Dilapidated Buildings, Small Budgets, and Struggling Congregations: How Irresistible Grace Creates Steadfastness in Ministry
It’s Tuesday morning. You’re driving to the church office, reflecting on your sermon from Sunday. It seemed to go alright. Trouble is, several key families were absent. Will the church survive? You wonder about the offering. Will the church be able to make budget? You arrive at the church building, park, walk in, and, for the hundredth time, slightly wince at the sight of the building’s disrepair.
Ever feel this way? In fact, the doctrine of God’s irresistible grace is for you, right now, right here, on Tuesday morning.
We remember on Sunday that “salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Ps. 3:8). Our heads know that God is in the resurrection business, making people alive in Christ (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13). Without God’s call, we would never come to Jesus. With it, we come (Jn. 6:44–45). We consider the unbelievers who may be sitting in our pews and encourage ourselves with promises like Isaiah 55:11: “My word that goes out from my mouth shall not return void, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” These are good reflections.
But Sunday isn’t the only day to take hope in the doctrine of irresistible grace. Irresistible grace ought to stay our anxiety and give us hope that God can bring the lost to himself when we discover on Monday morning that the church roof is leaking; or when the treasurer tells us on Wednesday that we won’t be able to afford a pastoral intern; or on Friday evening when the sermon is finally coming together and we hear that the vast majority of our small congregation will be out of town on Sunday.
I lead a small church in an affluent part of London. I’ve been ministering here for almost five years and have received some encouragement at what the Lord is doing. In fact, our church has seen 700 percent growth. We started with three members, and we now have 21!
But I can still be discouraged by our comparatively small numbers. At the start of the week, I sometimes wander around our church building, dismayed that we’ve already outgrown our tiny children’s room. I stare at our church’s mission budget and wonder how we can possibly make even the smallest dent in our city of secularists, nominal Christians, and Muslims. I ponder the fact that a number of our members will likely leave in the summer due to work.
What’s the result of all this worry? I’d love to say that it leads to more passionate prayer and more delight in God’s sovereignty. But I fear more often than not I’m tempted to pragmatic planning and more doggedness amid the visible fruitlessness. What if we extend the building? . . . What if we raise money for this evangelistic event?. . . What if this family moves to the area?
Of course, extending the building, planning evangelistic events, and reaching new ministry partners are all good things. But we cannot put our hope for ministry success in them.
I’m not telling you to stop using Monday mornings for a furious brainstorming session with white board pens in hand. I am telling you such efforts are worth little apart from the staid work of persevering faithfulness with hands closed in prayer. So begin the working week remembering that God is totally sovereign. He longs to draw sinners into his church, and when he does it will be impossible for any of them to resist his grace. Nothing will defeat God’s certain plans and promises. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). This glorious fact is as true in our first step of faith as it is in our every step thereafter.
My own conversion story bears this out. I was ten. A group of us were playing football (or soccer, for you Americans out there) in the church hall at a youth event. The leaders told us to gather up in the middle of the room. We sat down. A mother of one of the children stuck three circles on a large piece of cardboard—one red, one orange, one green. She then spoke about prayer: God sometimes says “yes” (green light), sometimes says “wait” (orange light), and sometimes says “no” (red light). It wasn’t a compelling message. I wouldn’t even say it was altogether articulate. But she said enough to convince me that, not only did I not pray, but I did not have a relationship with God. I had spent the first decade of my life ignoring the one who had given me everything. Like Christian on the earliest pages of Pilgrim’s Progress, I felt the burden of sin on my back for the first time. When the meeting finished, I labored home under the weight of my newfound load. I told my mother in no uncertain terms that I wanted to become a Christian. And that very evening, after walking through the gospel with her, I did.
Did all this result from the pastor’s remarkable planning? Had the gospel been delivered in the most gripping way, by the most commanding person in the room? No. That night, God gave me a new heart. As with the deaf man in Mark 7, God put his fingers in my ears and said: “Ephphatha! (Be Opened!).” Yes, someone worked hard to ensure there was a weekly youth gathering. Someone labored at preparing a message. Someone refereed the football match. And, yes, someone even cut out those red, orange, and green traffic lights. God surely used these labors.
But I didn’t ultimately believe because the football game was fun, or because the youth group was compelling, or because the message was just right. I believed the gospel because the overwhelming mercy of a sovereign God drew me to himself and gave me the gifts of faith and repentance. His grace was unstoppable.
In 2019, as I look at my own ministry, I need to recall more often that 10-year-old boy sitting on the church carpet who came to Christ, not because of human ingenuity, but because of God’s grace. Brother pastors, if we are to persevere with steadfastness and faithfulness, we must meditate regularly on the wonderful doctrine of irresistible grace.
God’s grace is irresistible.