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Elliff: Hidden effectiveness better than visible success

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Comparing a life in ministry to a stick of dynamite, Southern Baptist Convention President Tom Elliff challenged Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students to explode effectively, rather than successfully.
“A stick of dynamite can be exploded successfully in the middle of a field,” Elliff told a Nov. 18 chapel audience. “But if you want to explode it effectively, go find a rock quarry someplace, place it strategically among the stones or in the face of a hard cliff of rock, and explode it. And it can create fissures within that cliff which will cause that cliff to disintegrate for years to come.
“Our lives are like that,” the pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, Okla., went on to explain. “You can expend your life like some bottle rocket, successfully, or you can go to someplace, maybe even some obscure place, and there pour out the energies of your life, and the result will be fissures and cracks in the culture that will for years to come have an impact.”
Speaking at the Kansas City, Mo., campus, Elliff noted several differences between those who strive for success and those who focus on effectiveness in ministry.
“A person who is focused on success would be interested in appearance — the appearance of his office or maybe his physical appearance,” Elliff said. “A person focused on effectiveness is thinking about reality. And the appearance of the office he studies in is not so important to him as the activity which takes place in his prayer closet, which no one will ever see.”
Likewise, Elliff said, those who seek to be effective will focus on the certainty of their calling rather than the size of their church, the opportunities for service instead of what they will receive for serving, and the work they can do today instead of where they will be tomorrow.
In order to ensure this type of effectiveness in their lives, Elliff challenged listeners to adopt three keys to effectiveness found in Paul’s words in Romans 1:1.
“I don’t think any of us would question that the Apostle Paul was not merely successful; he was an effective minister of the gospel,” Elliff noted. “Talk about exploding your life in a place that for the most part was obscure, and yet creating fissures that bore results for years afterward — that was the Apostle Paul. Here’s a life spent sometimes in prison, and sometimes on a deserted island, and sometimes on ships that were going to fall apart. But two-thirds of the Mediterranean world was touched by the gospel during his brief life span.”
Elliff began by showing how Paul’s description as a bond-servant of Christ Jesus showed his confidence in the controller of his life. Elliff explained how Jewish slaves received their freedom after seven years of service to a Jewish slaveholder. However, if they saw their master as particularly compassionate and admirable, they might choose to remain with them rather than go free. To signify this, they would have their ear pierced, giving them a mark or stigmata that identified them forever as a bond-slave.
“What do you think people say when they saw him shopping with that stigmata in his ear?” asked Elliff regarding such a bond-slave. “They said, ‘My, what a wonderful master he must have. He could have gone free, and he chose to spend the rest of his life attending to the needs of his master, knowing that no one would take better care of him than that master.'”
Elliff then explained how Paul viewed the marks and scars in his body not as the cruel results of a hard life in ministry, but rather as indication of the greatness of Christ, his master. In contrast, Elliff decried the attitude of some modern ministers toward the difficulties of Christian service.
“It is to me the ultimate irony that there is a breed of ministers today whose goal is to go through life unscathed and unmarked,” Elliff stated. “As a matter of fact, they consider it the utmost of discretion and perceptiveness to see when trouble is about to happen and get away from it.”
Continuing in Romans 1:1, Elliff described the second key of Paul’s success as his consciousness of call. When Paul identified himself as one called as an apostle, Elliff said, he was recognizing the centrality of his calling in his life. Likewise, Elliff said, those who enter the ministry today must do so based on a clear calling and not on a logical vocational decision.
“Ministry is not a mere profession — it is a consuming of your life in response to the call of God,” Elliff declared. “It is one thing for Jesus to suffer and bleed and die the most cruel and inhuman death you can ever imagine on the cross of Calvary. It’s another thing for some sorted bunch of people to sit and figure out how much money they can make telling that story.”
Such a consciousness of call is vital to perseverance in ministry, Elliff said.
“This whole issue of life in the ministry hangs upon your consciousness of the call of God,” Elliff told students. “Sometimes that’s all that will keep you there, in that hidden-away crack someplace in God’s great quarry, wondering in the midst of all the stony hearts if you’re making any difference. But God says, ‘You just explode right there, and walls that you don’t know anything about will fall years after you die.'”
Paul’s third key to effective ministry, Elliff said, was the contentment he had with the circumference of his life. This is shown by Paul’s declaration in Romans 1:1 that he was set apart for the gospel, and that he was at peace with the perimeters of his life. Elliff noted how rare such an attitude is among ministers today.
“If you get there, you are in a rarefied atmosphere most ministers will never experience — to be content within the circumference of your life,” Elliff said. “I guarantee we wouldn’t have to drive far out of this town to find some field of cows who have behind them dozens of acres of lush grass and water, and in front of them they’ve stuck their heads through the barbed wire and they’re drinking and eating out of a bar ditch. There’s something about that fence that says, ‘I want to be on the other side,’ and there’s something about our hearts that make us so discontented with the perimeter God has put around our lives.”
Elliff called students to develop the effectiveness that comes from being content with God’s boundaries on their lives.
“What are the perimeters of your life?” Elliff asked. “Some of you have age perimeters. Some of you have physical perimeters. Some of you have geographical perimeters. God has put these in your life as a way of fencing you in to the part of his harvest field where he knows you can do the best work, or into that corner of his quarry where he knows that when you explode, you really will make a difference.”

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  • Clinton Wolf