When We Fall Short

“Some of the pastors in my region are discouraged,” a district superintendent said. “They haven’t been able to rally their churches to a vision of reaching out to the community. Some of them have general goals, but don’t have a specific vision. Others are frustrated because the congregation isn’t supporting the vision the pastor has.”

Let me offer a few encouraging words for those who are discouraged.

It is good to have goals larger than what we are able to achieve. On an individual level, Christ calls each of us to perfection, or wholeness (Matthew 4:48; Ephesians 4:13). Even though we are unable to achieve complete wholeness in this life, we should still strive toward it — yet without discouragement, for we know that we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Because of God’s faithful grace, we are encouraged to go forward with confidence, knowing that Christ lives in us, even though we haven’t yet reached our goal.

Jesus Christ sets before us a job far beyond our abilities: to bring the gospel to the entire world. Christian churches have been working at this for almost 2,000 years, and there are still large segments of the world that have not been reached — and some areas that were once Christian are not Christian any more. Still, we do not lose heart. We continue the work because Christ lives in us. It is his work, and we can be sure that he will bring it to completion. We do not need to worry or be discouraged about that.

Actually, if we were able to achieve all our goals, we would also be tempted to take the credit. We might claim to have the right method, the right formula for success, the right wisdom or even the right level of humility! But because we fall short, we are reminded that the tasks set before us are humanly impossible. The gospel is not humanly received. We cannot take credit for conversions or for individual growth in the gospel. We must rely on Christ.

But what about having a vision and leading our congregations to serve the communities we are in? I am encouraged that people want to reach out to their communities, for congregations to become effective outposts for the kingdom of our Lord and Savior. This is in itself a sign of growth — a symptom of a church being led by the Holy Spirit. But we often encounter some inertia. We are usually slow to change, both individually and collectively.

First-century struggles

Consider for a moment the first-century church, the church with all the apostles, the experiences with Jesus, and the eyewitnesses of his resurrection. These were the people Jesus told, “Go into all the world.” Was there a sudden rush for missionary work? Hardly. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem for several years. Miraculous visions had to occur before Peter would even go into a Gentile’s house. Even that small step had to be carefully explained to the critics in the Jerusalem church. A major conference had to be held to clarify just what the gospel is, that people are saved by faith, and that Gentiles are to be accepted. The process took many years, and not everyone finally agreed.

In time, the apostles left Jerusalem and carried the gospel to other peoples. But the Jerusalem church itself remained rather conservative, a victim of inertia. They were slow to change their view of the world and their view of how they were to serve God. They limited themselves, but God was not limited. He raised up others to share in the work. Antioch became a center of missionary activity. Antioch became the church that called Paul and sent him out, and the church grew.

Our goal is to be like Antioch, not like Jerusalem. If we do not change, we will end up like Jerusalem, and God will raise up other people to do the work. He has plenty to choose from. The good news is that we are being transformed. Though inertia affects us, it is being overcome! But it does take time.

Our frustration, our discouragement is — ironically — a symptom of our progress! If we were solidly mired in our inertia, we wouldn’t care. We wouldn’t even be trying to change. We would be like a turtle that pulls its legs and head into its shell, protecting itself and not going anywhere.

Whenever there is a change, some people are quicker to adapt than others are. That’s just the way people are. Eventually more and more people grasp the idea, but at first only a small number do. Let’s suppose that 10 percent of members have a vision for reaching out. (The actual figure would be higher in some congregations and lower in others.) It is easy for them to become discouraged, since it might seem that 90 percent of the people don’t “get it.” It is natural for them to want more people to share their enthusiasm, and it is natural for them to be discouraged when so many don’t join in.

Looking at the positive

But I would like to point out the other side of the coin — that significant progress has already been made. The good leaven has begun to permeate the lump of dough. The mustard seed has sprouted and has begun to grow. Christ is working, and he will complete the work he has begun. But it takes time, and people who are quick to adapt to change are not always gifted with patience!

