I never thought I would utter these words from the pulpit: only one male at a time in the restroom, please. This is what ministry is like for our church. We had to remove couches from the auditorium because folks were making out on them during the sermon. We had to insist that parents stay for church after dropping off their children, because some were going up the street and using us as babysitters. And once we had to ask a drunken man to please stay off the platform during the worship music set. Needless to say, I don’t serve at your typical church.
Our small church plant is entering its fourth year, and it’s been a difficult process. We minister largely to a drug and rehab culture in one of the worst cities of our state for that problem. About 70 percent of those in attendance on any given Sunday night are currently or have recently been addicts. This important ministry comes with a unique set of challenges. And the key to it all has been patience.
If ministry teaches you one thing over and over, it is that you must have patience to be effective. Change rarely happens quickly, and when you are working with an addiction culture, it happens even more slowly. I realized this recently when I sat with a group of pastors from our area talking about church growth. Each of them had wonderful stories about numerical growth, conversions, and baptisms. But I simply didn’t have many stories like that. We have had a few guys come to the gospel out of rehab; they are struggling to stay clean and follow Jesus, and that makes what we do worth it. But they are exceptions, and even their growth is slow. It would be very easy to get discouraged. After all, the guy that I prayed with on Sunday may abandon rehab this week and never come back. Ministry can often be depressing.
Growth from God
But then I am thankful that growth ultimately comes from God. 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” There’s a freedom that comes with knowing that it’s not all up to me. I have a responsibility to be faithful. I am not absolved of my duty. But only God gives the growth. My role, then, is to work and to wait on God.
Maybe you don’t have drunk people talking through your sermons, or visit members in prison, but I bet you know many Christians you wish were growing more rapidly. I bet you have a church you wish was farther along in the process of change. I bet you wish that you yourself could overcome that sin clinging to your bones. Patience is the key. We work for change, but we do so with the humble knowledge that ultimately we depend upon the Spirit of God.
When I am patient I am doing several important things. First, I am extending grace to others because I am not demanding a perfection in them that even I can’t obtain. Second, I am humbling myself. I can’t create the change I want to see. Third, I am committing to ministry for the long haul. Rarely, if ever, does real transformation happen overnight. It takes long-term work and consistent faithfulness. Impatience simply isn’t compatible with change—-not with me, and not with the people I serve.
I don’t know what those guys were doing in our bathroom for 45 minutes during corporate worship. I’ve asked myself if it would be worse for them to be selling drugs or engaging in illicit sex. I’d rather not dwell on it. Often I am daunted by the questions of how to help our community. I am humbled and more often frustrated. But I love these people, and I trust God’s Word, so I keep pressing on. I believe that Spirit-fuelled patience will make the difference for us, and it will make the difference for you too.