We are all tempted to play a bit of a numbers game when it comes to our ministry work. This is especially true in churches like mine that are not self-sufficient and rely on outside support to keep us afloat. Most people don’t want to throw money at fruitless endeavours, which is fair enough on one level. But that tends to mean that many of us want to tell the stories of how well everything is going or the things that we know will excite people. Few people want to hear about the boring, plodding everyday stuff that isn’t that different to anywhere else nor the countless stories of how we sometimes do things incredibly badly.
But, of course, those things happen. What funders want to hear about the issues of racism that have cropped up when we began to see significant numbers of Iranian people entering the church? Who wants to give money to the church that received workers who decided they didn’t like the ministry here because it was either too boring or asked them to do things outside their comfort zone and they left? Who wants to hear about the people who apparently converted but then dropped away from the church altogether as soon as their asylum case was granted and it appears they were just using the church? They are all things that have happened more times that we might like to admit but they aren’t the things we put front and centre because people don’t really want to hear about that. Or, rather, they are happy to hear about it – it’s interesting tittle-tattle – but it doesn’t tend to get people excited and thinking, ‘I’d love to support that church!’
But even the stuff that does sound exciting requires a particular spin. Loads of people love the fact that we see lots of Iranian people coming into our church. But it sounds so much less exciting to say only a handful come into membership and even fewer stick around long term. Everybody thinks out dialogue evenings with local Muslim people from (largely, but not exclusively) Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are very exciting. But it’s not so hot when you discover that we’ve seen zero conversions through it as far as we’re aware. Our English Classes pull in all sorts of people who have no contact with church from many different nations and provides gospel opportunities for us. Whilst it’s fed a few folks into other things we do, for increased contact, again, the numbers converting through it are rarely a cause for jumping up and down. I could go on and on.
Lots of people enjoy the stories of God’s grace working in the most difficult of circumstances. Nobody wants to support the church that busts a gut supporting lots of people, pours time and energy into them, has them living in their homes for stretches of time and then looks on as yet another person does a bunk without so much as a goodbye. Those aren’t the stories we want to hear and they’re certainly not the ones that excite us or cause us to find ways to support that ministry.
So we get tempted not to talk about those things. We talk about all the Muslim people we are reaching. We talk about the Iranians who convert and do join the church. We talk about all the different ministries we’re doing and the uniqueness of our context. We talk about the things that many would consider ‘hard’ and ‘difficult’ and then pull out the rabbit from the hat of the advance in the kingdom through the stuff we are doing. We quietly side-step the many, many times when all that stuff apparently achieves nothing, where our efforts don’t stop people walking away, where people joining quickly leave.
But if that happens so much, why do we keep doing what we do? Why don’t we just jack it in? Why do we still hope that people will see beyond those things and continue supporting a church here? Let me give you three reasons.
First, we believe that God has a people for himself here. Despite the very real stories of people leaving and nothing apparently happening, the Lord graciously encourages us with those who do hear and respond to the gospel. But even if we hadn’t got those, even if throughout my time at this church we hadn’t seen a single convert, the Lord still has his people here. I am currently preparing a series in the book of Revelation and I was struck as I looked at chapter 6 – the opening of the 6th seal – that the main reason Jesus hasn’t yet returned, and why he allows his people to suffer, is because there are more people to come into the kingdom yet. We are still here because Christ has his people to save and he isn’t done saving them yet because he hasn’t returned yet. That is why we continue to do what we do.
Second, even if we don’t see the fruit of our labour, we believe the Lord will save people here. Working in a predominantly South Asian Muslim community, the cultural, social and familial pressure on people who leave the faith is enormous. Those who would be labelled apostate bring great shame on their families which can often come with the most serious consequences. We have long realised that those who do convert in our community are unlikely to be able to stay here. So, we might hear of somebody converting from a Pakistani Muslim background, but the chances of them remaining in the community and coming to our church are slim. By the same token, we suspect the most likely means of conversion for people from that background is when they move to a new area – whether for university or work purposes – where they are not known. We long for the day when we hear of people from Oldham who have trusted Christ in another place, and settled in a different church, in part because of the gospel they heard through Bethel Church. We recognise that we probably won’t see the fruit of a lot of our kingdom work. But we are convinced that, in glory, we will see far more then than we ever realised now.
Third, kingdom work is about more than just bringing people in. That isn’t to denigrate the work of evangelism at all – it is vital and important. But there is more to the Great Commission than evangelism and more to kingdom work than telling unbelievers the gospel. We aren’t just tasked with bringing people in, but bringing them on. We have believers with us now who need to be discipled. They need to be taught the scriptures and shown godly examples. We shouldn’t just ditch the people the Lord already has here because we don’t necessarily see the fruit of our labours in new people coming in. We don’t want to abandon the people the Lord has here because they need to be nurtured and cared for themselves and the work they are doing – even if we don’t personally see the benefits – does serve the kingdom. Other churches may well benefit in time from the spade work being put in here in Oldham. What is more, those that do come into the kingdom here need somewhere to go when they are saved. If we abandon the church in places like ours, there will be no church to reach unbelievers and nowhere for them to go when they trust in Christ.
So, I really do understand the desire of supporters to see fruit. I understand why they want to hear the stories of what is going on and why its is going well. Nobody wants to throw good money after bad. But I just don’t think that is how the kingdom of God works. We aren’t businesses with a clear measure of success indicated by an obvious bottom line.
We are God’s people, doing God’s work by God’s Spirit, the results of which depend less upon us and more upon him. We are seeking to be faithful where he has placed us and faithfulness to the Great Commission for the wider church – faithfulness to that call to preach the gospel to all of creation – must surely include supporting churches in need so that every area might have access to the gospel. Not because we are necessarily churning out fantastic results, but because that work of preaching the gospel is done through local churches. For other churches to be involved in that same work, we have examples of churches partnering together so that wealthier and resource-rich churches support those with less so that the gospel might be made known to all. After all, who knows what kingdom impact a little church in a forgotten place might have?