Let me assure you: I firmly believe that we need to continue to change, to be transformed under Christ’s leadership. When I sound a note of patience, I do not want anyone to think it is an opportunity to dig in and resist change. I want us to move forward, but with some realism about how much work it takes for us to move forward. We need to run with patience the race set before us. We must never stop running, but we must run with patience.

Now let me further address the above-mentioned situation. Some pastors are discouraged because they have either not formulated or have not gathered support for an outward-reaching vision. Some have read books about vision that say, in essence, that if a person spends enough time on the “mountaintop” with God, then God will give that person a vision engraved in stone. Some pastors become discouraged when no vision seems to materialize, and they sometimes begin to doubt their relationship with God, or their call to leadership.

Vision isn’t always like that. Paul Ford says that only 30 percent of pastors are visionary by gift or style. Some pastors get out front and shout for people to follow; while many others lead by coming alongside the people, comforting and counseling and encouraging members to go forward together. Such pastors exercise leadership more by coordinating efforts of the members than by commanding new efforts. Both approaches are legitimate forms of pastoral leadership, but it is difficult for a person of one style to try to function according to the other style. We all function best when we spend most of our time operating in the way God has gifted us.

Let me return again to the matter of outward vision. In some cases, we need not be too concerned about outward vision right now. God may not yet be giving an outward vision because it is not yet his time for new people to come into the congregation. First, the congregation must mature and become a nurturing fellowship. I say that not to condemn, but to diagnose the situation so that we can deal with it.

Upward, inward, outward

My dad used to talk about “upward, inward, and outward,” and he placed them in that order for a reason. Our highest priority is to get our upward relationship right. We are to worship God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and we are to love him with all our depth of being. When our relationship with God is strong and growing, we also find ourselves growing in the second priority — “inward.” We find ourselves growing in love for one another, in service toward one another, in caring for one another and in encouraging one another.

Our relationships with one another need to be built on the solid ground of faith in Christ — not on the desire for uniformity. There is value in doctrinal unity. But our relationships must be based on more than that — they must be based on a loving relationship with Christ that leads us to love one another. Our belief is in the One who saves us by his grace, and therefore we can allow some variations in behavior without letting those variations divide us from one another.

When our relationships with one another are strained, it is more difficult for us to display the love of Christ to new believers. If we can love only those who agree with us, how can we be a good incubator for people just beginning to come out of the world? Christ leads his people to love another even when we have different ideas, different practices and different ways of worshipping God.

When the upward and inward are healthy, the outward will fall into place. We will see the diverse gifts of our congregation and how those gifts can serve the church and the community — and we will have the desire to do so.

In short, we do not need to feel frustrated or discouraged if an outward vision is not yet developing for our local congregation. It will, in time. Until then, we need to focus most of our attention on the upward and inward (even as we remain alert to and involved in outward opportunities). We do not need special visions in order to worship God and love one another. We do not need a supernatural revelation for us to pray together, to sing spiritual songs and care for one another. We have already been given a supernatural revelation — the Bible — telling us to do those things.

Eager but patient

We will never be perfectly healthy, but we want to improve the health of our worship, our discipleship, our fellowship and our mutual ministry. Rick Warren has described one approach to church health; Christian Schwarz describes another. Both methods are effective in getting churches to take a systematic look at the diverse functions a church should have, and both methods help people identify areas in which they need to improve. Other authors (Elmer Towns, George Barna, Aubrey Malphurs, Ralph Neighbor, Lyle Schaller, etc.) contribute yet other approaches. There is no perfect method, and what works well for one congregation may not work as well for another. But by seeking wise counsel in books, in conversation with pastors and members, and in Scripture, we can be led by God into increasing joyful participation in his plan for us.

Just as we must have a patient eagerness for the return of the Lord, we must also have a patient eagerness for the completion of his work in our fellowship, as he transforms us to be closer to “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). To him we give all praise and honor and glory.

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