It is not hyperbole. To be sure, it is an understatement. I have much for which to be thankful to God, in 2021.
Thankful in 2021: A Diverse List
Of course, every day the Lord gives me opportunities to be thankful, even during moments of concern (Philippians 4:5-8). However, here is a short list of things for which I am thankful this year.
- The announcement of not one, but two grandchildren arriving in Spring 2022.
- A heart procedure that appears to have gone well.
- Gospel ministry almost every day in Davenport, Iowa, as well as ministry opportunities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and California.
- An ACTUAL vacation, which included sitting on a beach for an extended period of time, while holding hands with Mahria.
- Read the entire Bible aloud for the fifth year in a row.
- Starting a fishing channel on YouTube that will hopefully, one day generate a little income (so “like” and subscribe, please).
- Having several members of my church family join me for local fishing trips.
- Starting and leading a chess club with another brother, for the kids in our church family.
- Another profitable time leading a brother through the Timothy Project.
- Filling the pulpit for a pastor, multiple times, at a small country church.
Certainly, there are items on the list that are list-toppers in their own right, and the list could be much longer. However, there is something very personal I am putting at the top of the list. It’s this: I no longer have a ministry.
Needless to say, this will take a bit of explaining.
22 Years of Ministry
I have been in full-time ministry, in one capacity or another, for almost 22 years: ministry board of directors member, church planter, chaplain, ministry director, evangelist.
The Lord allowed me to shepherd a small group of wonderful people, for about two years.
I have written and published three books, two booklets, and an unknown number of articles and gospel tracts.
The Lord has allowed me to evangelize lost people in 23 states, the District of Columbia, and seven foreign countries.
I have preached in numerous churches, memorial services, weddings, civic events, and conferences.
In God’s providence, I was allowed the privilege to serve as a chaplain to the largest sheriff’s department in the country for eight years and minister to many law enforcement professionals around the world. I once had the honor and privilege of proclaiming the gospel to thousands of uniformed officers, as I officiated the memorial service for a fallen deputy sheriff.
For over four years, I had had the privilege of working alongside evangelist Ray Comfort and the wonderful team of Christians at Living Waters. It was my responsibility to develop and lead a training apparatus that resulted in the evangelistic training of almost 1,000 men and women from 49 states and several foreign countries. I also developed and led massive, one-day projects that each resulted in the distribution of 100,000 books and other Christian literature, on more than 100 college and university campuses.
I have hosted and co-hosted several programs on radio and online.
My gospel-related content on YouTube has to date more than three million views. (I know that’s a small number when you consider a 45-second video of kittens singing “Joy-Joy-Joy” has racked up almost 20 million views.)
I have placed gospel tracts into the hands of tens of thousands of people and on thousands of cars.
As a result of open-air preaching and one-to-one conversations, I have communicated the gospel, in part or in whole, to tens of thousands of people.
Some people may read the above list of accomplishments and think it’s an impressive, evangelistic resume. Others? Well, for them it might not generate more than or so much as a respectful upward nod of the head. If the above list of accomplishments doesn’t impress you, don’t worry. It doesn’t impress me either. Oh, it used to impress me, I assure you. But not anymore. While I’m impressed by what God has done and what He has allowed me to do, I’m not impressed with anything I have done.
Believe it or not, this is more than a “humblebrag.” God has renewed my mind.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may approve what the will of God is, that which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2, LSB).
I also have it on very good authority–the best, in fact–that God isn’t impressed with me either.
“But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and, clothing yourself properly, serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’? Is he grateful to the slave because he did the things which were commanded? In this way, you also, when you do all the things which are commanded of you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done’” (Luke 17:7-10, LSB).
Regardless of how my evangelistic resume is seen by others, whether praised or found wanting, in the end, a lot of it, eternally speaking as it pertains to rewards, might not be worth the paper on which it is written. A lot of it might burn up.
A Lot of It Might Burn Up
I will never know this side of heaven how many people God–the God of means–saved while using me to proclaim the gospel. While I am confident the Lord has used me over the last two decades, and while, at the same time, I am confident the Lord has done amazing things in spite of me, I am likewise confident that some of the gospel work I have done over the years will, in the end, burn up.
“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident, for the day will indicate it because it is revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15, LSB).
For the sake of time, I will allow two more learned men to unpack the key verse in this passage–key as it pertains to my testimony in this article.
Barnes and MacArthur
Theologian Albert Barnes wrote:
“If any man’s work shall be burned – If it shall not be found to hear the test of the investigation of that Day – as a cottage of wood, hay, and stubble would not bear the application of fire. If his doctrines have not been true; if he has had mistaken views of piety; if he has nourished feelings which he thought were those of religion; and inculcated practices which, however well-meant, are not such as the gospel produces; if he has fallen into error of opinion, feeling, practice, however conscientious, yet he shall suffer loss.”
