If you know anything about the U.S. Marine Corps, you know that they can be found “from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” According to the Marines’ Hymn, they fight “in ev’ry clime and place,” all around the world.
The Marine Corps is an “expeditionary armed force.” This means that Marines can be sent anywhere that a crisis arises. They can be assigned to ships as “soldiers of the sea,” or to military bases in foreign countries. Marines also defend American embassies and operate the president’s helicopter fleet.
All members of the military face hardships, but Marines may have it the worst. The story is told of an airman, a soldier and a Marine who were talking about the difficulties they faced on their last deployment.
The airman said, “The worst was when the air conditioner in our tent broke and it was 110 degrees!”
The soldier said, “Are you saying you had air conditioners?”
The Marine said, “Wait, stop. You had tents?”
As of last year, the Commandant of the Marine Corps said that 30,000 Marines were “forward-deployed or forward-stationed.” According to The Heritage Foundation, Marines fight in major conflicts while also remaining “deployable for short-notice, smaller-scale actions.”
So, what does the mission of the Marine Corps have to do with the mission of the church?
More than you might imagine.
Both groups are expeditionary. Ready to respond to crises. Forward stationed. Deployable for short-notice, smaller-scale actions.
And both face spiritual challenges.
In a recent issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, Commandant David Berger says that leaders must ensure that “Marines are well-led and cared for physically, emotionally and spiritually, both in and out of combat.” He is concerned not only with their ability to handle a gun, but with their spiritual fitness. Challenges are going to grow as Marines are broken into smaller and smaller teams, dispersed across a large area of operations.
In the past, religious services were led by professional Marine chaplains. But in some situations, in the future, members of the Marine Corps will serve as lay leaders, representing their faith groups on expeditions. These lay leaders will offer worship services and provide other opportunities for spiritual growth.
The same challenge exists in our churches today, as we find ourselves broken into small groups, dispersed across a large area of operations. We do not always have pastors or other ordained leaders available to lead worship services or Bible studies or spiritual growth groups.
We need to follow the lead of the Marines in developing an expeditionary style of ministry. And to make sure that lay leaders are well-equipped for this work.
So, what is the key? According to the prophet Isaiah, effective leadership comes from trusting the power of God’s word. The best leaders understand that their power comes from God, and not from themselves.
Speaking through Isaiah, God uses an image that would be familiar to Marines in the field: “the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish.” Yes, the rain and the snow always accomplish their purpose, yielding “seed for the sower and bread for the eater” (Isaiah 55:10). In the marvelous cycle of God’s creation, rain and snow can be trusted to water the earth and make it fruitful.
So is “my word that goes out from my mouth,” says God: “It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire” (v. 11). God’s word will provide commandments to organize human life. It will offer comfort to those who are afflicted. It will deliver a message of grace and forgiveness to those who have lost their way. It can even lead to healing, as when Jesus said to a woman with a hemorrhage, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (Mark 5:34).
God’s word does not return to God empty, but it accomplishes God’s purposes in “in ev’ry clime and place,” as a Marine might say. Trusting the power of God’s word is the key to effective expeditionary religious ministry.
The promise of this passage is that anyone who carries God’s word, whether an ordained clergyperson or a lay leader, will be effective in their ministry. “You will go out in joy,” predicts God, “and be led forth in peace” (v. 12). The Hebrew word for “peace” in this verse is shalom, a word that means much more than the absence of conflict. Shalom implies “wholeness” of the person in health and prosperity. More than a courteous greeting, shalom communicates good relations, restoration of health, and even physical safety. When you greet someone with shalom, you are not just saying “hello”; instead, you are wishing complete wholeness and well-being to that person.
We need this wholeness and well-being whether we are in the Marine Corps or the church community. We cannot always be free of conflict, but we can experience God’s shalom in every situation. The Marine Corps Gazette tells stories of worship services held in times of full-scale frontal assaults, such as the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. There was no “Christmas truce” when this battle raged, yet many servicemen managed to attend Christmas services. These services offered shalom – complete wholeness and well-being – even as the bullets were flying. Through hearing God’s word, these soldiers gained hope and strength, which enabled them to keep fighting for a righteous cause.
Expeditionary religious ministry is not afraid of entering situations of conflict. In the civilian world, we find ourselves struggling with contentious personal relationships, difficult moral quandaries, and powerful temptations. Small-group leaders can help us hear God’s word and experience its power to change our lives for the better. “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace,” says God through the prophet; “the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (v. 12). This verse not only promises that God’s peace and well-being will come to us, but that all creation will rejoice.
Words have always been critical to the creative work of God. In Genesis, “God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night’” (1:5). Then God went on to use words to create earth and seas, vegetation, birds, cattle, and finally humankind. At the end of this creative work, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (1:31).
Since the beginning of time, divine words have created things that are good. In the book of Acts, the church grew when “the word of God spread” (6:7). In the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther kept his focus on the word of God as he reformed the church. But what about our human words? They have not always had such a positive effect. If a friend gossips about us, we feel hurt. If strangers yell at us, we feel stung. If people speak to us with disrespect, we get angry. Human words have power, just as divine words have power.
Our speech continues to create the world that we live in, just as God created the original heavens and earth with words alone. As Christians, we are challenged to take words seriously as we follow Jesus, the One who is the Word of God in human form (John 1:14).
Effective expeditionary ministry is based on the power of the word of God, and it takes both divine and human words seriously. In groups both small and large, we need to watch our words. Our speech should always reflect God’s desire for equality between people of every race. “God created humankind in his image,” says the book of Genesis, “in the image of God he created them” (1:27, NRSV). Until we treat everyone as an equally valuable creation of God, we are not being faithful to the word of God.
We also need words that reflect the truth of Jesus, the Word of God, who became flesh and dwelled among us. In everything, “do to others what you would have them do to you,” says Jesus, “for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). “A new command I give you: Love one another” (John 13:34).
In our religious ministries, we need to use language that communicates the value of people created by God, along with words that express the truth, love and mercy of Jesus. When we deploy God’s word in this way, we will find that our ministries will build people up – Marines and civilians included. We will discover that fruitful ministry can be done in “ev’ry clime and place,” and that the promise of Isaiah will come true: “instead of briers the myrtle will grow” (Isaiah 55:13).
Such a focus on God’s word is not just a quick fix for the Marine Corps or the church. Instead, it is an approach that is “an everlasting sign,” one that “will endure forever” (v. 13). By trusting the word of God and the words of Jesus, we will offer ministry that will accomplish God’s purposes for years to come.