Here is an imagined response that sounds very similar to answers that I’ve heard when a pastor/church is asked about their lack of growth.
“We’ve had 14 people in our church since 1993. You know some people think that we aren’t faithfully proclaiming the gospel because we have not had a single convert since 1993. But you know that isn’t true. You should talk to any of our 14 members. They’ve got some serious bible knowledge. They are solid. And that’s cool with us man because we aren’t about numbers, we want faithful disciples. We do share the gospel with people but we’ve yet to see results. Again, we’re okay with that because we aren’t the Lord of the harvest. When God wants us to have more members He’ll get it done. Until then we keep doing discipleship and preaching the gospel.”
I agree with a good amount of what is said in that paragraph. I agree that faithfulness is not marked by an ACP report. You can have 4,000 people and be denying the gospel and have 7 people and be faithfully plodding along. If I look at the ministry of Jesus from a numerical perspective he probably wouldn’t have gotten a plaque for his church office for being one of the top 50 churches in his state.
I also believe that the Lord of the harvest determines the amount of fruit that we reap in our ministries. It’s not because of our successful preaching, or witty plans, or even our uber-doctrinally faithful expositions of Scripture and gospel presentations that men and women come to Christ. It’s because the Spirit infuses a Jesus-drenched gospel proclamation with resurrection power.
However, I also believe with this imagined response that the Spirit doesn’t always attend gospel preaching with converts. He might attend it with powerfully hardening sinners a la Isaiah the prophet.
Furthermore, I agree that the work of ministry is also very much about discipleship. I do not mock those 14 “really solid” believers. In fact if these were found in a country in the 10/40 window they’d probably be more celebrated than if they were present in a small town in Georgia. Wherever faithful disciples are found I rejoice. Even if their evangelistic efforts are not met with an influx of new disciples.
Theologically I’m in the same camp as the imaginary dude I quoted above. But…
I think he’s missing something. A lack of growth isn’t a badge to be worn around. His “that’s cool with us” attitude seems to fly in the face of Jesus and the little-followed but very faithful prophets that he likes to quote. I believe that theologically Jesus would agree with everything this chap is saying. But his response wouldn’t be to say, “that’s cool with me”. No, his response is different:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. (Matthew 23:37-38 ESV)
The same thing goes with Isaiah as well as Jeremiah the weeping prophet. They, as did Jesus, knew that they would often not be received. And they mourned.
So enough of this happily patting ourselves on the back because we aren’t like those churches that are all focused on numbers. Yeah it’s great that we can sleep at night and rest in the sovereignty of God. It’s wonderful that we know that the results aren’t up to us and that we can measure ourselves by biblical fidelity instead of numbers. That’s wonderful. Seriously, it is. I don’t know how I could do ministry if I didn’t believe that. But let’s believe these things with tears in our eyes and with a longing that we might be faithful to the gospel AND see a myriad of sinners bow a knee to the beautiful Christ.
A lack of people coming to Christ is a reason to lament. And that’s the case even if you are being totally faithful and God in His sovereignty isn’t blessing you with fruit.