The Manchester City player – Jack Grealish – claimed, in the wake of their FA Cup semi-final loss to Liverpool, that had the game gone to extra time City would have won. He said, ‘If we had another five minutes, we would have got that goal. If we had taken them to extra time, I think there only would have been one winner.’ Which is, of course, very nice to believe. But they didn’t get that goal and there were not a further 5 minutes.
Whilst it is certainly true that City had momentum in the latter stages of the second half, and it is certainly possible, that if there had been another 5 minutes they might have gotten an extra goal. And if they had, they might have won in extra time. But the bottom line is that football matches are 90 minutes. They had an extra five minutes of so of time added on and City did not equalise. What might be possible or likely if things were entirely different doesn’t really change the reality of how things are.
I think churches can sometimes fall into this mode of thinking too. If all sorts of things were different, we would be so much more successful we often think. If only we had more money, or an influx of certain people, or a top-notch professional level of music, or an absolutely amazing preaching pastor. If only we were in a city centre, or near a university, or in a middle class suburb, if only, if only, if only.
And it is certainly possible that if any of those things were the case, we might find that we grew faster. We might draw people in. We might see more souls saved. We might have more resources available. All those things might be. But we also have to factor in the possibility that we might be in such contexts and it not make a jot of difference to anything. The truth is, as much as Man City might like to believe they would have won if things were different and games went on much longer, because they don’t, there is ultimately no way to prove it. And the same is true for us as churches. Everything could be different and things could be great and exciting, but ultimately, because that situation doesn’t exist in reality, we have no way of really knowing whether it is actually true.
These sorts of counterfactuals are exactly that; counter to what is actual. And the problem with that is it leads us to assume all sorts of things that we cannot possibly know. Worse, it causes us to pine for things that – given the reality of our context or situation – just aren’t possible for us. Like Man City stars ruefully wishing football matches went on beyond 90 minutes with time added on, the reality is that they don’t. If things were longer they may have won, ignoring the fact that you win or lose within 90 minutes. That is a limiting factor that must be accounted for.
Similarly, we can wish our context was different all we want. We can wish we had things that we don’t currently have. We can choose to believe that if these things existed we would be running our amazing megachurch to which the world and his wife will inevitably flock. But at the end of the day, if those things are not the context in which we’ve been placed nor the resources the Lord has put at our disposal, we are failing to grasp the limiting factors of what is actually possible.
Would the entire world come to our church if I could preach like Spurgeon, had the insight of Lloyd-Jones and the authorial skill and audience reach of Tim Keller? Maybe. But I don’t. So I cannot build my church around a vision that isn’t close to reality. If we had 1000 members, is there are whole load more stuff we could do to impact our town? No doubt. But the fact is, we don’t. So, whilst I might want to think about what I would do if the Lord ever does make us such a megachurch, I cannot rally the church the Lord has given me to shepherd around what I would do if it were totally different than how it is. I have to accept these limiting factors and focus on what is possible rather than pretend they don’t exist and bemoan the fact that we could do so much more if things were altogether different.
The fact of the matter is that Jesus has not called us to shepherd churches other than the ones he has given us. He doesn’t ask us to think about all the great things we would do for him if everything was different. He calls us to faithfully serve him, and the people he has given us to care for, where we are, within all the realities of our context. We aren’t called to do more than is possible with the resources and people the Lord has entrusted to our care. We might wish for things to be more than 90 minutes, and convince ourselves we’d definitely be the winners if it were, but we have to work with the reality that is not the game. Man City lost because they could not figure out how to do what is required within the confines of the game. Like them, aside from all our wishes, we will run into problem if we cannot figure out how to faithfully glorify God within the confines and limitations of the context in which he has placed us.