Some commentators limit the “wood, hay, and stubble” to which the apostle Paul metaphorically refers to doctrinal error. Others, like Barnes, agree that Paul is referencing doctrinal error. However, Barnes, also like others, broadens his scope to other factors that impact the eternal reward associated with a man’s ministry. Barnes includes mistaken views of piety, errant interpretation and application of feelings, and unbiblical and extra-biblical practices.
According to Pastor John MacArthur:
“Many humanly impressive and seemingly beautiful and worthwhile works that Christians do in the Lord’s name will not stand the test in ‘that day.’ It ‘will become evident’ (v. 13) that the materials used were wood, hay, and straw. The workmen will not lose their salvation, but they will lose a portion of any reward they might be expecting. They shall be saved, yet so as through fire. The thought here is of a person who runs through flames without being burned, but who has the smell of smoke on him–barely escaping! In the day of rewards, the useless and evil things will be burned away, but salvation will not be forfeited” (1 Corinthians Commentary, p. 85).
‘Humanly Impressive and Seemingly Beautiful and Worthwhile’ Hay, Wood, and Stubble
If you ask me how much of the gospel work I’ve done over the last two decades will be seen by God as gold, silver, and precious stones or hay, wood, and stubble, I cannot say. I do not know the mind of the Lord or offer Him counsel (Romans 11:33-36). If anyone thinks he can answer such a question with any level of accuracy, he likely lacks spiritual sobriety and thinks more highly of himself than he ought (Romans 12:3).
But I’m soberly and mournfully confident of this. Even though I might be able to point to what MacArthur describes as “humanly impressive and seemingly beautiful and worthwhile works,” an unknown amount of my gospel work over the last two decades–particularly over the first 15 years of full-time ministry, will likely burn up. The reason: so much of what I’ve done has been my ministry. While I have been part of a local church my entire Christian life (too many local churches; but that’s an article for another day), almost all of my evangelistic ministry has not been a ministry of the local church. It has been Tony’s ministry. Even the banner on this website testifies to this reality: “Cross Encounters: with Tony Miano.”
My ideas. My desires. I went wherever I wanted to go, and I did whatever I wanted to do.
I answered to no one, not in any real, appreciable way. So, I formed “advisory boards”–groups of well-intended, Christian men who had no real, actual authority over my life or over the ministries they advised. I had to make it at least look like I had some accountability. These men were not “yes men.” Most of them were pastors/elders, but they weren’t my pastors/elders. They could give me advice, but I could simply take it or leave it.
As I went about establishing, building, and maintaining my ministry, I knew all of the following statements were true:
- There are no parachurch ministries in the Bible.
- There are no Boards of Directors in the Bible.
- There are no Advisory Boards in the Bible.
- There is the local church.
- There are pastors/elders who shepherd local churches.
- There are those who are called and sent by local churches.
I even preached these truths in churches and at conferences and I’ve written about them in numerous blog articles.
It is true that since 2004 I have been called and/or affirmed as a street evangelist in each church of which I have been a member. I’ve taken to the streets with the ecclesiastic support and the confidence of my pastors/elders. But again, the street ministry in which I engaged was mine. Up to five years ago, I raised all the necessary financial support. I kept the books. I handled all of the promotion (self-promotion). I established my own schedule, telling my pastors what I was doing and where I was going as a courtesy and more often than not as an afterthought. I accepted and declined invitations to speak at churches and conferences.
So much of the ministry I was doing was predicated on keeping the ministry alive. Yes, I wanted to serve the Lord as an evangelist. Yes, I wanted to see people–every person with whom I spoke, or to whom I handed a tract or preached–come to genuine repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. However, often in the back of my mind and sometimes in the fore, I was thinking things like this:
- Maybe if I preach at this church they will support the ministry.
- Maybe if I speak at this conference more people will follow the ministry.
- If I work with this person or that person…
- If this person endorses my book…
- I wonder how many views this conversation (or open-air sermon) will get on YouTube.
- This post (or blog article or tweet) oughta fire up some people.
- This is how much I still have to raise this month to pay the bills.
Ask me back then if these things mattered to me when I was doing the work of the ministry and I likely would have denied it. I had to. I couldn’t bear the thought that my motives weren’t pure, that I had ulterior motives at times when I hit the streets, or posted a blog or video.
Am I suggesting that I no longer ever think in these ways? No. Just as my theology is reformed and reforming, just as my philosophy of ministry has matured and is maturing, so, too, has my thinking been renewed and is being renewed day-by-day. This has been a process–an ongoing process. I have been in this process for years–certainly for at least the last five years. And it is only now that I think I am far enough along in this process that I can write honestly about who I was and about how the Lord is conforming me to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).
