Have you ever felt like, maybe, it was time to move on? Have you ever thought that your church might just be better off with new leadership? I had a unique experience, not months or years ago that I can now reflect on, but yesterday. This is fresh and I’m still working it out. Our church held a small group class and no one showed up. I was excited about this class because the premise lines up perfectly with our vision. We had run it twice over the last two years and with some new faces in our congregation and others starting to get connected I figured this was the perfect time to run it again. But there I was, all by myself. I’d never had that happen before. Usually we get the obligatory “two or three” to gather (don’t worry, I won’t pull Matthew 18 out of context to justify a small turnout), but last night, it was just me.
The solitude gave me some time to pray. Actually, what I did was “prayerfully” whine to God and wallow in a little self-pity. I think we need to do that sometimes, blow off a little steam and give voice to our frustrations where it will actually be productive — to the One who gives beauty for ashes. The emotion of the moment still rings in my head, “God, if I’m standing in the way then move me!” “If I’m just spinning my wheels then show me what I need to change!” It sounds so desperate and pathetic. The Father was very patient with me. He let me have my moment, close the evening, and has now, at 5:00 am, begun to speak. So here I am.
Frustration is not a biblical word, not the way we use it. In the Bible “frustrate” is used to describe how God interrupts the plans of men. When we talk about being frustrated we mean we are discouraged, angry, disappointed, worried, or afraid. I think, however, that “interrupted” is a better description. We may start well enough following the Spirit, but eventually we begin to rely on our plans, dreams, and expectations. These most often line up with what trend is popular or what someone we admire is doing rather than with what God is doing. When God moves and interrupts our plans, or when our plans don’t work out we are frustrated, and we become angry … then we come back to God as if he’s betrayed us or something.
Throughout history God has caused kingdoms to rise and fall. He has appointed rulers, ordained prophets, and anointed priests. He holds the cosmos together and owns the cattle on a thousand hills (and the hills!). God is sovereign and it is by the will and active presence of this very God that you have come to shepherd your flock. If you or I are standing in the way of God’s will, he would have no problem moving us out of the way. You are here by God’s purpose and declaration. God has placed you here and now because this fellowship needs you, and you need it. Things are small and slow right now because something bigger and more important than a well-attended small group is going on.
If you fight frustration, you are fighting God. If God frustrates the plans of men (e.g. Psalm 33:10), and you are frustrated, then God is at work and we need to pay attention to the tension so we can get on the same page. God will work in you before he works through you, and something is going on we need to pay attention to. Jesus came to set free the captives, and very often discouragement, disappointment, and anger come from something deeper than attendance numbers.
There is a lie that haunts me. This little gem has followed me around for as long as I can remember and rears its ugly little head more often than I care to count. It’s what author John Eldridge in his book Wild at Heart calls an “arrow,” a wound from the past — a lie from our enemy that we have made some kind of agreement with. It’s danced around me for years and through this last episode I’ve begun to nail it down. For me, the lie is “You are neither important nor significant and God will never do anything big through you.” You probably have your own, tailor-made for you. When our leadership team meets and all the numbers show decline, when members, visitors, or my wife register complaints about the church, or when we hold a class and not one person shows up the enemy chimes in with a bullhorn and feeds the lie and all the anger, fear, resentment, and discouragement wells up inside. Do you feel me? This is not what Jesus wants for us.
Jesus talked, not about discouragement, but rather living water welling up inside us. “Living water” is water that is moving so it’s fresh, clean, cool, and refreshing. Living water is life-sustaining. So in these trying seasons, where do we find that living water, that encouragement? God has placed us here, so what do we do? Go back.
Go back to the last thing you know you heard from God and be as faithful as you can be with that. It’s so easy to get distracted and pulled off track so that your current endeavors look very little like God’s last command. We need to pull our nose from the grindstone and follow up on how we’re doing with what God actually told us to do. For me, I was told to cast this vision before the church: To be a church that makes a difference. The last thing I know I heard from God was to be a church that exalts Jesus by engaging, encouraging, and equipping a generation of change makers. I need to be about empowering the people of God to follow Jesus and fulfill his vision for their lives, not about convincing people to plug into my vision to build a bigger church. That’s all I’ve got right now. The details, apparently, are being worked out and, though the enemy is using it to discourage me, maybe God is using yesterday’s no-show to test my devotion to His vision over my expectations (test, by the way is a process of demonstration, not discovery); maybe this class, which I assumed to be about equipping the church, was really about equipping me to lead the church.
The enemy doesn’t come after you if you’re not a threat. Looking back and getting in step with the last thing you know you heard from God (even though it may be way, way back there), will put you back on track to fulfilling God’s purpose in your ministry. That makes you a threat. It should come as no surprise that the enemy would seek to discourage, distract, and embitter you towards God and ministry when you start taking steps to fulfill God’s purpose. And let me say this: Don’t get so familiar with your discouragements that you lose all familiarity with the encouragements God sends you. In my current season of struggle I’ve had people make comments–seemingly in passing–like “my family got healed in this church,” “I wish I could make more people come here. People don’t know what they’re missing, ” and “I’m so glad I came today.” Comments like these can seem so small compared to the flood of discouragement that seems to saturate us, but don’t let the power of such testimonies escape you. They mean great things — eternally great things.
There’s a lot I don’t know. I don’t get the hand-holding that some of my favorite personalities in the Bible seem to have gotten. The enemy wants me to think that I’m unimportant, forgotten, or simply tolerated, but God has promised differently and I need to be sure that my disappointment is not the result of my own disobedience or neglect. (Preaching to myself), let these seasons of difficulty draw you closer to God and more dependent on him. He is your strength, and in him you will receive the grace you need for today. And today is all you have.