1. Leaving a Trail of Dust

1 Ministry Is...
Leaving a Trail of Dust
Dave Earley

True greatness, true leadership is achieved not by reducing men to one's service, but in giving oneself in selfless service to them.

J. Oswald Sanders

When I (Dave) was a little kid, I loved to read the cartoons in the Sunday paper. One of my favorites was Peanuts. First printed in 1950, Peanuts is one of the most popular syndicated cartoons of all time and is still in Sunday papers today. One reason it is so well loved is because it has such a fascinating collection of characters. This cast of characters includes Charlie Brown, the ever-unfortunate boy; Snoopy, his beagle dog; Linus, the boy with his blankie; Linus's mean sister, Lucy; the piano playing boy named Schroder; and Pig Pen, my favorite. The thing I especially loved about Pig Pen was that wherever he went he was followed by a cloud of dust.

Real ministry is not about being so dirty that a cloud of dust follows us. But it is about being so busy getting our hands dirty serving God that we leave a trail of dust in our wake.

Leaving a Trail of Dust

The most common Greek term used in the New Testament for the verb "to minister" is διακονεω (22 times, plus 10 times it is rendered as "to serve"). Diakonos is the most common Greek term used in the New Testament for the noun "minister" (20 times as "minister," plus eight times as "servant," and three times as "deacon"). In Phil 1:1 and 1 Tim 3:8-13 it denotes an office in the church. But almost everywhere else the word is used in a more general sense.

It indicates not just "work" in general but primarily "work that benefits someone else." Paul used the word diakonos to describe himself as a servant of the Lord (1 Cor 3:5), "God's ministers" (2 Cor 6:4), "ministers of a new covenant" (2 Cor 3:6), "a servant of this gospel" (Eph 3:7), and "a minister of the church" (Col 1:25).

Paul noted that many of his coworkers were also servants: the woman Phoebe (Rom 16:1) and the men Tychicus (Eph 6:21; Col 4:7), Timothy (1 Tim 4:6) and Epaphras (Col 1:7). Jesus said that His followers should be servants (Matt 20:26; 23:11; John 12:26). All Christians must do the work of a servant or minister. We are all servants or ministers of Christ, servants of His message and servants of one another.

While we are not certain of its origin, it could be the product of compounding the words δια("spreading") and κονις ("dust"), to mean, properly, "raising dust by activity." Hence, being a "minister" is not merely having the title "minister" or "deacon" or "servant" but "serving so actively that a trail of dust follows in our wake." It is about doing what needs to be done. It is not about the title we are given but rather the work that we do—we serve. It is about getting dirty in order to make others clean. Wasn't that what Jesus was all about anyway?

I once spoke at a church that was exploding in growth by reaching public university students with the gospel. I was somewhat surprised to see several obviously postcollege age adults diligently serving the students as they arrived. The pastor of the church pulled me aside and commented that the cheerful man carrying the chairs was the city manager, the smiling gentlemen at the door welcoming every guest was a downtown lawyer, the grinning man taking the offering was a distinguished professor, and the happy lady running the nursery was a nurse. Each was also a member of the leadership team.

Unlike some churches that nominate and vote on deacons in a sort of popularity contest, they had a different approach. They chose those who were the greatest servants. The pastor said that they looked for "a cloud of dust" and selected the ones who were so actively serving that they left "the cloud" in their wake.

Real Ministry Is Getting Dirty for God

After my freshmen year in college, I spent a summer with Teen Missions International. Their motto was, and still is, "Get Dirty for God." We spent our first two weeks outside Merritt Island, Florida, living in pup tents in the jungle. The days were long, hard, and muddy.

I had heard about Teen Missions because the founder, Bob Bland, spent many years as a Youth for Christ director and as the recruitment director for the Christian Service Corps in my hometown. He founded Teen Missions with a group of men and women who were passionate about getting youth involved in missions. He wanted to get young people plugged into ministry before they had completed their college degree.

His innovative idea of involving teenagers in missions continued to develop from a single trip to Mexico and now boasts of more than 40 teams that travel to 30 countries each year. The goal of Teen Missions is to awaken teenagers to the needs in missions, acquaint them with the reality of life on the mission field, and give them an opportunity to serve the Lord through work projects and evangelism. The success of Teen Missions the last 40 years lies in the fact that teens get to experience real ministry.

