Lots of activity. Little to show for it?
I’ve been reflecting, inevitably, on all the activity of the past year, and especially our evangelistic efforts. Martin has knocked on hundreds of doors in Charlesworth and Gamesley. With his team, he’s delivered thousands of leaflets. He’s organised lots of special events – men’s breakfasts, barbecues, open evenings for neighbours and friends. He’s gone into the local school and preached the gospel.
Here in Stockport too we’ve delivered thousands of leaflets. We’ve kept our Sunday-school running week by week. We’ve knocked on doors, encouraging parents to send their children along. We’ve visited the nursing homes each month and preached the gospel there. We’ve wandered round the streets and the local parks talking to teenagers and handing out leaflets. We’ve worked to build contacts with homeless lads from the local hostel We’ve held evangelistic Bible-studies in Martin & Jacquie’s home.
And in Charlesworth and Stockport, we’ve invested time in building friendships with all sorts of different folks, in the hope that there’ll be opportunity to preach the gospel to them. Colleagues from work, home-schooling contacts, fellow-students at evening classes, sparring partners from the karate club…we’ve chatted with them, given them literature, invited them along to meetings.
Lots of activity. And yet little to show for it. Not one person saved, baptised, added to the church. Much sowing. No reaping. That’s been the story in 2007. And that’s been the story for more years than I like to remember. In the last five years we have baptised a number of people, but they have all been either youngsters from Christian families, or believers who moved to us from other churches. It must be six or seven years since we last saw anyone coming to us out of the world, finding faith in Christ, and then being baptised.
And it’s not just our story. I hear the same story from pastors all around the UK. They tell me how rarely they see real conversions, how hard it is to find one person whose heart seems open to the gospel. There are happy exceptions – here in the North-West, the churches at Bury, Ramsbottom, Milnrow, have seen many conversions (relatively) in recent years. But churches like these are very rare.
Back in 2006, Grace magazine published the results of a survey they had carried out. They had sent out questionnaires to 125 reformed baptist churches in England and Wales. Of those, forty had been returned. As the researchers commented, the return rate probably skewed the results “in favour of more active churches and those which have pastors..” Tiny or indifferent churches are unlikely to spend time filling out questionnaires.
Well, the results of the survey were striking. One thing came over clearly – that there’s a lot of evangelism going on! Of the 40 churches, 35 were distributing literature regularly; 29 were running evangelistic Sunday-schools; 27 were holding evangelistic ladies’ meetings; 23 were running activities in local schools; 22 were holding midweek meetings for children, 20 were running Holiday Bible Clubs, 18 were doing door-to-door work – and so on. Some were doing very imaginative things – a “Fantasy Football” evening for men… evangelistic meals at a restaurant…. a programme of carol singing and testimonies at the local pub.
But what about effectiveness? Well, here are the figures. “Among the forty churches there have been approximately 482 baptisms over the last ten years, representing a little more than one person per church per year. Of these, only one-third were people from outside of church families…”
So roughly, across the 40 churches, 160 folk have been baptised in ten years. These may of course, include some who came to the church already converted but unbaptised. But even if all the 160 had been new converts out of the world, that would mean that the average church was seeing four converts out of the world in 10 years – one every two and a half years.
I tremble to think of the effort expended by some of these churches have spent on evangelism each year – the number of man-(or woman-)hours spent running children’s clubs or doing door to door work… the number of leaflets delivered… the number of evangelistic sermons and talks given on Sundays or at special events. In human terms, the return seems very thin doesn’t it? If churches were businesses, surely we’d cut our losses and run!
So, as 2007 ends and 2008 begins, am I despondent? No I don’t think so. Sober, yes. Serious, yes. But depressed, no. Discouraged, no. Here are some of the things that keep me from becoming downhearted.
1) All the elect will be saved. That is the simplest and most important fact of all. Saving people is God’s work not mine. He has decided exactly how many people from Edgeley or Cheadle Heath – or from across the UK – will be saved. And exactly that many will be saved. Not one of Christ’s sheep will be missing on the last day. “He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep… the sheep hear his voice and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no-one will snatch them out of my hand…” (John 10: 2-3, 27-28). I may feel disappointed by the number of people who are being saved in the UK today. God isn’t. From his perspective, exactly the right number of people are being saved. And in the end, that’s all that matters.
2) Britain is not the world. Yes, the scene in Britain seems very bleak at present. But across the world, the kingdom of Christ is advancing in great strides. Wonderful things are happening in many parts of the world. The church in China is growing at a phenomenal rate. At the end of the Second World War it was estimated that there were half a million Protestant Christians in China. Today – at the most conservative estimates – there are forty millions; some say the real figure is nearer one hundred millions. Of course, we cannot say how many of these professing Christians are truly saved, but by any account, God is doing an extraordinary work. And this has happened in a country where Christianity is frowned upon and operates under severe restrictions, and where missionary work is forbidden.
