August 27, 2016

I Inspired Churchgoers Just Enough to Buy My Album

When I started music ministry more than 20 years ago, I knew how to act the part — and act it well.

I placed a strong emphasis on carefully wording what I was going to say. I kept the stage talk light and full of humor, speaking about Jesus just enough to qualify the event as spiritual but not so much that I would push people away.

“If I’m going to be successful,” I thought to myself, “I need to hit those high notes, be funny, and entertain this crowd!”

I truly loved God, but I assumed that my abilities were the key ingredient for His ministry.

Entertain, but don’t discomfort. Planning events involved selecting several upbeat songs, followed by a few slow tear-jerker ballads; what humorous material I was going to interject between songs; and where I was going to conveniently place my merchandise table on the way out of the building.

Adam Ferguson pictured today. (Photos courtesy of the author)

I remember sitting in an auditorium at the age of 18 and meticulously transcribing the behavior of Christian music singer Steve Green at a concert. I went on to build on that, make it my own, and do it well only a few years later.

I had the act down. Look: I am a reasonably attractive guy; I know how to work a crowd; and I can dress to the nines. And I played it. I relied on that for years.

But what did I accomplish? I entertained people. I pacified people. I gave them just enough Jesus to inspire them to buy an album, but not enough to break them down at the foot of His cross. Or risk them walking out. Or not inviting me to speak or sing again.

I was shortchanging the audiences, and I was limiting my own experience as well. When the crowds didn’t show up and the glowing feedback dimmed, I held myself responsible for not achieving my construct of what constitutes success. Self-centeredness, anxiety, and fear formed a vicious cycle. I gauged the success of my ministry along the response of the crowd, and not upon the assurances of the Master.

I truly, deeply regret my attitude toward ministry during those years. But I learned an important lesson about ministry along the way: True ministry is about doing things for the Master, and a successful God-ordained ministry will frequently become unpopular with those seeking entertainment more than Jesus.

Consider these faithful ministers:

  • Noah. Called crazy, and his ministry was unpopular.
  • Every major and minor biblical prophet. Called crazy, and they were unpopular and rejected by the majority.
  • John the Baptist. Called crazy and killed.
  • Jesus. Called demon-possessed, and many followers abandoned Him before His death (“Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’ …From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. John 6:60, 66.)
  • The 12 apostles. Called crazy, and only John wasn’t killed.
  • Paul. Called crazy and experienced rejection from both the world and the early Christian church. He wrote most of the New Testament.
  • The Waldensians and the other reformers. Called crazy and killed century after century.
  • Ellen White. Ignored by some, her ministry was “relocated” to Australia by some church leaders, who perhaps thought she would be less significant there.

Now rethink what a successful ministry means for you:

  • An increase in blog followers?
  • A hike in upvotes?
  • Greater online purchases at your website?
  • A full calendar?

Absolutely not. A successful ministry will:

  • Uplift Jesus
  • Stoop to serve others in grace
  • Share messages that sound to those not following Jesus as “too harsh,” “unorthodox,” or “divisive,” even when always spoken in love.
  • Be ridiculed, rejected, or worse by the world and sometimes, by elements within the church.

Interestingly, years later, when my attitude was reforming, an improved focus on God did not always equate to popular opinion. Exchanging the entertainment formula for authenticity often made things less appealing to many audiences. God did not bankroll my missing dividends.

But I believe that you will be rejected by those not aligned with Jesus if you are ministering effectively in love, with grace, and also in “straight-up truth.” You also, however will be standing on the Rock. Right where God wants you.

Paul wrote in Philippians 1:29: “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”

Paul is echoed by Ellen White, who wrote in Education, p 57: “The greatest want of the world is the want of men — men who will not be bought or sold; men who in their inmost souls are true and honest; men who do not fear to call sin by its right name; men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole; men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.”

Growth and popularity have never been the hallmarks of a true ministry. There may be initial growth, but the ministry that will not compromise, calculate, and strategize its message to fit with the world may eventually appear to stumble and drag. It’s ultimately far better to take up the cross than to sit enthroned on a ministry of superficiality.

Adam Ferguson, a seventh-generation Seventh-day Adventist and pastor’s son, sang for several Adventist ministries after graduating from Southern Adventist University in 1998. Today he works at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Training Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and ministers as a singer, speaker, and blogger.