Ministry is like lifeguarding.

It’s an old comparison, but an appropriate one. The recent shark attacks in North Carolina remind me that the job of the lifeguard is not to be polite, not to coddle, not to charm, but to warn.

There’s danger in the water.

Lifeguards sit on elevated platforms so they can command a view of the shore. They can see swimmers in distress and dark shapes beneath the surface that pose severe threat. The swimmers rarely seem concerned. It is the lifeguard’s job to interrupt this unconcern with the stark reality of imminent harm.

Sin is like that water, and the devil is a great white.

Our people often wade in sin. It’s pleasant. It’s fun. There’s nothing to worry about.

Of course this isn’t a perfect comparison. Every metaphor breaks down. But the gist is correct: sin is pleasurable until, all of a sudden, it’s deadly serious.

When the sharks attack and the swimmers bleed, it’s the lifeguard’s job to get them to shore. At this point, the lifeguard leaves behind all thoughts of warning and begins triage. Now the lifeguard is binding wounds and offering words of hope and comfort.

Warning and healing. Interrupting ignorance and binding wounds. These are the twin tasks of the lifeguard, mirroring the twin ministerial responsibilities of proclamation and pastoring.

When our people wade in sin, we proclaim the truth of the gospel. Christ offers life, and his way sidesteps the perils of the deep water.

When our people are wounded, we pastor them back to health. We listen and comfort and pray and mourn.

Of course some pastors only function in one capacity. There are those who insist on warning even after the sharks attack. They stand over bleeding parishioners, shouting at them for their sin.

This is a mistake.

Others try to comfort their people while the swimmers are still splashing and laughing, even though the sharks are closing in. This is ineffective and, worse, makes it feel like sin should be comfortable.

We’ve got to be sensitive, knowing which actions to take at the appropriate times.

Why? So that our churches will grow? No. Of course not. Church growth has little to do with interiority and character. We cultivate our sensitivity to the Spirit so we are healthier, holier ministers; so the gospel grows in us as much as it flows through us; so we are re-shaped into the image of Christ.

There is one other way in which this metaphor speaks, though I’ll leave it to you to decide when and how it should be applied. I’m thinking of a very particular brand of idiot—a danger to both lifeguard and swimmer alike. God help the man who drags a shark out of the water and laughs while it writhes on the beach, because the rest of us will give him just enough space to have both legs chewed off by his sin.