The danger of working in a small church, in a supposedly ‘hard to reach’ urban area, is that we fall for the lie that we somehow deserve greater resources. There is no denying that, on paper, we need more resources than we have. The work rests on the shoulders of vanishingly few people and our church generates only around 50% of our running costs with no outside patrons. We function with a not inconsiderable monthly deficit and under the shadow of a ‘go-bust’ date. As it stands, when the money runs out, that’s it.
This can lead to a sense of entitlement on our behalf. We can come to believe that if my need is greater than yours – the reality of which may or may not be true – then I somehow deserve more resources than you. At heart, an underlying covetousness (I wish I had those resources) can quickly turn to jealousy (those resources really ought to belong to me by rights) which in turn may manifest itself as resentment of other gospel works, discouragement in your own work and discontent with Christ amongst other things. We can sometimes believe our own hype and convince ourselves that our situation, however hard or easy it may be, is exceptional and thus more deserving of support and the like.
Aside from the (hopefully obvious) issues of sin at play, there are several wrong ideas in this mode of thinking.
For one, it turns on a presumption that one work is more deserving than another. In reality, working amongst the urban poor, the homeless, Muslim communities or asylum seekers is no more deserving of support than work among the middle classes, rich or professionals. Scripture is clear enough that all have fallen short of God’s glory and thus all need the only remedy that is available in the gospel. Sin is no respecter of class, Satan has no regard for professional achievements and one cannot buy their way out of Hell. If every soul is precious to God, then every faithful gospel work is vitally needed. When people are drowning, the lifeboat doesn’t wait to hear who deserves to be saved first, they just reach in and pull aboard as many as they are able. In the same way, there is no such thing as a more worthy gospel work. There are simply souls to be saved, people heading for a lost eternity and people sharing the only means of salvation with them.
Second, this view suggests that somehow there is real gospel work and there is second-rate gospel work. Seemingly we make that divide according to how many people are willing to do it. This makes gospel work a zero-sum game. In this line of thinking, the importance of our gospel work is determined, not by any criteria laid down by Christ, but according to other works in different places. It makes the value of gospel work entirely subjective.
This is the same fallacy that argues I am not a bad person because Mr Worse-Than-Me down the road is truly awful. Just as this argument leads to a regression that effectively says only the worst person in the world is truly bad – a point never lost on those involved in prison work who regularly hear murderers contend ‘at least I’m not a paedophile’ – so too we say my work is more important because it’s harder, or less well regarded, or whatever measure we use. Such arguments actually undercut our intended claim to importance because there are fewer people engaged in mission to remote tribes than there are working in UK deprived urban communities. By our own logic, resources should by-pass us and head straight to Papua New Guinea and the like. The importance of gospel work isn’t determined by the numbers doing it or the people it’s reaching. It is determined by faithfulness to the gospel and the call of Christ. Where there are people dying in their sin without Christ, there is a valid and necessary gospel work to be done.
Third, there is a fine line between arguing our work deserves something (which is wrongheaded anyway) and suggesting I deserve something. Our role in gospel work, and the gospel work itself, are so closely entwined. Arguments about the importance of my particular bit of gospel work so often come across as arguments about my own importance. We inevitably refer to my work, my church, my ministry. This pays little attention to the fact that such things belong to the Lord. It’s not my anything; it’s the Lord’s work, Christ’s church and his ministry. When certain works see great fruit, it is the Lord who has determined their work will be blessed in this way. When we don’t see much fruit, presuming we are faithfully proclaiming the gospel, it is the Lord who has determined that would be the case. When we complain and grow frustrated that our work is not getting what it deserves, we’re really saying Christ doesn’t know what he’s doing. It is his work and he will determine whom he will save and when it will happen. To covet the fruit of other gospel work, rather than rejoice that the Lord is working elsewhere, is to say he doesn’t really know what he is doing.
I don’t pretend that there are churches and ministries out there with vast resources and other with much less. I don’t pretend that for gospel work to continue it needs funding and resourcing properly. But God keep us from presuming that we somehow deserve such resources, that our work is somehow more vital than others or that the church will crumble without us. I make no bones about the disparity in resource and I do want to see richer, wealthier churches resourcing smaller gospel works. Just as small urban churches like mine cannot presume that we deserve anything, so larger and wealthier churches shouldn’t make the same presumption. It is as wrong to hoard our resources – as if they belonged solely to us – as it is to believe that we somehow deserve greater resources than God has granted to us. Let the wealthy be generous and the poor content so that by all means God might choose to save some.
Still, having said all that, wealthy churches can go a long way to helping the contentment of smaller ones by resourcing them properly. But we must no fall into the trap of presuming that we somehow deserve it. Simply put, we don’t.