Stop Trusting the Tide: The Cleverly Disguised Idol of Momentum in Ministry

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Momentum is one of a series of words pioneered by the sciences, co-opted by the business world, that eventually reached the parlance of church leadership. Solid, earthy, high-functioning ministries supposedly require momentum alongside “energy,” “gravity,” “depth,” “potential,” “optics,” “dynamics,” and more. While these words can be useful to “gauge” (there it is again) a ministry, they’re also easily abstracted. Which type of potential? Is gravity helpful? Dynamic to an end, or simply for the sake of change?

Momentum tends to be used in ministry language when it implies that the direction that the ministry is moving in a right one. Rarely do you hear a youth pastor talk about their youth group gaining momentum towards a pit, or away from outreach, or steadily gaining towards shallow minds and unregenerate hearts. Momentum is generally used in times of harvest, times of increase, and times of joy. It carries with it a hopeful expectation of the future. In this way it can become a great encouragement, and a devilishly cruel idol.

Momentum was a word I seemed to be using abundantly during the early months of 2020.  Friends were being invited to youth group at an increased rate. Attendees who were once sparse became regulars. Students who had walked away from the faith were beginning to ask questions of belief once again. Volunteer leaders were invigorated, and fellowship was enjoyable. Events were done with excellence; one-on-one Bible studies were at an all-time high. College students were walking into leadership roles and about to commit to semester-long internships at a rate we had never seen.

And then Rudy Gobert touched a bunch of microphones.

And then the orders from the state and federal governments began to appear.

And then school simply stopped. And sputtered. And started again. Online.

And then the stay at home order hit.

And then the events,

the studies,

the college interactions,

the questions,

and the ministry,

and the momentum,

stopped.

It sputtered along via text. Then Zoom. Then socially distant, mask-veiled visits on porches. Questions of belief became questions about live streaming.

Questions of where we were headed became questions of sustainability.

Questions of theology became questions about state government structures.

Like most idols, having momentum stripped away neither seemed fruitful, nor did it seem a road to holiness. It seemed futile. Worse than that, it seemed punitive. It must have been my own pride, or the sins of a volunteer, or some type of one-to-one correspondence that caused God to look at our little ministry and decide that the best thing for it was a pandemic. God saw us doing such-and-such a thing, and pulled his lever of contempt to teach us some type of lesson. He gleefully took what we were doing and collapsed it to prove an obscure point discoverable only through mystical contemplation. Certainly never out of sovereign grace.

In the first few weeks, stuck at home and confused, I mourned briefly over the state of the world. But I mourned abundantly over the loss of the momentum in our ministry. Shamefully, my own concerns blinded my eyes to the effects across the globe. What was stripped away wasn’t taken from everyone across the planet, only our little tiny ministry.

Momentum cannot be assessed so simply. Ministry rising and falling numerically or (seemingly) spiritually lends itself to trusting the tide rather than the sovereign hand of God.

Momentum fails to take into account the moments of ministry where great growth within students occurs almost out of nowhere – or when a well-planned event collapses in a heap, only to give way to something spontaneous and holy. Momentum assumes consistency and inertia simply from the best laid plans of a ministry’s leaders. Momentum is only what is visible, as though the tree planted by streams of water could claim all the credit for its fruit. We, as the branches, obviously made the work a little easier for the vine, and were given an increase because of our superior branching system.

Momentum is a cruel mistress. It is blessing for effort, praise for the earning, delight attributed to those of superior skill. It is an idol shaped like the very hand of God. At its root it stands with the king of Assyria in Isaiah 10 and claims, “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding” (Isa. 10:12b).

So, like most forms of arrogance, when momentum is exposed as pride, it is redeemed by a repentant heart. The Gospel reaches even to those of us who see borne fruit and claim some arbitrary concept like momentum as its source of life. God is good enough and kind enough to remind us that our salvation lies in both rest and repentance, and our strength in quietness and confidence (Isaiah 30:15).

If your ministry was thriving at the onset of the coronavirus, good! If it thrived and you claimed its fruit as the product of momentum, then join me and mourn our folly – repent boldly, and praise the God who brings the harvest as he sees fit. Putting your trust in momentum builds your house not only on the sand, but on the shifting tides of the waves. When momentum increases, praise the Lord. When momentum ceases, praise the Lord.

Momentum is a fool’s god. It is an idol full of cheer when the tide is high, and merciless when the tide is low. But the God of the Heavens and the earth brings fruit in season, sometimes through the stormy waves and sometimes beside still waters. He controls tides, and he created shifting sands. He is not moved by inertia, nor statistics, nor upswings, nor ebbs, nor downturns, nor crashes. He is the author and source of everything good and pleasant and beautiful and true. Though circumstances halt and slow, in God everything is held together and in him we live and move and have our being. His providence sometimes aligns with the momentum of our ministries, and sometimes in his sovereign grace he laughs at our best calculations. In all of these ways is he is perfectly good, strong, and kind.

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