom I was
The following year (my senior year), I was given a wing and a staff almost double the size of the previous year. It was another year full of But this time, the men the Lord placed around me were eager students of His Word. They wanted to grow. They wanted to serve. Whereas small group bible study was the most dreaded part of the week during my junior year, this year it was energizing. Every Thursday night we’d get together and dig into our theme, Gospel Risk. I watched as the Spirit used my teaching from the Word to transform them into men who understood that promises of a deeper relationship with Christ and eternal reward far outweighed comfort; and that this motivates us to live lives that do not make sense apart from the hope of the resurrection from the dead.
Partway through the year, one of our deans approached me and asked if I would be interested in preaching at a local drug rehabilitation ministry. I knew I was in for a different experience than I was used to when, on the first night, one of the residents stood up and shouted in as deep an African-American accent you can get, “Here’s another youn’ brotha’ in the Lord come to preach us da Word tonight!”
Preach the Word I did; it was a tremendous opportunity to grow in my ability to effectively communicate God’s Word. After a couple of times the men began to recognize me. One of them walked up one night and said, “We always love it when you come because we can tell that you really care about what you’re teachin’. You really believe it and that makes you easy to listen to.” For a young preacher, that was quite the encouraging affirmation to know that others were being blessed through my ministry.
Upon graduating I was asked to serve as an intern at Cornerstone Community Church in Atascadero, CA for a year. I had grown up in this church (after my Dad resigned from his church in Washington over doctrinal matters), and I was thrilled to work with people I knew and respected. I can’t even begin to say how much this year has impacted my understanding of the ministry. Like most college graduates, my idealism about life had spilled over into unadulterated romanticism. Working in a church changed that!
My days at Cornerstone have been filled with directing the youth ministry, biblical counseling, discipleship, oversight of the audio/visual ministry, writing theological articles for the bulletin, organizing conferences, designing fliers and handouts, leading small groups, one-on-one time with the senior pastor, preaching in his absence, fixing computers and copiers, and all the thousand other little things that need to happen for a church to effectively minister.
Through it all, I’ve learned yet again what —— ——– first taught me while sitting on that washing machine. Ministry isn’t glamourous; it’s servanthood. It isn’t showy; it’s dying to self. Ministering to make much of Jesus Christ is hard. Sin is real and sinners will hurt you. But of far greater gravity is the grace and glory of God. Because of that, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
On weeks that I preach in church, Thursday marks my heavy writing day. Monday and Tuesday are spent with nothing but a Bible and notebook, Wednesday is commentary day, and Thursday is rough draft day. Except this Thursday. This Thursday has been spent vacillating between shivering and sweating while warning office visitors to stay away so I don’t infect them with whatever bug I’ve come down with.
In the middle of praying that God would bless my limited study time earlier this afternoon, I was struck by the realization that I don’t need the Lord’s aid any more this week than in weeks prior. When my need is infinite, small details like sickness don’t matter. While my realization of my need is much greater this week, the actual need for God’s wisdom and guidance to handle His Word in a right and compelling way isn’t any different.
When Paul wrote of his thorn in the flesh to the Corinthians he said, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). The Apostle’s experiencing the power of Christ is directly related to his understanding of his incredible need for Christ’s aid. The weaknesses are there whether he boasts in them or not; but the blessing created by the weaknesses only are his to own if he rejoices in seeing God’s power triumph in spite of his infirmities.
Today I lost my desk chair, my work computer and my office. My name has been erased from the bulletin as the leader of the youth ministries at Cornerstone and the website will no longer direct all inquiries about youth ministry to my personal email. I’ve gone from being Beta Wolf to being Gamma Wolf.
Our church has been waiting excitedly for quite some time for our new Associate Pastor of Family Ministries, Curtis, to join us. My internship has about eight weeks left before I pack up and move to Kentucky to attend Southern Seminary. During these eight weeks of overlap, we’ll be team-teaching our youth group as he gradually takes over the helm of youth ministries.
