Ajith Fernando: Finishing Well

In his final address as part of the Rom Lecture Series, Ajith Fernando talked about what it takes to finish strong the race of ministry. “What will help us maintain our passion?” he asked. “Looking after ourselves. Fernando preached from I Cor. 9:24-27, which begins, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” The basic idea of this passage, Fernando says, is that many don’t finish well. But you must do it.

Fernando discussed a study on finishing well that looked at 800 leaders written about in Bible. Of those, the Bible provides information on how they finished for 50 of them. About 1/3 finished well. He said the researchers found a similar number finished well in a study of  1,500 contemporary church leaders.

How should we run if we are to finish well? Fernando asked. Verse 25 says it is through self control. We exercise self control like athletes. He quoted a tract that young people gave one another when he was getting started in Youth for Christ. It said, “Others may, you cannot.” If it hinders our people from becoming saints, he says, then we can have nothing to do with it.

For example, Fernando says, it is common for a male minister to become close partners with a female colleague. They have a good, healthy relationship. But some people suggest that they have become  too friendly. There is the potential for problems. There are three deadly responses to such an accusation: 1) Would I do such a thing like that? 2) Only I can minister to her, and if I do not, who will? 3) Usually people shouldn’t do this, but this is an exception.

But Fernando warned, almost no minister started an affair intending to do so. They got unwise and little by little a relationship became something that destroyed a ministry.

How often we will destroy our ministry for a perishable wreath, Fernando says. Three are three common perishable wreaths that ministers pursue:

Fame: Some ministers succumb to prominence instead of a call. Sometimes they can go together, Fernando says. But often society tells us that prominence, fame, or the size of a church is due to the will of God. Do we accept  invitations to pursue the call God has given us or for advancement in ministry? What are our priorities? It is our personal ministry that suffers when we pursue public prominence. If you stop your personal ministry, you lose your cutting edge. You lose depth in preaching,  and it rings hollow.

Climbing by hurting another: It is so easy to put down someone in order to climb on them. These are the methods of Satan, Fernando says. Instead, we ought to look for God to help us, and we won’t break our principles.

Sexual temptation: How many people have ruined their lives for one experience of sexual conquest? Fernando asked. This thing comes to us, and we want the satisfaction. And for one experience, we are willing to destroy our ministry.

Instead of these types of wreaths, an imperishable wreath, Fernando says, depends on eternal principles. Ministers are ambitious to glorify God by being faithful to his call. There are souls to save; spiritual children to nurture to holiness; sermons to prepare; services to lead; families to keep happy. It is not easy to have so many goals while being faithful. And so we must be disciplined. The balanced life does not mean having everything in moderation, but it means obedience in every area. Because we seek a balanced life, we are tired, but God provides sources of renewal.

Fernando says he once heard a message preached by an elder statesman of the Sri Lankan church. He was the head of the largest denomination in the country. At age 79, he had difficulty getting out of chair. He hobbled up to the platform. But once he got to platform, he was on fire, Fernando says. He was speaking like a young man. “I have one foot in grave,” the old preacher told the audience, “and the other on a banana peel. We have to win this country for Jesus. While I have breath, I’ll do all I can to win this nation for Christ.” Fernando was impressed. “If I could be like this at 79, what a wonderful thing that would be.”

Sexual sin is a constant problem throughout life, Fernando said, and it must be continually battled. “Don’t let lethargy come so that your body will lead you to sin. People are careless, and this carelessness results in big scandals.” To fight this temptation, he says, be sure to make time for devotions. “Every night before I go to bed,” he said, “I have to tell myself what time I’ll get out of bed in the morning for devotions.” My theology of prayer tells me if I drop in this area, I’ll be finished. These daily battles keep us fresh in ministry.

It is possible to have a successful ministry while your life is a mess, Fernando says. Our culture makes this possible. There are certain rules for success in society. If you follow those rules, you’ll succeed. Marketing tells us that if you meet people’s needs, you be a success. You just need to find the needs and fashion programs to meet them. But, he warns, you may fail in your calling. Be careful, you can be fooled by your own success.

To prevent being fooled, we need people to knock sense into us. As a young man, John Wesley was asked if he wanted to go to heaven. He did, Wesley respond. And the elderly Christian responded, Find friends. In his ministry, Wesley often said that Christianity is not a solitary religion. No one goes to heaven alone. “I couldn’t survive a traveling ministry,” Fernando says, “if I didn’t have a wife and friends to check up on me.”

If the statistics are correct, Fernando warns, two-thirds of the people studying at Trinity won’t finish well. But that doesn’t have to be so. God is faithful, he says. He can keep us to the end. Fernando says, “Prove the statistic wrong and prove the Bible right.

