You gotta admit that it’s pretty depressing for a church leader to announce “It’s time for service,” and half of the crowd that you’ve got in the building gets up and leaves.
How could this be? Part of that has to do with the kind of context we serve in. We have a service that is as much evangelistic as it is maintaining the body. But to pull the folks in who aren’t interested in worshipping God, we offer food, clothes and showers. The food, clothes and showers are also for those who come to the service who have needs, but we don’t turn anyone away if they have need. And, if they came to fulfill their need, we don’t force them to go to a worship service. The way we figure it is, when they are ready to come, they will come. But evangelism doesn’t do anyone any good if we force them to listen to a sermon or sit through a “boring” service. And it works. People who would never enter a church building come for food, try out the service (partly out of guilt, sometimes) and they find that worshipping God is exhilarating and a necessary part of their lives.
But it certainly happens that when I give everyone the “two minute warning” that service is about to commence (to give everyone a last chance for a smoke) then at times literally half of the crowd that shows up packs up their items and walks or rides away.
But the real issue isn’t how many people stay in the service. Over the last 13 years I’ve preached to thousands of people, altogether, so numbers don’t really bother me. The real issue is my emotion state at times.
Sometimes I see the people walking out and I look at the number leaving. Then I think, “Why am I bothering? Am I really doing anything? I talk to a hundred people a week, but no one is really changing. No one is making any progress. No one is really serving the Lord because of our effort here. People take what they want, but they give nothing back to the Lord. This ministry is just pointless.”
Almost immediately the Spirit reminds me about what a horrible liar I am.
First of all, people are changing. Perhaps they don’t change as quickly as I’d like, or as much as I’d like, but important things are happening in our rag-tag church. Meth and heroin junkies are battling addiction who never would have considered it before. The homeless are recognizing God’s work among his people who have thought that church folks were all a bunch of hypocrites. Those battling demons are gaining the upper hand.
And most of all, people who barely recognize God’s presence in their lives are publicly stating how God has specifically helped them. One gal talks about how God allowed the police to not harass her. Another speaks about an ongoing infection that wasn’t healing that disappeared immediately after prayer. Another man praises God for the help he received from a church member who gave him a ride to the hospital when he needed it. Another praises God for just being merciful. And another confesses his relapse and praises God for his forgiveness. And I remember that this is the main payment that God asks for all of His help. To glorify Him in front of other people.
The other thing I remember, though, is Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Each of them God spoke to at the beginning of their ministry, informing them that no one would listen to them. They each had a lot of verbage—God knows—but their audience, the people who they were speaking to, didn’t listen, didn’t repent. Jeremiah’s experience was so bad that at the end of his life, when he had been proven right about everything he said, some people asked for his counsel about whether to go to Egypt or not. He prayed and sought the Lord, and told them, “No, don’t go.” Not only did they ignore him—again—but they forced him to go with him, to leave his homeland.
But where would we be without the teaching of Jeremiah and Ezekiel? Their prophecies of Jesus, of the coming kingdom and their teachings about repentance and their prayers. They minister to us, even today.
And so, as I see people walking out, leaving an opportunity to worship God, honor God and to listen to his word, I remember them. Sometimes the ministry God calls us to isn’t about the audience in front of us. Our faithfulness to God is its own reward, and it helps people who we may never meet. I just need to trust that God will use the work He has called me to for His purpose, even when I can’t see it.