As I’ve gone from being the director of the youth ministries to someone working under the director of youth ministries, I’ve been forced to wrestle with a question of ministerial identity the last couple of days. Do I define myself by what I do for the kingdom, or by the kingdom itself? Or put another way, do I find my identity, standing, and joy before the Lord in what I do for Him, or in what He’s done for me? Am I working for my kingdom or the Kingdom?
Sin is seductive and my heart is wandering, naturally turning its gaze from the Giver of all joy, all purpose, all meaning, all fulfillment, and all blessing to the things He has given for me to enjoy but never worship. And that can include ministry. It’s easy to build a kingdom. It’s much harder to remain dedicated while working for a Kingdom where the glory isn’t yours to have and hold. Oftentimes ministry begins with the best intentions, but jumps the track of worship into self-worship by failing to be ruthless with your own motives.
Curtis’ arrival has been a good heart-check. If there’s any resentment, if there’s any “my turf” mentality, then ministry has become an idol and I’m finding my identity in what I do for the Lord rather than in the all-sufficient atonement found in the cross of Christ. And anything other than finding my identity in the work Christ has done for me is idolatry. Thankfully, that has proven not to be the case.
It’s also a good reminder that I am entirely dispensable. God’s work in others’ lives is not dependent upon Nate Brooks ministering to them. People come, people go, and God works on. As the traditional “Who Will Weep When You Leave?” SLS Retreat Saturday morning message says, our job is to carry one brick in the lives of those around us. God is building a house of sanctification. It is He who does it, and He chooses to use his frail and battered creatures to aid in the process. But we’re not often called to be there for every aspect of construction. Our job is to faithfully carry one brick so another can lay yet another piece of clay on top of it.
I don’t think anyone is happier to see Curtis come than I am. Leading the group for the last year has made me painfully aware of my own glaring shortcomings as a teacher and a leader. My grasp of the Bible is limited, my ability to counsel shallow. I’m excited for them to sit under a man who can give them what they need much better than I can. And it’s exciting to commit them to the grace of God, knowing that He is faithful to complete in His children what He’s been faithful to begin.
Have you ever stopped and wondered how the Corinthian believers managed to factionalize themselves between Paul, Peter, Apollos, and “Christ” without the aid of digital downloads? It’s not like Apollos or Peter tweeted pithy little theology sound-bites two or three times a day for their Corinthian fan club to chew over. And yet despite limited access to the teachings of these men, the Corinthian believers managed to shatter the unity of their church through by obsessing over the style and ministry of one particular church leader.
I’m definitely not the first to make this observation, but our generation is the first with almost unlimited access to thousands of sermons preached every Sunday. I can find a pastor who teaches in whatever style I most identify with. And rather than being challenged by the voices of people around me who have different perspectives and preferences, I can allow my understanding of biblical truth to be defined by a particular pastor I easily identify with rather than having to fight for clarity through the words of a pastor who communicates differently than I do.
Every preacher will over-emphasize and under-emphasize certain aspects of doctrine and practical living. The only preacher to ever strike a perfect balance was Jesus. I will naturally be drawn to listen to the preachers who emphasize what I emphasize and neglect what I neglect. Unfortunately, this means that I won’t be challenged in my weaknesses nearly as much as I should be. Putting only the familiar and the comfortable in my iPod will change me only in familiar and comfortable ways.
I don’t mean to sound like it’s wrong to have a favorite preacher. I have one: John Piper. He’s taught me incredible things about the glory of God and how delighting in Him is the chief end of man. He’s redefined my understanding of what it means to take radical risks for the kingdom of God and how often wisdom and risk are the same. And yet, listening to only Piper is dangerous. Dangerous that I will lose sight of some aspect of the full counsel of God that Piper does not emphasize and dangerous that I will begin to believe that only those who listen to Piper can understand the greatness of God. The Corinthians are proof that even a wonderful thing like unlimited access to sermons can be used by Satan and our own self-deceiving hearts to derail our spiritual growth.