So, what’s changed?
Thankful They Didn’t Care About My Ministry
In December 2016, my family and I moved from Southern California to Davenport, Iowa. The reason for our move was to join Grace Fellowship Church. How the Lord brought this about is too long a story to share, here.
It has been suggested by some that I moved my family to Iowa because I was promised by the leadership of the church that I would be called to serve as an elder. Not true. Yes, I expressed to the pastors before moving to Iowa that I aspired to serve as an elder (1 Timothy 3:1). However, there was no quid pro quo. It’s worth noting that now five years into my time at Grace Fellowship Church, I am not an elder–not because of broken promises, but because no such promise was ever made. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the promise made to me by the pastors of Grace Fellowship Church would attract very few, if any, of those who today call themselves “street evangelists.”
What was the promise?
I was promised that my family and I would be shepherded as members of the Grace Fellowship Church family. And it was made very clear to me that I was not an evangelistic “hired gun.” Yes, the pastors would send me out to serve the church as an evangelist. But it was also made clear that if the need ever arose, they would pull me off the streets. If the pastors ever determined that it was best for me and my family that I did not serve as an evangelist, they wouldn’t hesitate to make that call.
In a very real sense, my pastors didn’t care about whether or not I had an evangelistic ministry. Yes, evangelism is important to them. It is part of the DNA of our small church. Yes, they wanted me to continue the evangelistic work under the authority and shepherding of the elders. However, they cared more about me and my family, and our individual and collective walks with Christ than whether or not something called “Cross Encounters Ministries” continued to exist.
So, before I moved my family to Grace Fellowship Church in Davenport, Iowa, I knew “my ministry” would change. I knew my travel would be curtailed to trips where the local church in the area to which I traveled would be directly involved in my work, whenever possible. Gone would be the days of evangelistic guerilla incursions in other parts of the world, with no real attachment or accountability to local churches in the area. Never again would I spend up to a third of the year traveling around the country and around the world with only a hair-thin, theoretical umbilical attaching me to my local church. And I knew I would finally have real accountability over my online presence (YouTube, Facebook, etc.).
Soon after our arrival in Iowa, I learned that cleaning the church, preparing meals for the church family, the giving and receiving of hospitality (something my family had grown accustomed to avoiding), and service to the church family in other ways was every bit as important to my church family as me taking to the streets to proclaim the gospel.
I had for a long time said to myself and those close to me that this was what I wanted for me and my family. I had often pontificated from pulpits and conference platforms with words to the effect that if an evangelist wasn’t willing to clean the toilets in his church then he shouldn’t be on the streets. Now, I finally had the close shepherding I said I wanted in both my life and ministry. I finally had many of the things that I said I wanted in a church and from pastors. It was no longer theoretical, but a reality. And I found myself grappling with whether or not I really wanted it. Pontification had now become sanctification and it took some getting used to.
My pastors and I also knew that there would be a transitional period of an undetermined length to bring about some of the changes. For instance, it took some time to relieve me of the responsibility of generating and accounting for the financial support given by those outside the immediate church family. That was accomplished almost three years ago. People still give toward the work I do on the streets (and I am thankful), but they no longer give to me. They give to my church–the local church that has called and sent me out to do the work.
The goal, our goal (my pastors and I) is that Cross Encounters Ministries would cease to exist. Presently, it exists in name only and is limited to a website–a website we soon hope to phase out, integrating the massive amount of material into the church’s website.
In a sense, the goal has been and is to this day that I would no longer have a ministry.
Thankful I No Longer Have a Ministry
It’s not about me. I can actually say that now with a straight face. Can I say that every minute of every day with a straight face? No. However, I think I’ve matured enough to know when to say it and when to just keep my mouth shut and repent.
For years, I fought, manipulated, shilled, begged, and compromised to have a ministry. And I prayed. Today, I can honestly say that I fight and pray not to have a ministry.
I am an evangelist in and of a local church. The ministry is not mine. The ministry is the church’s ministry. The church belongs to the Lord, therefore the ministry is His. I am content with that. And I am thankful–oh, so very thankful.
Some may read this and with sincerity, zeal, and determination argue: “I have a ministry. It’s not a ministry of the local church, but it’s the Lord’s. My elders won’t recognize my ministry. I can’t find a church that will support what I do. But I know God has called me to be an evangelist, to be an abortion abolitionist. So, with or without the local church, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing because I know I’m doing the Lord’s work.”
If this is you, please know I love you. And I understand. Maybe more than you know.
What I’m about to say to you I have had to say to myself.
