Making the best use of the time in Christian ministry

by | 11 May, 2021

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because
the days are evil.” Eph. 5:15-16 (ESV UK)

I grew up as a “third culture” kid, not quite fitting in with the culture of my heritage (South Indian)
nor the culture of my upbringing (a mix of South African cultures). Much of life in South Africa is
shaped by Western values. One dimension in which this plays out is how life is organised to run
according to a schedule. Time is a finite resource. Work is oriented towards getting as many
tasks as possible done in as little time as possible. In both indigenous South African and South
Indian cultures, time never runs out. What’s the rush? These cultures are typically more oriented
towards people and relationships. And relationships demand time.

One international student worker related how he invited some students who weren’t returning
home over the Christmas break for Christmas lunch with his very English relatives. One of them
didn’t turn up at the appointed time. He still wasn’t there an hour later. The English relatives
grew more and more agitated. Eventually, lunch was served in his absence. Hours later, he
turned up! The English relatives were taken aback, not quite sure how to respond. It emerged
that he bumped into someone from his immigrant community on the way to lunch who
proceeded to insist he first join them for lunch. He did! To respond in any other manner would
have been an insult. For him, the power of presence outweighed the constraints of time.

Conservative evangelicalism is dominated by Western European culture – not surprising given
the history of the movement. One consequence is that when it comes to our attitudes to making
the best use of the time, we tend to reflect this cultural bias. The buzzing churches within this
tradition often emphasise several distinct ministry areas and deliberately seek to establish new
offshoots. They are typically highly structured, performance-oriented and expect their people to
commit time and resources to worthwhile programs. Gospel urgency translates into “do as much
as possible in as little time as possible.” There is certainly wisdom in careful planning, thoughtful
structure and diligent work. But is there room to enrich our practice by reflecting elements of
other cultures within our communities?

I recall the hours of largely unstructured time I spent with other Christian students and gospel
workers at university. Granted, the flexibility of being a student allows for more of this. If those

gospel workers were evaluated on their performance, they would have struggled to point to
much measurable output. Yet over weeks, months and years, students were shaped into
disciples of Jesus. They became saturated with biblical truth and related to one another in love
and integrity. They formed a community that was observably distinct yet integrated with the rest
of the campus.

There are real spiritual dangers involved in trying to do too much in too little time. Kevin
DeYoung highlights three: it can ruin our joy, rob our hearts, and cover up the rot in our souls.
My own experience in a task-oriented, performance-driven ministry context bears this out.
Though I would have said that people mattered most, my hurried self-importance
communicated the opposite. In God’s goodness, people came to know him and matured in their
love for him. There was a significant amount of measurable output. But over time, people grew
exhausted due to the demands placed on them, relationships lacked depth, and labourers
became disgruntled.

There are dangers at the other extreme: laziness, poor stewardship of resources, and a lack of
gospel urgency, to name a few. However, the bent of our tradition is towards thinking of time as
a utility and accomplishing tasks as paramount. Could making the best use of the time include
spending unstructured hours just relating to others? Is it worth recalibrating our schedules to
create space for “inefficient lingering”? For some of us, this is second nature. For others of us, it
may sound like a nice sentiment that is far too impractical. If it feels a little foreign to you, seek
out a few people from slower cultures. You may not have to go very far. Enter their spaces and…
linger. You may be surprised at what you discover.

Cultures are rich and diverse. Though particular cultures often dominate specific spaces, the new
community of God’s people exists as a “third culture” in which we should all feel a little
uncomfortable yet at home. Rather than viewing time as a burdensome taskmaster or a finite
resource to be exploited, it is an abundant gift that enables us to press towards other people.
Relationships, by nature, are organic and often spontaneous. Let us give them space to flourish.

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MADHUSH KORUTH MATHEWS is a sinner who’s slowly being conformed into the likeness of his
saviour, Jesus Christ. He served as a pastor in Johannesburg for several years in an ethnically and
socio-economically diverse congregation. He is married and has two young children.

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