Chasing Donkeys: How Ministry Can Feel

This article originally appears on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. Click here to access it.

Disclaimer: I’ve never chased donkeys. I have been in a situation where I’ve feared donkeys running me over—that was in Santorini, Greece, which is another story for another article. So, what’s the correlation between rural ministry and chasing donkeys?

The concept of chasing donkeys comes from 1 Samuel 9. From the account in 1 Samuel 9 and 10, I believe there are some lessons we can learn and apply to church leaders and pastors in any contexts—especially rural ones.

Do What I’m Called to Do

The backstory to 1 Samuel 9 is that Israel had demanded a king. Having expressed his disapproval and disappointment for what Israel did, Samuel nevertheless sent everyone home while he allowed the Lord to sort through the resumes.

The narrative then shifts to a wealthy man, Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin. Kish had a son, Saul, who was extremely impressive. No one measured up to Saul. One day, some of Kish’s donkeys had enough and broke loose. Guess who Kish wanted to send to track them down and bring them back? Saul!

Remember Saul’s description? He was extremely impressive. No one was like Saul. I could imagine if I was Saul, I would whine and complain about me having to go. If Kish were my dad, I would have responded, “Send the servant. Send my younger brother. Don’t send me! Chasing donkeys is beneath me.” But Saul didn’t respond that way. He simply heard the call of his father and went.

It’s a fact that well over the majority of churches in America run less than 100 members. Yet, we live in a culture (and Christian subculture) that celebrates big.

While there is nothing wrong with having a large and growing ministry, I do believe—to a degree—our Christian subculture over-celebritizes the larger churches and their leaders.

In doing so, this can serve as an unintentional shaming mechanism for pastors and church leaders faithfully serving in smaller churches—or praying about serving in such contexts.

Maybe you’re a pastor or church leader and you have these feelings that what you are doing is beneath you. Maybe you feel like you were made for so much more and have way more capacity than what you are doing. Perhaps there are days you feel your call is too miniscule, or maybe it feels meaningless.

I know that I have certainly been there. But let’s take a cue from Saul and do what we are called to do.

Nothing to Show for It

The story of chasing donkeys continues. Interestingly, Saul and his servant searched tirelessly for these runaway donkeys. They went through four different regions…still no donkeys.

Having been in ministry for almost 20 years, there are seasons where I have felt like I’m spinning my wheels with no forward traction. I know that I have felt this way when I’ve looked at numbers and seen no real growth. I’ve felt this way when I have given deep study to the Word and have preached with all the gumption and passion in the world, only to be told, “That was too long, pastor!”

I’ve felt this way when the back door of the church seemed to be as big as the front door—maybe even bigger. I’ve felt this way when there has been no excitement around our mission and vision, but everyone seems to be talking about the church down the street.

And I’ve felt this way when serving in a rural context with corn fields surrounding the church.

What do we do when we get to an intersection of ministry where we seemingly have nothing to show for all the energy we’ve spent? What do we do when we get to a point in our ministry where we feel like we have failed? What do we do when we reflect on a seemingly fruitless season and we feel like throwing in the towel?

Answer: Just keep going!

God at Work behind the Scenes

When Saul and the servant arrived at the intersection of nothing-to-show-for-all-their-energy-spent-searching-for-the-donkeys and Saul was thinking about turning around and going back home empty-handed, the servant suggested they try one more thing.

For me, it’s quite humorous to read his idea. He suggested they go and enlist the preacher’s (Samuel’s) help.

Off they went to find Samuel with the hopes that he could point them in the right direction of where to find the donkeys.

But little did Saul know that God had met with Samuel and told him that God was “sending” (see 1 Sam. 9:16) a man from Benjamin that he would anoint to become the first king of Israel. Saul believed he was going up to inquire about donkeys, but God was sending him to inherit a kingdom. For many of us, that’s the story of ministry!

Because many of us feel empty-handed and frustrated in ministry, we search for the expert to share insight to help us do ministry better. We want to inquire about where we should go, what books we should read, and what we should do to see greater fruit in our call.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that enlisting the help of experts and leaders to learn and grow in ministry is bad. On the contrary, it’s good and necessary!

The lesson I’m pointing out from the story of Saul and applying to us today is that while our micro call is chasing donkeys (doing ministry), the macro call of God for us is inheriting his kingdom.

In other words, the narrative of our ministry is embedded in a greater narrative of God’s kingdom. In short, God works behind the scenes of ministry to prep us for the inheritance of his kingdom.

Dear pastor and church leader, ministry isn’t the telos; it is a responsibility handed to us as we journey towards our ultimate destiny, our ultimate aim—to be heirs with Jesus in the kingdom of God. And from the biblical perspective—having received a glimpse of how God thinks and works—regardless of how insignificant or small we think our ministry is, it is the kingdom telos that keeps us chasing donkeys.

Does God Care about the Donkeys?

With all this talk about the seemingly menial task of chasing donkeys, of having nothing to show for our chasing donkeys, and the ultimate telos being the inheritance of God’s kingdom and not chasing donkeys, the question will naturally arise, “Does God care about the donkeys?”

In the narrative, we see the answer to this question is an emphatic “Yes!” Before Saul could utter a word about the donkeys, Samuel says, “As for the donkeys that wandered away from you three days ago, don’t worry about them because they’ve been found” (1 Sam. 9:20).

While Saul was busy chasing donkeys, God was watching over and leading them.

There will certainly be seasons where ministry is dry and we feel as though we are spinning our wheels, going nowhere. However, that doesn’t mean that God is not doing something with our ministry.

The Apostle Paul was the one who said that he planted, Apollos watered, but that God gave the growth (1 Cor. 3:6). In planting, Paul wouldn’t have witnessed much movement. In watering, Apollos would have seen little movement. But God saw the greatest movement as he was sovereign over the growth.

