You probably know the feeling. Despite much prayer, careful planning, and dedicated work, you feel like you are going backwards in your ministry. The enthusiasm and anticipation that was there in the beginning has fizzled, and now the cold, hard reality has set in: this isn’t going as well as you hoped.
I felt this discouragement on a recent Sunday as we began the church service. I looked out at the dozen or so people sitting there and thought, “Where is everybody?” Through much of last year, we averaged between 40-50 people in attendance. However, over the past several weeks, we began to see a significant decline. Of course, no missionary likes to write a prayer letter that begins with such news, but it’s the truth. Sometimes things don’t go well. People leave, projects fail, and disappointments mount. When they do, we shouldn’t be afraid to share it.
That Sunday evening, when I got home, I just sat in the car and prayed, “God, what do you want me to learn from moments like this when it feels like we are going backwards?” As I thought about this, I came to some conclusions.
1. I must see setbacks as part of God’s grace. Planting a church, or doing anything worthwhile, is never a steady, upward trajectory to success. There are many ups and downs. While we pray and long for and celebrate the victories, God’s grace is sufficient to sustain us during the down days as well. In fact, seen in the right light, these disappointments should help us depend more on Him. Furthermore, God often has unseen benefits behind the despair we are feeling. In this case, it could be that God is pruning people from his church to make it stronger in the long run. It may be that God is teaching me humility and forcing me to rely more on him to change peoples’ lives than on my own programs, preaching, or personality. At this point, I don’t know all the reasons, but I must run to God and trust that he knows what is best for me right now.
2. I must persevere with joy. I shouldn’t be surprised when there are setbacks; I knew going into this that it would be hard. Any good soldier knows to expect hardship, and the same is true for anyone serving Jesus. So, instead of me being resentful towards those who have fallen away or frustrated with people who don’t show the level of commitment I think they should, I must simply plod forward with joy. I must thank God for the people who are with me and that are serving Jesus alongside me. The truth is that it was a privilege I could never deserve just to preach to a dozen people on that Sunday. And really, if you think about it, a week (or even several months) of setbacks is not a good indicator to the true progress being made. If I stopped to look closely, I would see that there are plenty of good things happening as well.
- We just finished drafting a church constitution. This is a big and very important accomplishment.
- Sarah is having Bible studies with two girls that will hopefully be baptized soon.
- One of the men in the church is taking classes at a Bible institute and is growing in his ability to teach and lead.
The hard part is to persevere with joy. But it’s essential. There are few things more discouraging to a church or an organization than a leader who is always down, always pointing out the negatives, and always complaining about the faults of others.
Maybe things in your church, small-group, or project feel like they are moving backwards. It’s hard and can be discouraging, but don’t give up. God’s grace is sufficient, so persevere with joy.