As a rule of thumb it takes time to see fruit for our ministry. Indeed, one of the findings of the survey of 350 English Baptist churches which Alan Wilkinson and I made in the late 1970s was that it was not until ministers had served for five or ten years in their churches that “a bias toward growth becomes evident” (Turning the Tide 34).
However, in my first church in Altrincham, my actual experience was very different: within a matter of months of my induction the church began to grow, and to grow significantly. It seemed as if everything I touched turned immediately to gold. On the other hand, in my second church in Chelmsford, my first few years were very tough – it seemed as if everything I touched turned to dust. It was only after seven hard years that the church began to grow again.
The fact is that there are times when our hopes of growth are not realised. As a young minister I expected to see growth – and I would argue rightly so. Faith it always seems to me is the catalyst for God to work. On the other hand, there are times when, not for lack of faith on our part, hopes are dashed and there is little to see for our labours.
As a young minister experiencing a good deal of ‘success’ in ministry, I vividly remember my sense of shock when a much older minister reflected on his expectations of ministry when he first began. “When I and my contemporaries were ordained”, he said, “we took seriously the latter verses of Isaiah 6 where God said to the prophet: ‘Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed’ (Isaiah 6.11). We knew that we were called to be faithful, and not necessarily successful.” To my shame, perhaps, my shock was rooted in the fact that in my youthful enthusiasm I had never considered the possibility of ‘failure’. However, if I had taken more notice of the Scriptures, I would have realised that these words of Isaiah are quoted in all four Gospels (Matt 13.14-15; Mark 4.12; Luke 8.10; John 12.37-43) as also in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 26-27) with reference to the ministry of Jesus. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, “The imagination of the early church is saturated with the realism of the oracle of Isaiah. The early church is able to see that the rejection of Jesus is parallel to the rejection of the prophetic word. In both cases, the texts are haunted by the awareness that the resistance is in some odd way initiated by God’s own negation” (Isaiah 1-39, 62).
This does not mean that we should not look for success in ministry. As William Willimon wrote in his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles: “Luke would not know what to make of a church no longer in the business of more disciples. While the mission of the church is more than growth, it is not something other than growth. It is certainly not decline” (Acts 127). But sometimes there is rejection – both of the person and of the message; and in those times we are called to trust God.
All this came to mind for me recently, when as part of my daily following of the lectionary, I read the so-called ‘Great Thanksgiving’ of Jesus: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Matthew 11.25,26). Amazingly, Jesus was thanking God that there are times when providence dictates that people do not respond to the Gospel! At this point I consulted Frederick Dale Bruner’s great two-volume commentary on Matthew, and discovered a new way of looking at these familiar verses:
“When Jesus could have been discouraged, when he had to preach judgment to the unrepentant…. when he had to acknowledge that he was not getting the kind of response – even from John the Baptist, the hardiest of all believers – that one expected a Messiah to get, Jesus gave thanks”.
“Somehow and somewhere, behind and above a discouraging world, stands a poised Father, completely in control and utterly unfrustrated. To believe that human beings are the final arbiters of history is inevitably to become a whiner rather than a thanker because human irresponsibility does embitter. The church needs here Master’s acquiescence to the sovereignty of God if she is to have Jesus’ poise in ministry. Excessive attention to an unresponsive world and insufficient appreciation of the relaxing reality of God’s sovereignty can drive Christians into the slough of despond” (The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 527).
There are times ministry is tough, and people are unresponsive. In those times we need to trust God, believing that he is working out his purposes, however unclear those purposes may seem to us at the time. Ultimately our hope must be in God and in his work, and not in ourselves and our work. That is the challenge.