By Kathy Ferguson Litton, National Consultant for NAMB for Ministry to Pastors’ Wives
Forty years ago this summer I became the wife of a Southern Baptist pastor. The world has so rapidly changed since that time that the ministry we knew and practiced then is for a world that doesn’t even exist anymore. But many of us in the ministry don’t seem to have changed with it, and that is, I believe, one of the great obstacles Southern Baptists face in reaching the world in front of us. We have focused more on protecting our subculture and our churches rather than the mission of the gospel. Thom Rainer’s commentary is spot on, “When the preferences of the church members are greater than their passion for the Gospel, the church is dying.”
For the past five years, I have traveled across much of North America, connecting and interacting with ministry wives and church planters’ wives. I’ve taken notice to the fact that we have a set of ministry assumptions and acquired skill sets that are familiar to us but are making little impact on the culture. Yet many of us have not deviated from these things, opting for the familiar instead of the mission critical.
Those of us who have the privilege of serving as pastors’ wives need to ask some new and difficult questions. We need to think more like frontier missionaries than first ladies. What skills do “ministry wives” need in this hour?
We must engage the world as “double listeners.”
John Stott coined this unique phrase in his book The Contemporary Christian. He says,
“By double listening, I mean listening, of course, to God and to the Word of God, but listening to the voices of the modern world as well. In listening to the modern world, we are not listening with the same degree of respect as that with which we listen to the voice of God. We listen to the modern world in order to understand its cries of pain, the sighs of the oppressed…. Relevant communication grows out of this process of double listening.”
We cannot simply decry culture and then vacate it. We must engage and listen to it. I love Stott’s language of listening to understand our world’s “cries of pain.” Our message will be irrelevant unless we pursue the understanding that only listening provides us. Sequestering ourselves is not an option. We lean in to learn about souls. Listening, it has been said, is the first form of loving.
We must function as everyday missionaries.
There is a huge difference between using our giftings as teacher, leader, or servant in ministry and living life on mission everyday. Unfortunately, most of us function pretty well in church, but outside those cozy confines, we struggle. Missiologically speaking, many of us in the American church are illiterate. We might be highly skilled to lead a Bible study yet we know nothing about incarnating the gospel in daily life. We must see our calling as God sees it—not just to people in the church, but also to the community in which the church exists.
We must identify with God’s interest in people.
Oswald Chambers once said, “To be a disciple means that we deliberately identify ourselves with God’s interests in other people.”
What is God’s interest in our fellow man? He created each of our neighbors his image, to be in relationship with him. And when man fell, God loved and pursued him to bring him back. Jesus summarized his entire ministry by saying, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
Watchman Nee uses similar language:
“It is absolutely essential for you to see the dearness of man in the eyes of God because man is created by him according to his image. You must be a person who loves all people before you can go into their midst and serve them with the gospel. Let us see the lovableness and value of human beings before God.”
Identifying with God’s interests means we will see how precious people are to God. When we see this clearly, then these people will become precious to us, too. We will not be bound up in condemnation or judgment, but will see people with God’s eyes, with the potential for healing, wholeness, and fulfilled longings. Our prayers will not be merely about the needs of our families and churches, but the lost souls all around us.
We must acquire cultural intelligence.
Cultural intelligence is the capability to work effectively across cultures. We must exegete our own culture and know how to communicate to it.
Look around in your community. Do you see the ethnic diversity? Do you see the irreligious and anti-religious, those who will likely never respond to mailer showing up in their mailbox? How can we move in and out of those spheres if we don’t understand them? As Kevin Vanhoozer put it, “I cannot love my neighbor unless I understand him and the cultural world he inhabits. Cultural literacy—the ability to understand patterns and products of everyday life—is thus an integral aspect of obeying the law of love.”
We cannot cling to Christian culture and its familiar nomenclature which often only makes sense there. We have to get out into the world, to get our hands dirty in the world of actual, non-believing people. I know it’s awkward to cross this gap. But why should we expect those outside the church to do that? Shouldn’t we be the ones to take that first step?
These aren’t trendy tips that just apply to our culture, they are the path of discipleship, embodied in Jesus and modeled for us by Paul. They are timeless features of men and women willing to obey the Great Commission. When the Great Commission truly becomes our passion, we will do whatever it takes to fulfill that command.