Ajith Fernando: Becoming Weak for Christ

Many Christians are cynical about truth and the proclamation of the Gospel, says Ajith Fernando, who spoke to students last week as part of the Rom Lecture Series. People generally like it when Christians care for the poor and help the vulnerable. But they don’t like the preaching of the Gospel, says Fernando.

“Battling abuse and working for justice,” Fernando says, “are important aspects of our mission. But what if that becomes the standard for our programs?” If so, people won’t hear the Gospel. “The person and work of Christ is the answer to people’s greatest need,” Fernando says.

This privilege, he says, is more than enough of a reward for the preacher. “The human need is great,” Fernando says, “but God’s grace is greater. We have an answer to the greatest human need.” This passion for people to know the grace of God makes the preacher willing to become their slave.

Paul says he would be willing to die so that people would come to Christ. Fernando recalled Jeremiah, who said his eyes were a fountain of tears. And Jesus wept over Jerusalem. “This is counter-cultural,” says Fernando. “Tears are incompatible with our idea of cool.” But in a world where people often view Christians as arrogantly attempting to impose their beliefs on others, the type of devotion Paul exhibits will overturn the idea that Christians are arrogant. “They will realize these people are not arrogant. Slavery is for us the gateway to glory.”

Fernando says that most of his plans he had to give up because of the needs of Youth for Christ and the political situation in Sri Lanka. However, he says, while he gave up his plans, his dreams came to pass—only about 10 to 15 years late. Books didn’t get written, but messages got out. Sabbaticals were interrupted by organizational needs, but people were cared for.

Fernando had scheduled time in early 2005 to write a book, but in December of 2004 the tsunami hit Southeast Asia. Instead of a book, Fernando was writing fundraising letters. Talking with staff, he jotted down a few notes about how to respond to the tsunami. Encouraged by the message, the staff begged Fernando to write it out. He did and sent it in an email to supporters. Suddenly, people began asking to reprint the email. A Dutch newspaper printed it. A U.S. ministry published 100,000 copies of a booklet containing the email. After an earthquake in Pakistan, it was translated into Urdu and distributed. Following the Katrina hurricane, a TV show asked Fernando to appear. Fernando couldn’t write the commentary on Deuteronomy that he’d intended. But, making himself a slave to his organization’s needs, God did much more. “You obey God,” he says, “and you think you’re making a sacrifice, but God has a better plan than whatever you think you’re giving up.”

“Evangelicals in the U.S. are in a tough place,” Fernando says, “because the world sees us resenting that our cultural power has declined.” But, he says, “Our weakness may take away their negative feelings. It doesn’t matter if people hate us. It doesn’t matter if the government is hostile. We have a job to do: to be servants of people. We’ll come to them as weak people and through weakness they’ll see the power of the Gospel.”

Ajith Fernando: Our Passion Is Driven by Our Call

Passion in preaching—the conviction that what we say is true and urgently important—is driven by our call, says Ajith Fernando. The apostle Paul had a strong sense that he was a steward. Fernando spoke to students this week as part of the Rom Lectures in Preaching.

“God has given me job to do,” says Fernando. “It’s an honor. We are ambassadors for Christ, representing him on earth. It’s also a responsibility.” As servants of Christ entrusted with the Gospel, we must make sure of the content we present to people. Preachers must prepare to present the truth faithfully, to rightly handle the Word.

There may be times when the Holy Spirit inspires a sermon, and in just 30 minutes the preacher is ready. However, those are the exceptions. “Generally speaking,” Fernando says, “preparation is hard work. We need to figure out what God has said, and determine how to best deliver what God says.” It is a great privilege and responsibility. A preacher shouldn’t cause his or her listeners to feel sorry for God that his representatives do such a bad job. “If our preaching dishonors God, it’s a crime,” Fernando says.

Preparation is also exhilarating. God’s Word is quick, active, and sharper than a two-edged sword. “I have spent 34 years in ministry,” Fernando says. “I’m tired. I must study, care for my family, and care for my ministry. It’s hard, and when I arrive in heaven I think I’ll spend the first three days asleep. But then I’ll get back to work.” That’s because, even while ministry can be exhausting, studying God’s Word is always refreshing. “This is a dynamic book, this Bible.” Problems come and go, Fernando says, but the Word of the Lord endures. The preacher should consider study an act of worship.

Paul often went into raptures talking about the wonderful calling he had to preach the Gospel, says Fernando. We should have the same sense of honor and privilege. Unfortunately, we often hear preachers say, “I could have been doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer, but I had the call to be preacher.” This is an attempt to get people to feel sorry for the preacher, says Fernando, and the church doesn’t need people who see preaching as a second-class calling. “I want to say, please go do that work you want to do. We don’t want people in ministry who feel sorry for themselves.” Preachers must feel, as Paul did, that woe is unto us if we do not preach the Gospel, Fernando says.