The past couple of weeks at church have been somewhat discouraging for me. Attendance—while never “high”—has been abnormally low the past several weeks. Since Christmas, it seems that the attendance has dropped each week. This week was the lowest. I had three kids in Sunday School today, including one of the pastor’s sons. Last Wednesday we had two youth show up. (Much thanks, btw, to the faithful few!) In addition, the church has decided to meet only in the fellowship hall downstairs to limit energy expenditure because the budget is tight. In short, our church is going through one of those rough spots. I know that churches go through tough times, especially in winter months, and often rebound just fine, but as a church member you should know that it’s especially taxing on your minister(s) who so desperately desire to see the church grow and flourish in God’s work.
With all this as the backdrop, imagine my despair as I listened this afternoon to John Piper preach a message to his church about a new church plant they are a part of. He talks about the church’s mandate to spread the gospel and the effectiveness of church planting in making new converts. Then, he goes on to describe the church’s history and the many, many churches it has planted over the years. I found myself crying out, “I want to be a part of that!” I began to despair thinking that my church would probably never be a part of such a magnificent work as a church plant. I listened as he described the two or three campuses his church has. I imagined the many hundreds and thousands of people who regularly attend his church. I listened as he talked about his church’s “resident church planter” program, in which ministers train for 18 months and are then released to plant a church. I listened, drooled, and then despaired as I realized the stark contrast to my church of 15 (at least by today’s count) which can’t even afford to pay its ministers or the utilities, much less invest in such grand Kingdom work.
Then John Piper said something that caught my ear and put me in my place: How did God start the church at Philippi? With a woman named Lydia whom he gave the heart to do the work, a demon possessed girl, and a suicidal Roman jailor. With only three people God grew the church at Philippi…We’ve got fifteen! I get so frustrated sometimes at my church, at our situation. I find myself thinking that our church will never amount to anything, never accomplish anything for the Kingdom. We just don’t have enough people or resources. But God chooses the things which are weak to shame the strong. God often works through impossible situations, just like the one my church is in—and seems to thoroughly enjoy doing so! Sure, there are things that frustrate me about my church, but that’s because it’s made up of imperfect people, of whom I often feel like the chief of sinners. But it’s not my church, it’s God’s church, and he knows what he’s doing.
In Acts 18:9-10, God tells Paul “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” Now I don’t presume to know God’s plans, but I have to imagine that in a city of 1.2 million, God has many people in this city that will come to know him. We may not be the biggest, nor the best church in the city, but God has called me to minister to the people of my church. Part of that ministry is dragging people—saved and unsaved alike—out of the darkness and into the light. And that’s not easy work. People get comfortable. But my God is a God of the miraculous, of the impossible, and it doesn’t have to seem “reasonable” or “feasible” for my church to suddenly be indwelled with the power of the Holy Spirit as were the churches at Philippi, Ephesus, and—in more modern times—John Piper’s church in Minneapolis, MN. It doesn’t even have to be “possible.” Because “with people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, NASB). I just need to be faithful in my ministry and do as I feel God leading, no matter how unreasonable or unlikely it may seem. God has changed worse people (Saul–>Paul) and I have no doubt that he can and will do so for many more.
Unfortunately, as the church in America is in a well-documented state of decline, I’m probably not the only person to have felt like this. You may be struggling with the same things in your church. Attendance is down, tithes are down, bills are up, and it seems that no one has a heart for doing God’s work. But don’t despair. All it takes is the Holy Spirit’s moving in a handful of people. A single match can start a wildfire. Trust God, pray for his Spirit, and never despair of doing what is right, of serving your church.
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
Galatians 6:6-10 (NASB)