When I was first called to serve our church as pastor, we had about five families left. Our local association considered us a dying church and thought to sell off the church property and merge us with another dying church in the association. In the first month of my pastorate, our humble 20 member church had grown to 40. We resisted the plan because we saw hope for our fellowship (and frankly a host of problems with the association’s plan).
Since those humble beginnings, we’ve seen over 100 people connect with our fellowship. Though not all of them have become members, we have seen God do some amazing things in the lives of lost, broken, and needy people. We’ve seen life breathed into successful, but empty people. In fact, the first several years were quite an amazing adventure and I often found myself surprised that ministry wasn’t more difficult. Granted, we weren’t growing into a mega-church, but we were growing. We weren’t without challenges, but it was easy to see the good going on. Things have changed a little since then.
I’m finding it harder to see the great things God is doing among us lately. In fact, in many ways, it feels like we’re sliding backwards. I firmly believe that success is not measured by numbers, but numbers do tell us things (like the lights on the dashboard of your car tell you what’s going on under the hood). Attendance is down. Giving is down. People don’t seem as connected…or committed. The excitement seems to be waning and momentum is slowing down with it. People seem less eager to participate in ministries and events. From my perspective, it feels like my ministry is faltering; perhaps even failing. It feels like I’m paddling like mad to keep this thing afloat, otherwise all would disperse and there would be no more fellowship here.
Even the face of my own ministry has changed. I had been bi-vocational for most of my ministry. It wasn’t until January of this year that I was laid off from a job I’d held for over 20 years in the medical field. My expectation was that the ministry would flourish and one income would be sufficient. That didn’t happen either. I’ve started taking on odd jobs as a handyman to make ends meet and give us some breathing room. Not the stellar ministry I’d thought I’d have by now, and normally a cause for great disappointment and discouragement.
I was reading Oswald Chambers this morning, and in his devotion he pointed to Job 13:15 which reads, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.” Chambers’ point was that the life of faith into which God calls us in Jesus Christ is not a “life of sentimental enjoyment of his blessings.” He points out that God will often withdraw his obvious blessings in order to teach us what it means to walk by faith. That faith, he explains, is that we will trust God even (or especially) when we find every reason not to.
I cannot see where the future of our church lies. In many cases – and it may only be my perception – our church seems to be struggling. In my flesh, I’d like to go find greener pastures, where ministry is easier. But the grass is never greener on the other side of the fence. Only Jesus leads us to green pastures, and we may need to go through the valley of death to get there. Our place is at his feet; our eyes are to be fixed on him. He may lead us to new pastures, or he may build our faith through dry, weary, difficult seasons where the soil seems so hard and the harvest so sparse. Though he may slay us, will we maintain our he in him? Though he may slay you, leading you through the long shadow of the valley of death, will you trust him? “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” When all you see is not what you would hope or expect, will you keep your hope in Christ, or will you surrender to the flesh and embrace death?
Over the past couple weeks, we have seen some new growth begin to sprout. Small groups of people are getting eager to see God move in our community, and to get involved in the harvest. That handyman job has led me out of the office and into people’s homes where I can pray for them as I work, and in some cases talk with them after. Things look nothing like what I’d expect after 9 years of ministry, but I choose to trust Who I don’t see rather than what I can.
Father, I choose life. I believe, and I trust you, but strengthen me in my doubt and fear. Give me eyes to see You, Lord, and overcome my flesh.