Several years ago I visited dear friends who have labored among Muslims for many years. They live with their four children in an ancient, sprawling city in the Middle East where the falafel makers are busy and the mosques sound their calls to prayer loudly and often.
My friends moved to their current home because the country in which they previously lived had become unsafe, and they knew refugees would soon pour over the border. They were right: the refugees have come and my friends visit them daily, building friendships, sharing Bible stories, and meeting any needs they can.
Their ministry has required enormous effort and sacrifice.
They’ve learned Arabic, moved numerous times, and are raising their children far from extended family, friends, and the conveniences of home. Churches and individuals back home have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars over many years to support their work. It’s stunning to consider the investment of energy, funding, prayer, and personal sacrifice required to get them where they are and keep them there.
And for what? Their work is small, slow, seemingly unstrategic. They’ve seen few conversions. During my visit, we spent many hours with a Muslim man dear to my friend, and it became clear that he was still far from the gospel. Later, my friend expressed his discouragement to me.
Viewed in terms of results, the ministry of this remarkable family seems like a waste.
Don’t Measure with the Wrong Yardstick
But what if we evaluate their ministry in terms of its gospel shape, the beauty of his gospel, its perseverance to the glory of God? Things might look different. My friends’ ministry is expressing something of God and his gospel that couldn’t be expressed through a massive revival. All their many sacrifices, their unconditional friendship to a young Muslim family still blind to the glory of Christ, their consistent, prayerful sharing of the gospel with those who will listen—these demonstrate a generous God and a lavish gospel.
The gospel announces the infinite sacrifice God will make to reach just one person, and this divine love is being imaged through my friends. They’re like the shepherd searching for his lost sheep in a gully and the woman groping under the couch for her coin. Their lives are reflecting God’s patient pursuit, his kindness to those who reject him, his work that advances even when it seems stalled.
Their ministry is necessary for the church of Jesus Christ, because the church without a witness in Muslim countries (and in many other difficult, marginal contexts) is not the church as God intends it to be. We need the small, the slow, the church on the margins to present a full picture of God and his gospel.
Don’t Idolize the Small
To be sure, my friends don’t idolize what is small and slow. Surprisingly, it’s entirely possible to do just that. Some of us have noticed an odd thing happening at gatherings of rural pastors and laypeople. We’ve seen pastors bragging not about how large their churches are (as often happens at conferences) but about the smallness of their towns, one-upping each other in a kind of race to the bottom. (“My town is so small that the last one to bed at night turns out the street light!”) At one such gathering, I had my small-town cred called into question by a couple who insisted that Pepperell doesn’t really qualify as a small town. (The subtext was that if I really wanted to see a small town, I should check out where they’re ministering.)
The tendency to brag about the smallness of our place, making it a badge of honor to display, is an important reminder that human beings can turn anything into an idol, a false means of distinction and self-exaltation. My friends in the Middle East aren’t doing that. They long for many people to know Jesus, and they’d love it to happen fast. They pray regularly for a great movement of people to Christ. If God does that, he will demonstrate his infinite power, his great mercy, and his sovereign call.
Both visible success and also the lack of it are opportunities for my friends to display God’s worth. In this season of their ministry, God has given them the latter. What if God has done the same for you in your small place? I don’t assume that he has. You may be experiencing clearly visible success: conversions, maturing Christians, transformed communities, new church plants. Your ministry may be like William Grimshaw of Haworth.
Be Content Where You Are
But what if it’s more like Tom Carson of Quebec or George Herbert of Bemerton? What if it’s small, slow, and seemingly unstrategic? Do you need something more, or can you be content? Will you pray boldly with faith for God to win many souls for his glory and simultaneously see your present situation as a glorious display of the character of God and the gospel’s surpassing beauty? Rather than gazing longingly at the big places where so much ministry seems to be happening, will you see all the ministry to be done right in front of you? Will you treasure the people in your small place and pour yourself out for them? Will you prepare eternal souls for eternity?
Marilynne Robinson’s fictional pastor John Ames stays in little Gilead, Iowa, his entire life—despite the urging of others to “wake from the trance” and gain “broader experience” by leaving. As an old man, he writes a long letter to the child he knows is too young to remember him after he dies. Reflecting on his long life and ministry in Gilead, Ames writes:
To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded. . . . I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love—I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.
“I love this town.” At the heart of every successful ministry, in communities of every conceivable size, is love: love for Christ and for the places where he has called us. When we truly love a particular place and the people who live there, we won’t seek to transcend it—instead, we will gladly give our lives to it. Perhaps we can learn to love our small places the way Jesus does. Perhaps in losing our lives there, we will find them.