In January I had a post entitled: Keep plugging away. God is at work in the small. Are you discouraged that only 4 people signed up for your Bible study class? Do you wonder if you are wasting your time working tirelessly with one individual? Take a look at the post, but I quote a Christian professor:
“Statistics of the right sort can help us see if we are being as effective as we might be in God’s mission. But we mustn’t assume that what we can count is all that counts. So maybe two is enough, if the task is God’s will done in God’s way. Who knows what our investment in one, or two, or six, or ten people will yield—in a friendship, in a Sunday School class, in job training, in coaching? Who knows what will happen when two or three are gathered together, or when just twelve are selected for a particular task?”
At the end of that post I hinted at a part-2 with continuing thoughts. Four months later I write it! Does a crowd automatically equate spiritual success? Does the lack of a crowd mean spiritual stagnation or failure? I’ve heard these things affirmed, even from a pulpit last year, which prompted me to write this on social media at that time:
“Let’s get over this simplistic thinking that the size of a church indicates spiritual health. It doesn’t. Numerical growth does not necessarily equal spiritual vitality. Cancer grows – it is not good! Weeds grow – but they choke and destroy. A small church may be spiritually healthy and a big church spiritually anemic, and vice versa.”
Many thoughts should be considered, but briefly:
- Spiritual progress is not always quantifiable or easy to measure. Outward behavior is not always an accurate reflection of the heart. Right things can be done for wrong reasons. And while spiritual growth should eventually lead to observable fruit, God can work slowly in a person’s heart with observable results slow to come – yet God is at work behind the scenes. The disciples of Jesus were often slow to “get it” and people today are no different!
- And what about the place or field of ministry? Some ministry is easier – the people and culture are receptive to the message. Other fields of ministry are hard – the people and culture are not receptive to the message. Poor or slow numerical growth may only be indicative of the field, not the worker’s efforts. I remember a missionary biography I read years ago that had a title something like “Send me to a hard place” – as the missionary desired to work in a hard and challenging field. Wow. Convicting, huh? Particularly in our modern world, we want quick results and abandon ship when they don’t promptly materialize!
- The New Testament is filled with warnings about false teachings. Unfortunately, false teachings can be very attractive, appealing to sinful aspects of our nature, and grow very quickly.
And what about the ministry of Jesus on earth? A book I recently read stated this:
“A ministry is not a business venture, nor is Christianity a statistically favorably religion. Of the four soils Jesus mentioned, only one bears prolific fruit. Christ healed ten lepers, but only one returned to thank him. Nine others walked off the scene without so much as a backwards glance. Yet Jesus was undeterred. Had he determined the success of his earthly ministry by the number of people who enthusiastically embraced his teaching, he would have returned rather quickly to the carpenter’s shop.”
– page 117-118 in Living in Light of Eternity by Rinehart, Navpress, 1986
Of course, Christianity went on to grow exponentially after the resurrection of Jesus, but are we patient for results? In our personal life of ministry, we may be the seed planters, while others after us will reap the harvest. (John 4:35-38)
To clarify in closing, this does not mean that there is never a time for analysis and honest appraisal of a situation when there are poor results. Perhaps a new approach should be tried, and we failed to heed advice the first time. Perhaps we rushed past God into a situation, and it was not God’s timing yet. Maybe we need to admit that we were trying to do something we are not gifted at, and we need to hand the baton to another with the proper gifting.
But, as this post emphasizes, don’t get hung up on numerical results – Christianity does not work that way. God is at work in the small, long-range, and hidden.
P.S. I recommend the book I quote from above – while from 1986, it remains a relevant read on the spiritual life and living with eternal values in mind.