Comfort Idols and the Difference Between Productivity and Activity

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It’s not going to be a pleasant devotional time with God when you ask the Lord to lead you to the scripture that you need, and he takes you to Amos 6. This was my situation recently, as I started my week with a time of scripture reading and prayer. The Holy Spirit took me to one of the loudest, most “in your face” prophets in the Bible.

In that chapter Amos confronts the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, in addition to the rest of the Israelites, with these brutal words:

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes. Pass over to Calneh, and see, and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms?

Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall.”

Amos confronts the Israelites living in comfort – lounging on leather sofas, eating lamb, and sipping champagne – while all around them people suffered in poverty, and spiritual decay was permeating the nation. Far from addressing this situation head-on, the leadership in Israel were apathetic and too settled in the comfortable “status quo” to make the necessary changes.

There is a parallel between ancient Israel and modern church life.  Too often comfort can seduce us. Working in youth ministry can be difficult and messy. Simultaneously, if you are not intentional and alert, it can become insulated, routine, and comfortable. We can pursue only the insider kids who want to participate in our programs or meet with the youth pastor. We can fill up our schedule reading ministry blogs, studying theology, over-designing flyers, micro managing the set-list for worship, or meeting with fellow youth pastors over coffee. All the aforementioned items are good. We need all of them. Attention to detail matters. We need community. We should honor the interest of enthusiastic students. We should continue to educate ourselves and nurture our spiritual life by reading. And, by all means, demonstrate faithfulness by turning in receipts and cleaning the church van.

But if we are not careful – if the Lord does not rattle our cage from time to time – we can fall into a comfortable routine of “playing church.” We can be the people at whom God is pointing the finger in Amos 6. We can spend our days busily engaging activities that are of no eternal consequence, while the city burns around us.

To quote my friend, Daniel Ogle, associate pastor at Iron City Methodist Church in Knoxville, “ministry is life and death business.” Behind the closed doors and smiling facades, teenagers are suffering and desperate for hope. They are within our reach and might even be on the rolls of our churches! There are people who have never heard the life-saving good news of the Gospel.  So many around us need hope and all of us desperately need Jesus.

This article is not intended to freak you out or send you into a fear-based panic. That would be fruitless and unsustainable. I am not suggesting that it is our job to save everyone: God is the one who grants the gift of salvation.

What I am saying is that the stakes of ministry are far too high – life and death – to play games and thoughtlessly fill our days. When I worked in sales, my wise boss told me to never confuse activity and productivity. He defined activity as investing time in tasks that in no way connect to the bottom line of closing business. With activity you look busy but are accomplishing nothing. He explained that productivity entails time expenditure that directly connects to increasing sales. There would be times when a sales associate needed to clean his or her office, make copies, etc., but an effective sales person would prioritize productive time over activity.

In ministry, the same is true. We must remember the bottom-line function of the church of sharing the Gospel with the lost, making disciples, caring for the flock, and furthering the Kingdom. We must live with a sense of urgency.  Items with clear, eternal implications must be prioritized. In my context as a youth pastor, the most essential tasks include praying for students, seeking out meeting times with students on the fringe, praying before appointments, texting scripture to students, writing hand-written letters, preparing adequately for the teaching of scripture, ministering to suffering teens and parents, and asking God for opportunities to share the Gospel. I must go to war against activity encroaching on true productivity.

It’s easier said than done, right? That’s pretty high pressure, correct? Given how challenging it is to maintain urgency and discern priorities, we need daily to ask for wisdom on how we invest our time. We also need to remember the Gospel, which not only reminds us of the urgent need to share the Gospel, but also reminds us that Lord is with us, for us, and greater than our shortcomings and inability.

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