We have a tendency to expect the church to fix every possible problem. We can rightly identify things that are less than excellent in the church. But our next question is often very telling: ‘what should be done?’
The question gives away the assumption that something necessarily ought to be done at all. Whilst, of course, sometimes it is right to do something, that isn’t always the case. But the question then tends to lead us to one of three places (or, some combination of all of these at the same time).
One possible destination is the pastor’s syllogism. It is the same as the famous politician’s syllogism from Yes Minister. It runs like this:
- Something must be done
- This is something
- We must do this
This syllogism leads us into all sorts of nonsense because we are convinced something must be done. Almost any something will do.
Another way that question can lead us is down the line of over-programming. It may be that all the things that we do are all credible things to do but, in a bid to resolve every possible problem under the sun, we find more and more programmes to fix them. So, we want more teaching on something, we’ll put something on for that. We have a particular language group that need teaching, we’ll create a group for that. We aren’t reaching this particular group of people, let’s sort out some evangelism that will specifically target them. Before long, you are knee-deep in programmes and killing yourself in the process.
Alternatively, we can end up with an insistence that everybody must be at everything to get full benefit. Whilst that might be a good thing (and, let’s not discount the possibility it equally might not be as good as we think), to insist that people come to everything or find somewhere else to worship – unless the ‘everything’ we are insisting upon is clearly and directly what the Bible would demand of everyone – veers toward the legalistic. We have to be clear that, good as many things but be and wise as we believe it is to go to them, if the Lord doesn’t demand it, nor should we. We can encourage and suggest, but to demand would be to go beyond what the Lord insists upon.
If none of the above sounds that great, I’d suggest that’s because it isn’t. Sometimes, we have to recognise that there isn’t anything specific for the church to do. Sometimes, the right answer is to say there is nothing for us to do. Or, at least, there is nothing more we can do. The church doesn’t exist to meet every felt need or address every possible gap in ministry.
Sometimes, we are giving people all that we can give them. We are offering them teaching on Sundays, midweek teaching, maybe some discipleship groups and whatever else. People in church are doing their level best to spend time with people whilst balancing care for their families, holding down secular work and a ton of other responsibilities. There comes a time when we simply have to leave room for God’s Word to do God’s work by God’s Spirit.
This is where we sometimes lose sight theologically. The work is the Lord’s, not ours. There are times people don’t believe, or don’t seem to be growing, not because there aren’t enough programmes or learning opportunities, but because the Spirit simply isn’t at work in them yet. The issue often isn’t about the amount, or the specific form, of whatever it is we’re doing. The issue is that the Spirit hasn’t moved. And no amount of programming and close community can resolve that one. As Jesus said, ‘the wind blows where it wills.’
Sometimes the answer is to simply restate the opportunities that are available for people to learn, grow, serve and be discipled. If people don’t want to get involved, so be it. If the Lord doesn’t demand it of them, nor should we. But they also have to recognise that, should they not want to be involved in any of those things, we aren’t going to pander to every other felt need they have when they don’t want to engage with the existing stuff we do have.
In other cases, it’s not that people are complaining nor that they’re asking for anything specific, we sense that they aren’t moving on from where we hoped they would. But again, often the answer isn’t to load up more stuff. Sometimes, the answer is to simply say what the opportunities to learn, grow, serve and be discipled are. Explain that these are the means the Lord has given us to grow. Those in whom the Spirit is at work will continue on in these things and we’ll see progress. Those who stall may simply need to be encouraged to grasp hold of these means that are available.
At the end of the day, the Lord will work by his Spirit through his Word. This is the basic means of evangelism and discipleship. Sometimes there isn’t more to do, more needs to be met, more programmes to be run. More often than not it is the less grand reality of plodding on, teaching the Bible in community, encouraging those who have stalled to recommit themselves to the Word and plugging away with those who are eager to hear but don’t appear to be moving anywhere. In the end, there may not be anything more to do beyond the ongoing, slow Word-based ministry and giving the Spirit enough room to move without our insistence on more and more stuff to do.
Let’s just remember whose work it is and factor our plans around that. Our programmes are not the means of salvation. If people are already plugged in and regularly hearing the Word, maybe our time would be better spent in prayer rather than dreaming up more elaborate ways of meeting felt needs. Faith comes through hearing, but if they’re already hearing, I’m going to stick my neck out and say more places to hear is probably not the principle issue.
What more can we do for those who have stalled in interest, understanding and growth? We can tell them to recommit to the opportunities that exist to grow. If they’re already engaged with all that, we need to pray. If the Spirit bloweth wherever he listeth, let’s at least ask him to blow on those who appear to have reached a standstill in their faith or progress toward it. If there are opportunities to hear, the problem isn’t a lack of opportunities to hear. And that suggests the issue is the lack of work in them by the Spirit which – whilst not a direct line – might speak more to a lack of prayer than a lack of programmes.