So who do you listen to? Who do you read? Leave a comment at the bottom if you want. Outside of John Marc at Cornerstone, here’s the men who are shaping my understanding of the whole counsel of God:
The Master’s College Podcast (Various Southern California Pastors)
John Piper/Desiring God
Pyromaniacs (Phil Johnson, Frank Turk, Dan Phillips)
Authors (During 2010):
T. David Gordon
Yesterday half of our church body was away on the annual Cornerstone Church Campout. Pastor John Marc and most of our young families took to the Oceano campgrounds, and I led the services back up in Atascadero. This Friday-Saturday-Sunday event has been a spring highlight for several years, but this year added a new wrinkle: We now have two services on Sunday mornings. Which means we have twice the Sunday School teachers, twice the ushers, twice the A/V crew, and twice the nursery caregivers as in previous years. And the need doesn’t lessen just because half the congregation is in Oceano.
This week demonstrated yet again that our church body isn’t full of consumers. On their own initiative, ushers from the first service realized we were shorthanded for the second service and stayed to serve. Others stayed to teach. I didn’t even realize it until someone mentioned how many people had unexpectedly stayed to serve when the need became apparent. What a blessing it is to serve in a church where the members themselves identify needs and step up without fanfare to sacrifice for the sake of others.
Last Sunday I was accepted into the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. I visited the school last week and, after spending time in thought and prayer, I’ve decided to pursue my MDiv (Master of Divinity) degree at Southern. I’ve been deliberating between Southern and The Master’s Seminary for much of the last year, and while it wasn’t an easy decision, it was one marked by a clear sense of direction from the Lord.
I confess it is rather scary to leave the familiar environment of the Master’s community. Much of who I am in the Lord has been forged in the classroom and offices and dorm rooms of TMC. I will greatly miss the Master’s community. The Lord has blessed me far beyond what I ever could have hoped for in quantity and quality of friendships through my time at college. It is hard to leave what God has used to shape me into His image. I’ll also miss being able to visit my Cornerstone Community Church family. It’s a lot further of a drive from Louisville than Santa Clarita. In a very short time I’ve come to love you all very much. It has been a joy to serve the youth and I’m looking forward to the last couple of months of disc golf, Gleanings, and study of Philippians.
So why am I going to Southern?
1) I will get to study under an incredible group of professors. The faculty at Southern pretty much comprises a “Who’s Who” list of conservative scholarship. Russell Moore, Timothy Paul Jones, Bruce Ware, Tom Schriener, Stuart Scott, and the list goes on and on. Other seminaries use the books written by these men as textbooks for their classes. At Southern I will be able to study under the men who wrote the textbooks.
2) The leadership and professors love the local church. The classes I was able to sit in on were not set in ivory-tower academia, but rather the mud and mire of the realities of church ministry. Theological instruction for the sake of theological instruction will not help me better serve the bride of Christ.
3) I’m coming to realize the importance of being taught from a variety of perspectives. Not a variety of doctrinal perspectives, but rather a variety of emphases within those commonly held doctrines. To have undergraduate and graduate degrees from the same institution is not the end of the world, but it would leave me unbalanced in areas. The greatest strength of TMS is how it prepares men to preach the Word. That is my greatest strength in ministry as well. I want to go to a school that will challenge me in my weaknesses so that I will grow in my ability to minister before the Lord.
4) Southern has a culture of grace and appreciation towards men of different doctrinal perspectives who have accomplished great things for the Kingdom. This walks a fine and dangerous line. Russell Moore exemplified this attitude best in a theology class I sat in on about Eschatology. He said something akin to, “We’re to be dogmatic about the things Scripture is clear about and humble about the things it is not. We can learn much from the elderly dispensationalist-holding church members as they eagerly await the rapture. And they can learn much from us historic premillenialists as we prepare ourselves for suffering.’ That is an impressive attitude.
There’s other reasons why I’m going to attend Southern, but these are the most important. I’m thankful for the year off to recharge my academic batteries, and I’m excited to begin this new stage in my life.
