My husband and I have lived in a rural part of Missouri for just about twelve years now. Since that sweltering summer day in 2005 when we unloaded the moving truck, we’ve been ministering at the same church in the same small town for all this time. We’ve both left our 20’s and nearly our 30’s here. We’ve dealt with financial crises, ministry burn out, church dysfunction, open-ended infertility, chronic health conditions, fractured relationships, and innumerable sleepless nights with the weight of a thousand tears pressing down on us. We’ve wrestled with our failures and wondered if we can ever rise above them.
We’ve felt broken down for a long time here in this little farming community.
We’ve also doubled our family by adopting two boys, replacing sorrow upon sorrow with joy upon joy. We’ve celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, and rejoiced over big and small accomplishments. We’ve learned to lean into marriage when the going gets rough, and we’ve grown up into married adults who spend our rare evenings out talking about all the things we still want to do and be when we grow up. We’ve watched broken hearts heal and we’ve seen lost souls found, and we’ve wept on our knees with troubled parents for wandering children. We’ve learned that what we thought we knew we didn’t really know that well and that what works in one context may not work in another. We’ve learned that passion is a gift to be treasured and not a tool with which to bludgeon. We’ve sighed in gratitude when an anonymous check has graced our mailbox on more than one desperate occasion. We’ve sat in silence while trying to take in the ways the Lord has gone above and beyond in His expression of goodness to us. We’ve remembered with relief that the gospel is the truest thing we know
In the middle of the brokenhearted weight of ministry and its overwhelming portrait of grace is a tension where I often find myself with one resonant question that pounds in my ears: is it enough?
I’ve spent the last year feeling out a new vein of ministry, and with the joy that comes in finding your voice also comes the pressure to be the loudest one. It’s not that different from the last twelve years of local church ministry, really. There is pressure to be the best, most successful church (nope), to have the most rapidly growing congregation (not even close), to have the most sterling reputation in the community (that ship has sailed). Be the most influential, have the loudest voice and the most welcoming arms, never have internal problems, always put your best foot forward, never offend. The demands of church ministry by church ministry can feel a lot like a race you never signed up for but are always perpetually losing.
Who put those demands there? Why do we feel it necessary to compare our ministry with others? Why are we even competitors? Why must we seek to be the biggest, loudest, most loved? Is that what Christ asks of us?
How are we to live as we minister?
I’ve read through the Scriptures many times in the context of life as Christ-followers, and you know what? In all the lists of expectations and exhortations, I’ve never seen a command to be amazing. I’ve never read a verse about having a famous ministry or seen a connection between gospel living and large platforms. It seems to me like what we’re mostly called to is faithfulness and perseverance.
“..all of you should be like-minded and sympathetic, should love believers, and be compassionate and humble, not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you can inherit a blessing….honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame.” (1 Peter 3:8-9, 15-16)
“But whoever keeps His word truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: the one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked.” (1 John 2:5-6)
“Now this is His command: that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another as He commanded us. The one who keeps His commands remains in Him, and He in him. And the way we know that He remains in us is from the Spirit He has given us.” (1 John 3:23-24)
“Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10: 23-25)
Yes, our calling is nestled in the command to make disciples. I’m not ignoring the fact that growth in the kingdom of God does, by definition, mean growth.
What I’m talking about is seeking the kind of growth that comes from being the best and loudest and most influential. We want to grow our platforms so we can have the largest following; we want our churches to have more members than any other church in town because we measure our success by the number of bodies in the pews. We want to have a large reach because large means success by our culture’s plumb line. We’ve skewed the meaning of success, but it should be largely different than the world’s definition. Gospel living is so upside-down that we try to nudge it into cultural dressings that are easier to measure. If we run our ministries like businesses, then large equals success and faithfulness is a consolation prize. I’ve not seen a shred of Scriptural support for ministering like that. If numbers grew rapidly in the early Church, it was because of the Holy Spirit.
Some people may be catapulted to the space of large and influential reach without really meaning to. Some people pursue it relentlessly, sometimes sacrificing truth to get there. Some never get there though they secretly long for it. But the question shouldn’t be, “How can I make my ministry bigger and more successful?” The question should be, “Can I be faithful right here, right now with my own particular sphere of influence?”
“Can I be faithful with small?”
And I don’t mean “Can I be faithful with small so that one day God will give me the chance to be faithful with something bigger?” That may happen, but it’s not a guarantee and certainly not a recommended motive. It’s also not the point. There are so many pastors, missionaries, and people in ministry whose names we’ll never know. They won’t write books or have a large Instagram following, and no one will know to invite them to speak at a conference. They happily serve in anonymity because they were called to be faithful with what the Lord gave them. They are being faithful with small, and in the economy of God a small reach is not nothing. Jesus only invested deeply in 12 guys.
When it comes to ministry, whether it’s local church ministry or another avenue like writing or music or speaking or serving, the pressure to be well known and well respected is present and exhausting. But the manner of faithful ministry laid out for us in Scripture looks a whole lot like perseverance and quiet living. It looks like being loud when it comes to the gospel and quiet when it comes to notoriety. It’s finding security in the fact that God is as strong now as He’s always been, not in whether or not we’re the most riveting preacher, the most eloquent speaker, the most prolific writer with all the bylines, or the servant with all the accolades.
What it means to be a faithful servant in any kind of ministry, that burning question of “is it enough?” could be answered with “can I be faithful with small?”
Maybe it’s motherhood, or a nursing home ministry to folks who don’t recognize you from week to week, or teaching the same Sunday School class for years on end, or making sure the homeless in your town are fed with good food and gospel-saturated love. Maybe you’re having the same conversations about Jesus with that skeptical co-worker day after day after day and wondering if you’ll ever see anything come of it. Maybe you’re standing in a pulpit every week trying to help your people behold their God or to keeping holding on to their last tattered shred of faith. Maybe you’re scrubbing toilets in complete anonymity
Is it enough?
Well, can you be faithful with small? Can you be faithful with this thing you’re doing right now?
If the answer is yes, then it is enough.
Because God is never wrong in what He’s planned for your life in ministry. Big sphere of influence or small circle of reach, the people He has put in your path of ministry are the ones you are to be faithful with. Someone told me recently, “at the end of it all, the Lord won’t say, ‘well done, My good and famous servant.’ It’s good and faithful servant.”
It’s good when ministries grow and thrive. Seasons like that bring great joy and encouragement, and they should cultivate gratitude.
But if ministry always feels like a fight, that’s good, too. Because the kingdom of God is infinitely worth fighting for, and no matter how different your reach and mine may be, the call is to make Christ known.
If small is the label on your ministry, be faithful with it.
Perseverance is a beautiful thing to behold. Plodding in anonymity is not unseen by our compassionate and all-seeing God. Your work is absolutely seen by Him. You can be faithful with small because He sees you.
“See we count as blessed those who have endured…the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” (James 5:11)