Our role in our call from God is faithfulness. God’s role in his call to us is fruitfulness.

Knowing that God cares about our ministries (our donkeys), regardless of the size or scope, we can faithfully set out to chase them, knowing ultimately that our chasing them is leading us in the direction of his kingdom.

In closing, to all my brothers and sisters in ministry—especially in rural contexts—keep chasing donkeys!

Redeeming Rural

This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can click here for the original link.

A couple weeks ago the Laxton house couldn’t agree on a movie for family movie night, so my wife clicks on Hoosiers. Now, a movie as old as Hoosiers certainly raised my children’s eyebrows—and even complaints—since they weren’t born in the century that churned the movie. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the storyline of the 50-year old Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) who moves to rural Hickory, IN to coach the Hickory Huskers. Through a battled journey, Dale victoriously leads the Huskers to the echelon of Indiana High School basketball—the State Championship.

Underneath the grand storyline (main plot) is a subplot. And this subplot has stuck with me as I continue to think, dream, and plan for rural ministry through the Rural Matters Instituteat the Billy Graham Center. What’s the subplot you ask? Redeeming Rural

In this post, I want to outline three redeeming (wrongs made right) elements seen in the subplot and exhort the church today to enact a similar redeeming quality in their mentality, ministry, and mission to rural areas. 

Redeeming the Rural Mentality

Early in the movie, Myra, a teacher at Hickory High, engages Norman Dale describing the rural-nessof Hickory. She vociferously notes that Hickory doesn’t appear on most state maps and that the only thing that comes through Hickory is a train. She goes on to explain that people—especially 50-year-old men—don’t move to Hickory for good reasons. 

I think Myra’s understanding of Hickory has been (and to some degree continues to be) a realistic understanding of many today—even those in the church. For decades the church has promoted ministry and mission in the urban (and suburbia) areas, as these centers continue to experience upticks in population. 

When figure heads of evangelicalism call young leaders to give their lives in strategic areas like cities, and when large denominations have church planting initiatives that focus their resources and efforts on cities, it’s no wonder why there has been a vacuum of leadership, resources, and ministry-aid for rural areas. And if someone does move in or stay rooted in rural areas to do ministry, they probably face the Myra’s of the world thinking they had no better opportunity or offer elsewhere. 

It’s important for the church to reverse engineer such a negative mindset towards rural areas. Rural places do not need to be seen as places of inopportunity but prime locations for opportunities. The problem Hickory faced and that many rural areas today face is that fewer are willing to mine and leverage the potentiality of resources of small towns to [figuratively speaking] “put” them on the map. 

Jesus had to overcome the stigma of what comes out of small towns. Nathanael, prior to following Jesus, is quoted as saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The church must redeem the mentality towards rural areas by seeing them as places of great potential.

Redeeming Rural Ministry

Hoosiers depicts a great deal of brokenness—a town inhospitable to outsiders, a teenager who had suffered great loss, a town drunk living in shame and isolation, and a failed basketball coach in need of a second chance. Who knew rural towns had so many problems? [When I think of small towns, my mind typically goes to Mayberry—a quaint little town with very little problems.] 

The reality is, rural areas aren’t immune to the depravity of humanity. Whether it’s an area with a sparse population of 26 or a small town of 26,000 every single person is in great need of redemption. Every area, regardless of how small has wrongs that need to be made right. 

Residing in rural communities are cold hearts of pride and racism that need to be melted. There are tears of grief being shed that need a shoulder to rest. There are frustrated addicts that need faithful advocates. There fractured marriages in need of healing counsel. There are orphans that need a family. There is the unemployed searching for meaningful employment. There are failures in life longing for dealers of hope. There are prisoners in need of visitors. And there are searchers for purpose in need of people of direction. 

In order to redeem rural ministry, the church must focus on the needs of people rather than the number of people in the area. 

Redeeming Rural Mission

When thinking and discussing rural, almost everybody wants to focus on size. For many, size dictates importance. That’s exactly what some thought about Hickory, IN. This concept of the importance of size has creeped into the church’s understanding and impetus of mission, which has deterred many away from focusing on and going to rural areas.   

Today, more than ever, there is a need to redeem rural mission. To do so we must understand a few things. 

First, the size of the place has no bearings on the scope of God’s mission. God has called the church to go into all the world! A Christ-centered mission will have a church moving for and towards the whole world regardless of location.

Second, the purity of God’s mission isn’t the call to scale or multiply, but to faithfully make disciples.

Redeeming rural mission will require the church to decommercialize God’s mission. Instead of going where we will get the biggest bang for our gospel-buck, we will go where the Spirit prompts. 

Third, the size of the place does not affect the size of the impact. In fact, mission to rural areas has the potential of seeing greater community impact. If you did a cannon-ball in the middle of Lake Michigan, few will see and experience the impact; if you did a cannon-ball in a swimming pool, everyone around (and in) the pool sees and experiences the impact. Rural areas are the swimming pools the church can do gospel cannon-balls that can be felt and experienced by many in the community. 

In closing, after overcoming the less than 21st—Century cinematic affects, the Laxton children sat through the entire movie. They were captivated by the overall storyline of defeat, struggle, redemption, and celebration that captivated their imagination, spoke to their hearts, and inspired their lives. 

While my kids were into the overall drama of the movie, my mind raced to how basketball transformed a small rural town in Indiana. And to know that the church has something so much greater than basketball! 

My prayer is that the church will not neglect its responsibility to take the gospel into the rural areas of the world. To do so will require the church to redeem rural by seeing such areas as places for opportunity, people in need of ministry, and platforms for mission. As the church does this, there will be a glorious subplot of the gospel redeeming rural communities for the glory of God and the good of the world!