My summer with Teen Missions was one of the most difficult in my life. The adventure of being far from home, sleeping on an air mattress in a church hallway, eating tomato soup, and bathing and shaving out of a bucket lost its novelty in a few days. Ten straight weeks of tough, draining ministry got tiring. Yet it was worth it because I had the opportunity to work with God and others in His kingdom. I was able to "get dirty for God" in order to clean others up for God. I led several young men to Christ and discipled them. It changed their lives ... and mine.

Real Ministry Is Serving Others

Jesus' disciples were competitive young men. As they traveled together, I imagine that they joked a lot, argued about many things, and jockeyed for position. One day James and John let their competitive natures get the best of them.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Him and said, "Teacher, we want You to do something for us if we ask You."

"What do you want Me to do for you?" He asked them. They answered Him, "Allow us to sit at Your right and at Your left in Your glory."...

When the other 10 disciples heard this, they began to be indignant with James and John. (Mark 10:35-37, 41)

Whoa! Did you catch that? James and John were seeking high positions, asking to be the number-one- and number-two-ranked spiritual leaders in the kingdom of God. They wanted to be great in God's kingdom.

Also notice that they totally left the other 10 disciples out of the discussion. When the other 10 found out about it, they were not thrilled. Neither was Jesus.

Sometimes young leaders assume that Christian leadership is about titles and positions (sometimes older leaders do as well, for that matter). They assume that success is measured by the size of their office, or their paycheck, the name on their door, and how many people report to them. They think the trappings of success equal greatness. But they are wrong.

Jesus called them over and said to them, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and their men of high positions exercise power over them. But it must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all." (Mark 10:42-44)

Notice that Jesus said real greatness comes from being a "servant" (διακονος) and a "slave" (δουλος). Jesus wanted His young followers to understand that unlike the world system, when it comes to Christian leadership, the measure of real success is service. It is being willing to get dirty in order to benefit others.

Real Christian ministry is not about being over people and bossing them around. It is about getting under people and lifting them up. It is not about getting but about giving. It is not about being served; it is about serving and sacrifice.

If Jesus' words were not enough, He wanted them to consider His example. After all, if Jesus Himself left His high position to serve and sacrifice for us, shouldn't we, as His disciples, do the same?

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

Jesus is God. Prior to coming to Bethlehem, He had existed in heaven throughout all eternity. As God, He was the richest, most powerful being in the universe. Angels served His every need. Yet, when He came to earth, He did not come to be served but to serve.

Jesus did more than come to serve. He also came to give, and not just a convenient, comfortable amount. He gave it all. He gave His life in order to provide a ransom for our sins.

Real Ministry Is Doing Your Part

The first-century Corinthian Christians were not known as spiritual giants. In Paul's first letter to them, he tries to help them sort out several questions and issues. He rebukes them for their carnality, envy, strife, and divisiveness. Then he scolds them for their childish practice of choosing sides and lining up behind various Christian leaders.

Brothers, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were not yet able to receive it. In fact, you are still not able, because you are still fleshly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and living like ordinary people? For whenever someone says, "I'm with Paul," and another, "I'm with Apollos," are you not typical men? (1 Cor 3:1-4)

Paul was a man who understood real ministry. He lived the life of a servant (διακονος)—Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25) and a slave to God (δουλος—Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1). To him the Corinthians' futile attempt to rank him and Apollos was foolishness. After all, God is the ultimate author of spiritual life and fruit. He and Apollos were merely ministers (διακονος) carrying out their assignments.

In your life in church ministry, you may have the title "lead pastor." You may be called "youth pastor" or "worship leader." You may serve as "children's ministry director" or "women's ministry director." Or you may have no title at all. That's not the point.

You might be paid a ton of money, have a large staff, enjoy a nice office, get many weeks of paid vacation, and have a bunch of benefits. Or you may receive no compensation at all. It ultimately will not matter.

What will matter is whether you have faithfully carried out the assignment God gave you. Real ministry is simply doing your part.