Around 25% of the people of South Korea identify themselves as evangelical Christians. South Korean churches send more missionaries abroad than any other country except the USA.- around 170,000 at present in 173 countries.
Many parts of Africa are seeing great gospel harvests. How often we’ve been thrilled by reports from Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia… Our friends in all these places report great openness to the gospel; many conversions, new churches planted and growing.
Latin America has been for many years an unyielding bastion of Roman Catholic superstition. Yet vast numbers of Latin Americans today are abandoning the Roman Catholic church and turning to the Bible. A few years ago, the Latin American Catholic Bishops Conference gave their estimate that 8,000 Latin Americans converted to evangelical Christianity every day. Around 15 % of Latin Americans would now call themselves evangelical Christians. Again, we can’t tell how many of these converts have a clear understanding of the gospel; many have embraced the worst excesses of Pentecostalism. But there is no doubt that many too have come to true faith in Christ. And what about the USA? We can look askance at much of the “evangelicalism” of the United States. But there is no doubt again that in recent years that country has become God-conscious in an extraordinary way. Millions of people have declared themselves “born-again” and packed into churches of all descriptions. No American politician could afford to sneer at Christianity: all the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination would declare themselves Christians.
Time would fail us to tell of what God is doing in the former eastern bloc countries. The rebirth of gospel Christianity in Albania continues to amaze us. I’ve had the opportunity to witness something of the vigour of evangelicalism in Kosova. Evangelical Christianity was almost unknown among Kosovar Albanians ten years ago. Today there are around 25 Albanian-speaking evangelical churches in Kosova. And what about Romania, where, it is estimated, five new evangelical churches have opened each week over the last fifteen years?
I could continue. But you see my point. Too often we look at the situation here in the UK – and across much of Western Europe – and imagine that it’s the same picture everywhere. The fact is that there are more Bible-believing Christians in the world today than there have ever been. The tide is coming in, not going out. If things seem grim here, we should remember that we are in a little backwater, cut off from the main flow of kingdom advance. We need that global perspective.
3) God rewards faithfulness, not “success”. The point has been made many times before but it’s worth saying again. When we stand before the Lord Jesus on judgement day, the question put to us will not be “how many people were saved through your witness”? It will be “were you faithful? Did you carry on trusting me, serving me, loving me? Did you seek to bring honour to my name? Did you pursue holiness? Did you obey my commands?” The master in the parable of the talents does not judge his servants by their success but by their faithfulness or lack of it. “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master..” “You wicked and lazy servant!… Cast the worthless servant into outer darkness..” (Matthew 25:23,26,30).
When the Lord Jesus sent letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, he had much to say about their love – or lack of it; about their holiness – or lack of it; about their faithfulness or lack of it. But he never hinted that love or holiness or faithfulness would result in evangelistic success. None of the churches was commended more warmly than the church in Philadelphia – a church that had “kept his word and not denied his name” and yet still had “little strength” (Revelation 3:8). That was the proof of their faithfulness. They carried on upholding Christ’s name when they were a tiny minority with little strength. Well, that is the challenge for us too in these days. We should take it as an honour. When V day comes and the medals are handed out, surely there’ll be special rewards for the troops who held the line where it was thinnest and where the battle was hardest.
4) The situation could be transformed in a moment. Scripture is full of amazing reversals. Elijah and the Israelites had seen no rain for three and a half years. And yet within an hour, the “cloud the size of a man’s hand” had become a great storm cloud, deluging the earth (2 Kings 18:41-46). The bones in Ezekiel’s vision were “very dry”. And yet within before he had finished preaching and praying, he saw them standing on their feet “an exceeding great army” (Ezekiel 37: 2,10). The disciples complained, “We have toiled all night and caught nothing…” And yet ten minutes later their nets were filled with more fish than they could handle (Luke 5:5-6). The city of Sychar in Samaria knew nothing of Christ. And yet within a day, “many Samaritans from that town believed in him” because of one woman’s testimony.
Who knows? It may be like that in Stockport or in Charlesworth in 2008 – or across the whole of Western Europe. If God moves by his Spirit, barriers of unbelief and apathy that have grown over a hundred and fifty years may be swept away in hours. God has not forbidden us to pray for such awakenings.
5) My name is written in heaven. And knowing that, I can rejoice whether I’m prospering or floundering as an evangelist. I spoke last Sunday morning on the words of the Lord Jesus to the returning 70. They had great “successes” to report. But Jesus warned them that their joy must not depend on those successes. “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). That is the only source of lasting joy – to know that we are chosen and loved by God, that our names are already written in heaven’s register, that our place in the new Jerusalem is secure, that everlasting happiness awaits us.
Habakkuk could write, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in Yahweh, I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places..” (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
I hope, I pray, I long to see harvest in 2008. I long to see the figtree blossoming and sheep gathered into the fold. But I trust that if it doesn’t happen God will give me – and us – the joy that Habakkuk knew. May we tread on our high places!