I’ll never forget my mentor, Carson Reed, and his words to me before I left to assume my new position as the minister here in Glenmora: “Remember, Augustine and Bonhoeffer were small-church pastors.” I know those words were not a rebuke against pride or arrogance, because at that point I was simply happy to finally have a job! And I am equally sure that Dr. Reed was not anticipating greatness in my ministry on the scale of what Augustine or Dietrich Bonhoeffer achieved. I think he used my fondness for both of those great figures in church history to make this simple point: enduring, God-glorifying ministry is as likely to happen in a small church setting as it is in a church of thousands.
The lives and careers of Augustine and Bonhoeffer were quite different than ours, not only culturally, but pastorally as well. A teaching assistant in a church history class once joked, “Hippo is Greek for horse, so Augustine was literally bishop of a one-horse town.” While Hippo might not have been quite as small as his joke suggests, it was certainly no Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Milan, Antioch, or even Carthage. And yet, Augustine labored there for some 35 years. He did not consider Hippo to be a stepping stone in his career. In fact, at that point in church history, it was very irregular for church leaders to move from church to church. Those called to the ministry went where they were needed, and they usually remained there for life.
In many ways the career of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was very similar. A brilliant theologian, Bonhoeffer would spend a good deal of his career teaching at an underground seminary made up of only a handful of students. Through this and other efforts he did his best to maintain the witness of the “Confessing Church,” the segment of the church in Nazi-occupied Europe which refused to compromise its proclamation of the gospel to suit Hitler’s agenda.
My point in briefly reviewing the lives of these two great church leaders is to ask the simple question: could either of them get a book published in the world we currently inhabit? My guess is the publishers would scoff when they heard the weekly attendance at Augustine’s church in Hippo, and they certainly wouldn’t like the chances of selling thousands of copies of a book so brutally honest about the cost of discipleship. I can hear them now, “Hey Dietrich, you got anything on prosperity?”
So if Augustine wasn’t the pastor of a megachurch, and if Bonhoeffer’s writings were so challenging, why have their writings endured over the years? I think the answer lies in a truth laid out by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:
For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. (1 Cor 3:11-13)
You see, the significance of Augustine and Bonhoeffer’s work comes from its subject—Christ, the one true foundation. For those of us in ministry, it might seem easier to build with hay or straw—after all, they are lighter, cheaper, and easier to come by. However, anything made of such flimsy stuff is not built to last. Just as precious gold and precious stones may prove more costly, true ministry—ministry that brings about a lasting change and instills a deep-seated faith in others—is bound to cost us a great deal of time, effort, and perhaps even money. We invest these things willingly. Why? Because the joy of helping to bring about an enduring faith in others is worth more than anything we sacrifice in the process.
So how do we invest in order to build on the true foundation that is Christ, rather than the illusory foundation of this world? Following Augustine and Bonhoeffer’s lead, we center our ministry on Christ. One of Augustine’s major works, De Trinitate (On the Trinity), was simply an extended treatise on the nature of Christ and his position in the Godhead with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t a significant portion of our work be assisting others in the journey of asking and answering the question of “who is Jesus?” In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sought to help us understand the price that we must pay to obediently follow the one we proclaim as Lord. Helping others discern how to best follow Christ in their specific vocations and contexts can be messy, costly, and even frustrating work. It would be far easier to go for the nearest bale of hay. And yet, when we stand before Christ on that day and see familiar faces in the crowd of those preparing to worship him—when we recognize those faces as belonging to those with whom we walked, cried, felt pain, and when we realize they are the faces of those we pointed to Christ—could there be a greater reward than this? My guess is that on that day we will be thankful for every corner we didn’t cut, and for every precious stone we laid on the foundation that is Christ.
“For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess 2:19-20).