Real Ministry Is Not for Cowards

Paul described his ministry (διακονια) as blameless (2 Cor 6:3) and himself as a minister (διακονος) who was commendable to God (2 Cor 6:4). Why? Did he have a large church? Did he pack out concert arenas? Did everyone download his podcasts? No way!

It is stunning to read what made Paul's ministry acceptable to God. Reading Paul's words is extremely challenging to us who have accepted the call to be a servant of God. Note what Paul writes:

We give no opportunity for stumbling to anyone, so that the ministry will not be blamed. But in everything, as God's ministers, we commend ourselves: by great endurance, by afflictions, by hardship, by pressures, by beatings, by imprisonments, by riots, by labors, by sleepless nights, by times of hunger, by purity, by knowledge, by patience, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the message of truth, by the power of God; through weapons of righteousness on the right hand and the left, through glory and dishonor, through slander and good report; as deceivers yet true; as unknown yet recognized; as dying and look—we live; as being chastened yet not killed; as grieving yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:3-10)

Did you catch that? In order to carry out his assignment and be a real minister doing real ministry, Paul was ready to face any consequence of serving God—good and bad. Real ministry is not for cowards or wimps. It can be excruciatingly hard and extremely costly. But according to Paul, it is ultimately worth it as the real minister is known by God, is fully alive, is full of joy, is eternally rich, and ultimately possesses all things (see vv. 9-10).

Real Ministry Is Serving No Matter What

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul adds further to the picture of what it might mean to be a minister (διακονος—2 Cor 11:23) of Christ. The Corinthian Christians were being led astray by some false apostles. Paul wanted them to understand what a real servant of Christ was like so he listed some of his ministry credentials. Yet, instead of listing his academic achievements, or the books he had written, or the number of churches he had planted, or his other incredible successes, Paul talked about what it meant to be a servant of Christ. His description demystifies the concept of serving Christ and helps us see that there is no earthly glamour or glory in it.

According to his testimony in 2 Cor 11:23-31, Paul as the minister of Jesus Christ faced labors, imprisonments, and "far worse beatings, near death many times" (v. 23). He worked hard, regularly went without sleep, was often homeless, and suffered hardships most of us only experience in our nightmares. Serving Jesus meant dishonor and being regarded as a fraud. Being a servant was not about convenience or comfort but rather dying to self and giving up all rights to a comfortable life. Yet Paul considered his ministry a privilege.

Paul makes it crystal clear—the real servant of Christ serves in spite of difficulties and dangers. Servants of Christ are to expect calloused hands and broken hearts. Significant pain, serious perils, and severe persecutions are part of the territory. Scars and prison bars may be involved. The true servant of Christ will serve no matter what.

Paul does not talk of big salaries. He does not mention fame and fortune or prestigious assignments. Instead Paul said that he experienced exhausting labor, frequent imprisonments, severe physical persecution, and outright torture—all in order to serve Jesus no matter what. He said that his life was one of constant danger, never-ending toil, and extreme deprivation. Forty lashes! Being beaten with rods! Being stoned to death!

Go into ministry with your eyes wide-open. Yes, serving Jesus has its high points and rewards, but some days it's little more than hard work. It could lead to misunderstanding, rejection, oppression, and outright persecution. Real ministry often leads us out of comfort and convenience into dangerous situations. It is serving no matter what. But no matter what, serving Jesus is always ultimately worth it because He is worth it.

Now What?

What activities are you doing that mark you as a servant of Jesus? Who are you serving? When are you serving? What is your assignment?

What is your attitude as a servant? Are you in it for what you can give or for what you can get? Do you place limits on your service, or will you serve no matter what?

Ministry Is...

  1. Leaving a trail of dust.
  2. Getting dirty in order to make others clean.
  3. Serving.
  4. Fulfilling your assignment and doing your part.
  5. Not for cowards.
  6. Serving Christ, no matter what.


If you don't want to serve, you don't want to be in the ministry.

David and Warren Wiersbe

You say you're a servant of Jesus Christ, show me your scars.

John Macarthur

God is not necessarily looking for leaders, at least not in the sense we generally think of leaders. He is looking for servants (Isa 59:16; Ezek 22:30). When God finds men and women willing to be molded into his servants, the possibilities are limitless.

Henry and Richard Blackaby

Ministers are servants who lead and leaders who serve.

David and Warren Wiersbe