The Serious Business of Heaven
Joy in ministry comes when we prioritize God’s mission of restoration
As a new year of ministry begins, let me bring to your attention a fact and a question.
Fact: Joy goes wherever the gospel goes.
“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” said the angel who announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:10).
When the 72 returned from their first missions trip, they were filled with “joy,” exclaiming, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (Luke 10:17).
Answering critics who complained about His habit of eating with sinners, Jesus said, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
And when Christ ascended into heaven, His disciples were filled with “great joy” (Luke 24:52).
“Joy,” C. S. Lewis once wrote, “is the serious business of Heaven.”
Question: How filled with joy is your life and ministry at the present moment?
I ask because of a worrisome statistic I recently read. “With pastors’ well-being on the line, and many on the brink of burnout, 38 percent indicate they have considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year,” Barna reported last fall. “This percentage is up 9 full points (from 29%) since Barna asked church leaders this same question at the beginning of 2021.”
If joy goes wherever the gospel goes, but we are not filled with joy, are we going places with the gospel?
On the surface, the causes of pastoral burnout are obvious. Barna mentioned “the pandemic, along with intense congregational divisions and financial strain.” Perhaps you have experienced those stressors. I know I have.
I wonder whether the cause of burnout runs deeper, however. Follow my logic: If joy goes wherever the gospel goes, but we are not filled with joy, are we going places with the gospel? Could it be that many pastors are burned out because managing a congregation during the present crisis has so consumed our time and energy that it has distracted us from Christ’s mission, the very thing that brings us joy?
If so, part of the solution to pastoral burnout is reprioritizing evangelism. After all, leading sinners to repentance is the sweet spot of ministry that even heaven celebrates.
In Luke 15, Jesus told three stories about the joy of finding what was lost: a sheep, a coin, and a son. The last story — the Parable of the Prodigal Son — teaches five lessons we need to keep in mind as we reprioritize evangelism this year.
1. There is a little rebellion in each of us. Traditionally, we have identified the younger brother as the wayward one. He demanded his inheritance, left his father’s home, and “squandered his wealth in wild living” (verse 13). He was the obvious sinner.
The older brother was also a sinner, however. Outwardly, his actions conformed to his father’s will: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders” (verse 29). Inwardly, however, he did not share his father’s heart for his brother.
Knowing there are two ways of sinning — outward acts and inward attitudes — keeps us humble as we share the gospel. We are not “saints” bringing the gospel to “sinners.” Instead, as D.T. Niles put it, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find the bread.”
2. Repentance means turning toward home. Verse 13 says the younger brother had traveled to a “distant country.” The distance was more than geographical, however. For a Jew, taking a job feeding pigs was the ultimate indignity.
When the young man hit rock bottom, “he came to his senses” (verse 17) and realized he needed to return home. In Hebrew, the word for repentance is shuv, which means “to turn.” Repentance means turning around, going the opposite direction, doing a 180. In Jesus’ parable, it meant going home.
In returning, the young man hoped merely to become a servant in his father’s house. He failed to understand the depth of his father’s love.
Some people think they need to earn God’s favor. There’s a time and place to correct those ideas, but the most important thing is that lost people turn toward God.
Notice, by the way, that the older son never left his father’s property, but he never went into the house either. “The older brother became angry and refused to go in” (verse 28). Repentance is a full commitment to be with the Father. Otherwise, we’re just standing outside with our self-righteous pride.
3. The goal of ministry is restoration. The most important character in Jesus’ parable is neither the younger brother nor the older one. It’s the waiting father, representing our Heavenly Father. He is the agent of total restoration.
When the younger son came to his senses, he rehearsed a little speech to give to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants” (verse 19).
The father ignored that speech entirely and jubilantly proclaimed, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (verse 24). This reminds us that our Heavenly Father wants to restore our relationship with Him to its created potential.
The older son reminds us there is another dimension to divine restoration, however — the restoration of our relationship with others. In context, Jesus told the three parables of Luke 15 to rebut the religious leaders who criticized Jesus’ ministry among sinners (verses 1–2).
It is telling how the older brother talked about the prodigal with his father: “this son of yours” (verse 30). In his response, the father reframed the relational terms: “this brother of yours” (verse 32).
If the gospel means we are sons and daughters, not servants, then it also means we are siblings, not strangers.
4. Resentment is a temptation to avoid. Jesus’ parable ends on a note of uncertainty. We know the younger brother came home, but the parable concludes with the older brother still outside. Did he ever reconcile with his brother?
Perhaps Jesus ended on this note because resentment is a constant temptation for religious folks. Yes, we know we’re supposed to share the gospel with sinners, but “those people” vote for the wrong political party! They’re on the opposite side of the culture wars! They’re taking America down the path of secularism!
All those things can be true, but they’re irrelevant as far as Christ’s mission goes. They’re older-brother excuses for not loving younger prodigals. If our struggle is “not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12), people are not our enemies. They’re the brothers and sisters we’re trying to bring home.
5. The Church should be a place of rejoicing. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son all include celebration. Again, joy goes wherever the gospel goes. The kingdom of God is a party!
And what’s not to celebrate? God has restored our relationship with Him and our relationships with one another. That’s the good news.
Earlier, I asked how joyful your life and ministry were. Now I want to ask, how joyful is the church or ministry you lead?
The answer to that question may determine whether you will join the ministers who are considering calling it quits. If ministry is just about managing a congregation during a crisis and nothing else, it’s hard to justify the wear and tear of ministry.
But if ministry prioritizes evangelism, then joy is just around the corner, for God is in the business of restoring people. This year, then, let’s rededicate ourselves to the serious business of heaven — the joy that comes when sinners of all types come home.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Influence magazine.