You are self-deceived.
Yes, you have a ministry. You have a ministry because, in a sense, you might have named it and claimed it. Sorry if that sounds harsh. But there’s no getting around it. You have a ministry because you decided to have a ministry. To say that God has called you to do what you are doing is to assert that you have received a new revelation from God. To say “God called me,” with no affirmation, confirmation, and sending from the elders of a local church, is no different than saying, “God told me.”
If I wouldn’t believe you if you said, “God told me,” then why would I believe you if you said, without the biblical calling and sending of the local church (and the affirmation of other street evangelists and parachurch groups don’t count), “God called me?” By what standard should I believe you?
“But look at the fruit!” You might exclaim.
I can point to lots of “fruit” during my years of full-time evangelistic ministry. But again, I fear much of it will burn up, in the end. While my salvation is intact, because God has caused me to be born again and guards my salvation in heaven (see 1 Peter 1:3-9), I believe if He took me home today my rewards would be few (see 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
That the ministry you created appears to produce “fruit” doesn’t mean your ministry belongs to the Lord. It doesn’t mean God has called you to form your own ministry. The ends do not justify the means. If the fruit is genuine, God could be causing that fruit in spite of what you’re doing, not because of what you’re doing–in spite of your ministry, not because of your ministry.
Go home. If you don’t have a church home, find one. Stop being charismatic about your “calling.” Submit to whatever process your elders have for qualifying and sending a man to do ministry. If they don’t have a process, then wait patiently for them to develop one. Be content if they never develop one. Be content if they develop a process but never call and send you.
In the meantime, engage in evangelism as God commands all believers to engage (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). You don’t need your own “ministry” to do that. You don’t need a website, blog, or YouTube channel. You don’t need a podcast. You don’t need a following. You don’t need fans.
In the meantime, be a churchman–a good churchman. Serve the church. Love the church. Love the Lord by serving and loving the church.
I’m a Free Man
A tradition of sorts in my church happens during the last two weeks of the year. During our Wednesday evening gatherings, the church family is given opportunities to testify to the rest of the church why they are thankful. It is an opportunity for each of us to express our thankfulness to the Lord for all He has done for, to, and through us, during the year.
The other night I shared an abbreviated version of what I have written, here. In doing so, I testified that I am now a free man.
The Lord set me free from sin and death more than 33 years ago. He saved me, and I am thankful.
“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed'” (John 8:34-36, LSB).
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-4, LSB).
More recently, He has graciously set me free from having a ministry. I am thankful that the evangelistic ministry in which I engage is not mine, but that of the local church. Today, I am free to serve the Lord and the church without the trappings of, without being hamstrung by, building and maintaining an extra-biblical ministry of my own creation.
Now, I can stand in a pulpit or on the corner of Harrison and Locust free to do my work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men (Colossians 3:23)–rather than for this man. I am free to distribute gospel tracts, engage people in gospel conversation, stand on corners with my “Stop and Talk” cross, and otherwise edify and equip my church family to engage in evangelism, in the context of life where God has them, without worrying about keeping an evangelistic house originally built on sand from slipping away.
To My Fellow Evangelists:
You can be free, too.
Those who never experience freedom from sin love their sin more than they love Christ. They are slaves to sin. Like me, if you are in Christ, you have been set free. Praise God! Always be thankful.
Similarly, those who never experience freedom from their “ministries” likely love their ministries more than they love Christ. They are, in effect, slaves to their ministries. They must minister to keep the ministry alive.
“But I don’t want to be set free from my ministry. I don’t need to be set free from my ministry!”
I understand. Believe me; I do.
When I lived in Southern California, a running joke went like this: “We don’t trust air we can’t see.” It was how we dealt with our daily exposure to smog. We didn’t know what it was like to breathe clean air. We had no real hope of ever living in a clean-air environment. So, we joked to make ourselves feel better about inhaling dirt–to convince ourselves of what we knew was a lie: dirty air was somehow better for us than clean air.
Evangelist, stop lying to yourself. This is no joke. Stop lying to yourself to make yourself feel better about what you’re doing, about the ministry you created–about your ministry. You can live in an environment where the air is clean, but you’re going to have to move away from the smog. Telling yourself that the smog is better for you won’t help you and it won’t change reality. You’re gonna have to move. In your case, the move is to your local church. It’s a move that might mean abandoning your ministry. It might mean giving up what was always yours, what was only yours, and never Christ’s.
Scared? I understand that, too. I’ve been there.
Whether you trust me or not, whether you believe me or not, I assure you freedom is better. Fresh air is better. Life is better (I didn’t say easier) inside the local church. And ministry, especially evangelistic ministry, is better when the ministry is not yours.