Mastering Ministry in the Public Places

One place I spend a lot of time at is California State University of Fullerton. Our church, EvFree Fullerton, has had a heart to reach that campus for quite a while without a strong sense of how to do it.

For some reason they figured I’d be a good person to try and figure it out.

To help in trying to make an impact, I try to have areas of consistent presence. One such area of presence I have is a table in front of the school cafeteria, the Gastronome. It’s a rare place of consistent traffic where the on-campus culture is beginning to grow. At this table we simply showcase water and candy. We do have flyers present for when the opportunity presents itself, but we take pains to be eminently relational.

By tabling, I’ve learned a couple of lessons about what it means to occupy a public space for ministry. Here are a couple:

Recognize you are a public figure…

It’s almost magic: as soon as you put up a table you become more than a standard passer-by; you become a representative, a person of influence either to receive or to reject. You go from just another person to a public figure. The difference is palpable and very real. If you are not intentional in that space you risk doing more damage to your cause than you would otherwise.

Be mindful of what you are broadcasting on a public level. This includes everything about you down to the way you dress. In a very real way, you are putting on visual display what it means to be a part of what you are representing. Are you presenting an image you want associated with your cause?

This dynamic alone can be intimidating for people. The temptation is to become withdrawn. But if you press into your role as a public figure with grace, humility, and confidence people will be drawn to you.

… But don’t obsess over your public image.

At some point in every leader’s development, they begin to acclimate to the attention and begin to develop a thirst for it. This is a real danger, as you risk making yourself the center of your ministry rather than Christ or what the Spirit is doing in and through your community.

Obsessing over your image is as wrong-headed as obsessing over the wrapping paper on a present.

This is something I am beginning to relate with as I have begun to gain more comfortability in my role as a leader. Do not lose yourself in the publicity. If you obsess over the packaging of what you’re giving to people to the detriment of the substance of what you’re inviting them into you risk not only disappointing them but a real offense to God himself. Flashy showmen can easily become flashy con artists. Do not be fooled into believing that your reception as a leader is a matter of skinny jeans, a new haircut, and hip glasses.

Paul does talk about being all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22). But common sense alone is able to discern between the phoniness of shallow preachers and those who truly have a conviction that ties them to certain inflexibilities. In certain circles, Paul lacked presence (1 Corinthians 2:3). It is part of grandeur of the gospel to be spread and propagated by a ragtag band of misfits.

All that to say, be presentable, be yourself, but be real.

Prioritize relationship over anything and everything.

As a public figure you need to connect individually with those coming into contact with you. This is an absolute fundamental to ministry. If you are not able to connect with the people you come into contact with, even (and perhaps especially) if they disagree with you, you will not be effective in your context of ministry.

Have the faith to believe that in the midst of your interactions with everybody you are putting Christ on display.

Demonstrate audacious friendliness in whatever space you are in as a leader and you will be surprised by how the Spirit of God begins to work.

In fact, most contemporary examples you see popularized today are the exact opposite of this. Even in my own context of ministry at CSUF, there are a consistent showing of megaphone phonies who think they’re doing a good job by screaming condemnation at people.

Your public display of friendliness with an individual is not just a standard thing. The reception of your cause is at stake in your interaction. Every bystanders observing you will be inclined or disinclined to receive your based on the one-on-one interactions they see you engaging in.

Match your emotions with your message.

If you are truly coming with “good news” then wouldn’t you be excited, upbeat, and open whenever you shared it? And yet, we are often easily intimidated by the affront we might cause that we are cowed into being nervous, overbearing, or dour.

John writes with an energizing boldness: “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world,” (1 John 4:4). Jesus’ triumph is something we can tap into in every space and time! The battle has already been won! We are merely telling people about it.

Prayerfully discern the Spirit’s activity in the person’s life and in the space you are in.

This might not be the most evidently successful practice, but it is the most essential posture to perfect. I admit to being really bad at this. But I am beginning to see how to discern. People are everyday either in a posture of rejecting God’s activity in their life or are moving closer towards the light that shines on all of us.

You cannot coerce people into the kingdom. In fact, the only thing you can really do is try to partner with what God is already doing in a person’s life, to draw focus to it, and to eliminate the other influences that war for priority.

Likewise, you have to gain a discernment of the space you are using. For instance, there are spaces I choose to avoid for the purpose of outreach. One such space is an area in which a couple of local, high-ranking cult leaders will approach students and seek to proselytize. It’s a very tense and at times combative space on campus. While I am still seeking the Spirit’s leading on this certain section of campus I have consistently received the impression that the Spirit has different things in mind for our ministry.

In all, be shrewd.

In a bizarre parable, an owner of financial assets discovers that the manager of his assets has been dishonest. The boss informs his manager that he’s fired. In a fit of self-survival, the manager smudges the books of those who owe his boss money in order to ensure that he will be in good favor, and therefore have a job, when his boss fires him. The boss, in response, praises the manager’s shrewdness. Jesus concludes the parable with a takeaway: “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” (Luke 16:8)

The takeaway becomes clear when you consider the source of the manager’s shrewdness: shrewdness is a quality that emerges when you care enough about your mission.

For the shrewd manager, this was self-preservation. He who cared enough about his own self-preservation was able to come up with a plan to ensure his future survival. It is this trait of shrewdness that the people of God have to learn to engender in themselves if they are to be successful in their mission

But how many of us (myself included) don’t really care enough to be creative, careful, or tactical enough to tap into the heartbeat of the people and communities currently outside the sphere of the Kingdom? Eyes that cannot see opportunity or improvement belong to a heart that has already given up.

Care enough about the Kingdom and the eternal work you are a part of to be shrewd!

Hopefully you find some of these lessons helpful in your contexts of ministry.