And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing. (Acts 19:19-20)
One troubling thing I see in my heart is that I love conviction and hate change. It’s not to hard to find a convicting sermon to listen to. But when all the words have flowed past me and it’s time to walk out the doors of the church, it’s tantalizingly easy to believe the lie that my feeling of conviction is true holiness and unqualifyingly pleasing to the Lord.
We’ve been moving through Acts at Cornerstone, and travelled through chapter 19 a couple of weeks ago. It’s most famous for a bunch of cocky itinerant Jewish exorcists getting the smack-down put on them by a demon and a mindless riot in which people wind up chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” for two solid hours without knowing why. But the centerpoint of this passage is the dramatic conversion of many of Ephesus’ practitioners of black magic. They burned the bridges to their former life by destroying everything they owned that was associated with the occult. From this, my pastor asked a question of our congregation: “What bridges do you need to burn in your own life?”
Now, there isn’t a direct connection between what the new Ephesian believers did and what most of us in the congregation needed to do. The Ephesians were involved in a profession that was completely incompatible with their newfound love for the Lord. You cannot practice Satanic arts and love God.
Some bridges need to be burnt. There can be no going back now that the new nature has taken hold of my heart. Other pathways only need to be forsaken every once in a while, so as to prevent them from becoming too important. If our happiness or our growth in the Lord has become dependent upon those things, their path has become overgrown and needs a good slash-burning to clear away the deadwood.
Immediately “espn.com” flashed into my mind. I didn’t try to think of anything. The knowledge that it had become a hinderance was just there. I love sports, and the NFL playoffs are an provide an endless smorgasbord of opinion articles to read and videos to watch. The next thought after the minute answer of espn.com was a quick denial of “That’s not true, Nate. It’s not an idol and it’s not something you need to get rid of.” The first thought is divinely-sent Spirit-produced conviction. Before I could think, before I could try to hide behind my invented complex reasonings to justify how much of my time away from work was spent reading transitory, fleeting opinions about things that don’t even really matter, the Spirit struck. And that was immediately followed by a self-protecting reflex that would try to justify whatever pattern I was living.
But understanding the problem isn’t enough. And imagined change isn’t holiness. That’s like joining the “1,000,000 strong against abortion” Facebook group and calling yourself a pro-life activist. As we talked about the sermon and “burning bridges” at my Community Group that night, we discovered that everyone’s overgrown pathway was media-related. And then we resurrected an assignment I had at TMC–a total fast from media for a week. No television, no movies, no internet apart from work-related emailing/research, no music, no recorded sermons.
It’s so ingrained in me by habit to wake up, turn on my computer, and check Gmail and Google Reader that I had to stick a note on top of my computer to remind myself of the fast. Instead I’d pick up my Bible and read or just sit and think. And that’s the purpose of doing a media fast. Silence and stillness were the rule of life for the first 6,000 years of human existence. Laborers in the fields worked without iPods, with only their own thoughts and the sounds of nature to keep them company. Pastors studied in absolute quiet as they wrote out their sermons without the aid of a movie score in the background. The Lord works in stillness. He brings clarity through quiet. And in the constant business and noise of media-driven life, it’s hard to hear what He’s saying.
All of us were surprised by what we learned by media fasting. I was surprised to discover how much more I can actually do that I thought I could. It is amazing what the mind can still absorb, even when it’s tired. Redeeming the time means redeeming all the time, even that tired hour before bed. And the funny thing is, I was a lot happier working harder longer than when I formerly grasped the easy entertainment offered to me.
It’s one thing to fast from media for a week, it’s another to work to keep the path clear of debris that naturally wants to build up. Media isn’t a bridge to be burned, it’s an enjoyable footpath that needs tending. Just like stopping at conviction instead of following through to change, it’s easy to modify my behavior without ever touching the heart. I feel like I should make some insightful point here about what rules and limits I’ve put on myself to make sure I don’t slide back again. I don’t have one, because I don’t have any rules and limits. Instead, I’m going to assume that the Holy Spirit and my love for the Lord is enough to keep things in balance. Some bridges need to be burned permanently. But others, others just need a little watchful tending.