Staving off church pessimism

It’s very easy to feel pessimistic in the work of the gospel. It is particularly easy when you work in deprived places. The work is usually small, typically very slow and can often feel like banging your head against a brick wall. Reaching certain people groups can feel like you are continually sharing the gospel with little to no fruit coming from it. Discipling certain people can feel utterly dispiriting when you have spent hours and hours pleading with them to follow a particular, godly course of action and they immediately go out and ignore you. It can be tiresome to constantly battle with people about the same sins that they keep jumping into over and over again.

Much of that isn’t unique to deprived communities either. We can all feel it in our ministries. The particular sins might be different. The way they manifest might not be the same. But ultimately, you can plug away and see very little fruit. You can see very little growth in your members. Everything can feel very slow, very hard and even, at times, pretty unfruitful.

But if your church is small on top of all that, struggling for funds, constant noise about when they money is going to run out, things can feel constantly ropey. And when things feel constantly ropey, it’s easy for pessimism to set in. Nothing ever seems to change. Nothing ever seems to get better. Ministry can feel like treading water. It’s very hard not to let pessimism set in and, not long after it, bitterness. A very damaging, divisive bitterness that is not Christlike and anti-gospel. A bitterness that feels like a bit of you dies inside every time you see someone else’s ministry thrive in whatever way.

How can we guard against these things? We should want to celebrate other people’s gospel successes and joys because, if our concern really is for the kingdom, we’ll be pleased to see the kingdom winning. We should be ready to press on, even when everything is hard and slow, because it is the work the Lord Jesus has called us to do. In no particular order, here are some ways we can encourage these things in ourselves and our partners in the gospel.

Remember God is sovereign

If God is sovereign, at least two things follow that should stop us being pessimistic and bitter. First, the results we see are the ones the Lord wants us to have. It is ultimately his work and so long as we are being faithful, we are doing the work he has given us to do. It is profoundly unfaithful to not go to certain areas and people groups because we don’t like the look of them or we reckon they’re a bit hard and won’t respond. The Lord has his people and he will save whomever he wants to save. Our job is to faithfully go into all the world, and to all kinds of people, and share the gospel with them. The results are his alone. We don’t have to worry about that, we just need to concern ourselves with being faithful where he has put us.

But second, if God is sovereign and he will save whomever he wants to save, then he is the one who decides where ministry successes will happen. He is the one who will decide where funds and workers go. Ultimately, if we aren’t getting those things, it’s because the Lord has determined he wants them elsewhere for now. We can celebrate the gospel joys and the ministry success of others because they are only enjoying those things because God has given it to them. It is God who determines these things and we can entrust ourselves to his greater wisdom in them and how they are distributed. He knows what we need and he knows what his kingdom needs. We can trust he knows what he’s doing when these things get divvied out.

Remember the kingdom isn’t ours

Just as God is sovereign, it pays to remember it is his kingdom. If we are beginning to get het up and annoyed about another person’s ministry doing apparently better than ours, it is worth reminding ourselves that neither ministry is either of ours. The kingdom is the Lord’s and our little annoyances and frustrations owe more to us worrying that our ministry isn’t doing something or other for us rather than glorying in what the Lord is doing for the sake of his kingdom. It is all too easy to make ministry about ourselves and then respond to ministry success or failure on those terms. But the kingdom isn’t ours, the ministry isn’t about us and so a win for the kingdom is something Jesus is pleased in and has brought about.

Focus on what the Lord is doing, not what he isn’t doing

It can be very easy to focus on what the Lord is not doing. Whether growing our church in number, filling our church coffers or giving us a specific platform, we can focus on what the Lord doesn’t appear to be doing and miss what he may well be doing. We can see what the Lord is doing in other places and, if we are kingdom minded, take real joy in it. We can even see the good the Lord may be bringing about in our church (every minister in the midst of seeing people leave has their own stories of the “blessed subtractions”).

When we don’t see the results or get the funding that we might have hoped, we can even train ourselves to look at what the Lord might be doing in us and our church as a result. Sometimes what he hasn’t done looms large in our mind while we ignore what he has done, whether instead of it or through not giving us the thing we wanted. Sometimes the Lord is keeping us from something much worse. Other times, the Lord is doing something specific withholding that thing. Other times still, he is just doing something else that we are choosing not to notice because he hasn’t done this particular thing. We need to train ourselves to look for what God is doing rather than always focusing on what he hasn’t done.

Build better partnerships

We all find it easier to take joy in what others are doing when we happen to love and like the people through whom the Lord is doing it. When we don’t really know other people, it is so much easier to see them as competition. The money they get could have been ours, the people they found could have come to us but they went there, the work that is prospering over there makes ours look a bit rubbish. We can easily look over at people we don’t know very well, or just aren’t friends with, and think of them like competitors.

When we are already feeling embattled, the last thing we need is competitors towards whom we feel bitter. What we really need is friends whose joys we can share, whose ministry success is our ministry success, who kingdom work builds us up because we love that we are both working for the same kingdom. I have found it so much easier to take pleasure and joy in the success and triumphs of others when we have been friends and co-labourers in the gospel, just in different places. It is so much easier to encourage funders and workers away from your church to go to another church – even if you know you could really do with them – when you are friends with the other church and you know they could use them even more than you! And that sort of friendship, when it is genuine, is reciprocal.

There is a real joy, rather than resentment, in that sort of sharing of resources and encouraging them to where they are needed. But it is most easily found when you are actually and genuinely friends and co-workers with others. Genuine friendship and support is a real antidote to pessimism, bitterness and resentment. It is why I am so pleased to be part of Medhurst Ministries where this sort of thing can happen. There is genuine friendship being built, support offered and a desire to share resources in real ways. But if you are prone to feeling pessimistic, even resentful and bitter about ministry, find yourself a good network of likeminded, gospel-hearted churches and start making friends. You’ll be amazed how it can help.