Off-the-Platform Ministry

man on escalator

HILE THE U.S. presidential candidates are discussing all sorts of threats to Americans—terrorism, illegal immigration, dirty bombs, cyber attacks, economic downturn—there is no mention of the things that actually threaten the quality of life of most Americans. Even more interesting, these clear and present dangers are mostly preventable. Things like heart disease, obesity, smoking, and alcoholism are the products of lifestyles, not events.

At the end of the day, it’s the small, daily decisions that make or break a life; not big, dramatic moments. This reality also applies to our spiritual lives, especially as Pentecostals. We have tended to focus on the big, breakthrough moments—important and necessary as they may be—when it’s the small, daily decisions that make or break a Christian life in the long run.

I’ve come to believe most life lessons are caught, not taught. When it comes to understanding and practicing the spiritual disciplines, it was necessary for me to see them in action in the lives of role models and mentors.

I remember attending a conference as a young pastor some 30-plus years ago where a speaker recommended a new book—Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. That was 1978.

I purchased it in the conference resource center and began reading. After a while, I realized I had one eye on the text and another on people in my life who exemplified what I was reading, and that’s when extraordinary conviction gripped me. Up to then, my focus in spiritual development had been on what could be readily identified by those I served—the public expressions of my ministry, often to the neglect of those hidden practices Foster was writing about: study, meditation, solitude, submission, confession, and so on. Although many of those practices were part and parcel to my “ministry,” their purpose served to enhance my public ministry rather than my own spiritual growth.

Within 10 years of graduation from Lee College and enjoying “success” in ministry, I realized my dependence was on talent rather than the underlying, quiet, regular practices of those things that count when it comes to knowing God and representing Him in our world. I was living the tortoise-and-the-hare children’s story. Although my out-of-the-blocks race was impressive, colleagues whom I thought were “slower” than me in the talent arena were now blowing by me in their depth of spirituality often reflected in public expressions.

A holy conviction, coupled with a sanctified competitiveness, set in. I seriously began a heartfelt path to spiritual growth. I certainly haven’t gotten it right all the time, but through reading and the help of God’s grace, it looks like I’ll beat the odds and serve in vocational ministry until retirement in a few years.

But, frankly, competition with colleagues—in preaching ability, church growth, the opinions of others—was a motivator needing to be sanctified. One of the disciplines jumped out at me as a measure of my spiritual growth in this regard: secrecy.

What exactly is the spiritual discipline of secrecy? It is choosing to perform acts of service for God without others knowing it is you performing them: avoiding self-promotion; giving in secret; serving behind the scenes in a ministry that you are assured few will know about; not making your good deeds known except to God, so that He and others receive the attention. It is finding sufficiency in God alone.

Here is where this article gets a bit tricky for me. After all, I’m writing a public article about a sacred secrecy that must remain so. I’m certainly not the paragon of spiritual growth, but my stumbling has brought life-lessons—many of which are the result of the practice of giving and serving in ways only God sees and knows. Therefore, my experiences must remain between the Lord and me. So without identifying my mentors, allow me to share a couple of ways they modeled this for me.

I have a pastor friend who hosts the family of a single immigrant mother and her children for holiday meals. They’ve become part of his family. It started at a Thanksgiving many years ago when he discovered she and her three small children were all alone and broke. They were invited to spend Thanksgiving Day at the parsonage. After observing the loving care this mother extended to her three boys, the pastor and his wife decided to take the boys Christmas shopping to buy gifts for their mother. They gave the boys the cash they needed and watched them joyfully buy the gifts. Then the pastor’s wife took the single mother Christmas shopping for her boys, providing the funds.

In the practice of secrecy, we experience a continuing relationship with God independent of the opinions of others. —Dallas Willard

These were pre-Facebook days, so there were no public posts, pictures, or announcements. The pastor and his wife did what they did out of benevolent hearts in secret. No one to this day knows the care and provision they rendered their adopted immigrant family. The three boys are now grown with families of their own, and I am told the lessons they learned on Thanksgiving weekends year after year serve them to this day.

This is one of many examples a dear mentor taught me to abstain from making good deeds known and even taking steps to prevent them from being known—a necessary discipline for spiritual growth.

A few years ago I was invited to serve on a lay led spiritual life retreat called Tres Dias—three days of encountering the grace and presence of God. The pastor is called on to speak and pray on the weekend, but the greatest lessons rise from serving the lay leaders and giving up my normal role of being in charge. It’s a sequestered weekend retreat with extraordinary service acts performed in secret. Hidden in my heart are extraordinary lessons learned while “hiding out” with these dear brothers.

Back to the disciplines and life with Jesus. It’s easy to imagine the disciples lived in a constant state of shock-and-awe witnessing Jesus’ ministry and miracles. However, they spent most of their time with Him just following, watching, eating, talking, and listening. They got to know Him in the mundane. The mundane was their school of learning.

So too are the spiritual disciplines. By practicing them, we get to know Jesus in the mundane, particularly in this specific area of secrecy. In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard said: “Few things are more important in stabilizing our walk of faith than this discipline. In the practice of secrecy, we experience a continuing relationship with God independent of the opinions of others (Ps. 31:2).”

A 2015 Time magazine article, titled “Iron Man,” explored experiences of companies attempting to build a human-like robot. One statement jumped out at me: “Progress is glacial. . . . In robotics, if you don’t plan to fail, you’re going to fail. You have to just count on failure.”

So too is the practice of secrecy and other spiritual disciplines. Failure is a necessary reality and part of the learning and development of our life in God.

How do I know when I’m getting it right? Once again, I reference Dallas Willard:

Secrecy at its best teaches love and humility before God and others. And the love and humility encourages us to see our associates in the best possible light, even to the point of our hoping they will do better and appear better than us. It actually becomes possible for us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than [ourselves],” as Philippians 2:3 (NIV) advises. And what a relief that can be!

July, 2016

M. Darrell Rice is administrative bishop of the Church of God in the Heartland Region (Kansas and Oklahoma).