I remember Christmas 1990 like it was yesterday.
I arrived in Okinawa on December 24, on my way to Desert Storm. I was a Corpsman (medic) embedded with a Marine Corps infantry battalion. Facing a completely uncertain future, I opened my Bible and read Jesus’s words in John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” I read it over and over until it was seared in my memory.
It’s also a relevant verse for the different type of war many of us have been fighting for nearly two years. We are fighting for hope in a time when so many barriers have been erected that make the war we wage—in ourselves and in our churches—extremely challenging to win.
Thousands of churches have closed. A Barna study revealed that 38 percent of pastors are seriously considering leaving full-time ministry—up from 29 percent at the beginning of 2021. The same study also found that only one in three pastors is “healthy,” defined as those who score themselves either “excellent” or “good” in six categories of well-being—relational, spiritual, physical, emotional, vocational, and financial.
Never have I witnessed such division over social issues and politics as has plagued our churches in the past few years. The steady stream of pressures church leaders face as they navigate differing opinions—on everything from face masks and vaccinations to racial and social justice—can lead even the most stouthearted to become weary.
Add to this the steady decline in church attendance over the years, and we have a recipe for burnout. To adapt an idea of Malcolm Gladwell’s, the church has reached a tipping point—“the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” And this has happened in numerous areas.
As we wade through these waters, it is important that we allow both history and those in global contexts to be our teachers. We in the West have lived during a time of relative peace for longer than many before us. The life of Jesus, meanwhile, was riddled with suffering, sacrifice, and strife. Christians have always had to live in times of crisis and conflict—and have thrived in these times. It’s quite fascinating that we expect anything different.
Christians have always had to live in times of crisis and conflict—and have thrived in these times. It’s quite fascinating that we expect anything different.
Hope in a Person
Since many of us are unprepared for obstacles on so many sides, it can feel as though hope is slipping, and that division and disease are winning. But we must remember that our hope is in something other than tangible victory. Henri Nouwen writes:
Hope is not dependent on peace in the land, justice in the world, and success in business. Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions unanswered and unknown futures unknown. Hope makes you see God’s guiding hand not only in the gentle and pleasant moments but also in the shadows of disappointment and darkness.
In the “shadows of disappointment and darkness,” many of us may feel as though we’ve hit rock bottom. The good news is that God is in this place, waiting to meet us and to lift us back up again. “The light shines in the darkness,” John 1:5 reads, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is the life of Christ, which we can model to those in our care. As John Stott once observed, “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” Jesus did not live and lead in a peaceful context.
When the pandemic started, my initial thought was that we as the Acts 29 leadership needed to walk alongside our pastors and their wives every day. We put together a pastoral-care department and began discipleship and care through Zoom calls, in-person meetings, and cohorts. These small touchpoints, though not the ultimate answer to our problems, nonetheless have provided some relief from the isolation and overwhelming burdens of leading a church in these days.
Thirty-one years after I memorized those words—“in me you may have peace”—I am convinced they are as relevant as ever. Some of us have misplaced our hope. We’ve looked to things of this world. But the truth is, when we place our hope in God, we are strengthened and encouraged. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses,” the psalmist declares, “but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps. 20:7).
As we do this, we find that whatever comes our way, we can hope because we worship a God who suffered and came out victorious.
Four Reasons for Hope
Here are four brief reminders of why we can be hopeful as we head into another year of the unknown.
1. Because God is always with us
Wherever we live and whatever our background, God is near. He is close to the brokenhearted and worried; he never leaves us nor forsakes us.
2. Because God’s promises are true
When God promises not to leave us, he won’t. I spent more time in God’s Word in 2020 and 2021 than in previous years, because I knew that I needed it. I needed to remember that what I’ve learned to be true about God actually is true.
3. Because God is still at work in our world
Regardless of what happens in our churches locally and in the church universal, we are guaranteed that the Lord is still at work. If our church shrinks from 100 to 30 or 1,000 to 100, we can know that even in times of decline, he still works.
4. Because God still invites us to work in his world
We are running a race, and races get tough. Sometimes we must sit a while and rest, but we must never quit. Hebrews 12:1 reminds us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” A lot of churches and church leaders have stayed on mission during these dark days, baptizing the newly converted and serving their communities. Just as Jesus remembered his mission, so we must remember that God is calling us to be active participants in healing his world.
In his Lord of the Rings trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien shares hope through a hobbit named Samwise Gamgee as he talks with Frodo Baggins: “Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. . . . There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Pastors and church leaders, the war within us is only won through continually remembering that hope always wins, and that hope is a Person. The year ahead may be unknown, but it’s worth fighting for.