When Mirela and I loaded up our belongings and headed to the northwest, we were filled with an incredible blend of expectation and zeal. We knew something major was happening, and God was going to let us be part of it. We didn’t have a grand plan. We just had a genuine desire to serve and start a church in Portland. It was a big adventure and we felt like pioneers on the Oregon Trail. As we crossed the Walla Walla mountains in eastern Oregon, we listened to Rich Mullen’s song, “You’re on the Verge of a Miracle.” We couldn’t wait to see mass revival in Portland. God placed us with a remarkable church planting team. We’ve seen lots of evidence of God’s grace in our lives and in the church. He has continually provided for our small church plant. We are thankful for many things. From the outside, it looks pretty good. Church planters come from all over the world to learn about what we are doing. Our missional communities multiply every year. We even have a cool website.
The reality is—life lived on the frontier is hard. We have seen only a handful of people come to Christ and be baptized. Church conflict is constant. It seems as though every time someone joins our church, another person leaves. About a third of the missional communities we start fail. All the while, our city continues to be desperately far from knowing the riches of the gospel. My neighbors constantly reject the good news of Jesus despite our best attempts to demonstrate and proclaim it to them. The city is not flourishing in the peace of salvation, but struggling in the chaos of brokenness. It doesn’t feel like the miracle is happening. We sometimes wonder, “When will the revival come? Will we be around to see it?”
Lessons from China
It reminds me of the church in China. No, not the Chinese church of today, where thousands are baptized daily and they can’t print enough Bibles or equip enough pastors to keep up with the rapid multiplication of the church. Not that movement. I am reminded of the Chinese churches of Hudson Taylor, Robert Morrison, and the Cambridge Seven. They spent the best years of their lives laboring with little or no fruit. Despite decades of evangelism and service, they only witnessed a few conversions and a few new churches in their life times. By the time Mao banned religion, many, even within the missions movement, assumed China was unreachable. These missionaries had seemingly wasted their lives.
However, the house church movement that began to erupt in the 1960s and continues today was built on the foundation of these missionaries. The converts they baptized became the backbone of today’s movement. The few disciples they made, made more disciples, who made disciples, and so on. The revival those missionaries prayed for came. It was just decades after they had died. The pioneering missionaries never saw the packed house churches or the all night baptism services. They didn’t see their prayers answered. Yet, they faithfully served at great personal cost for years. They obeyed the call to go and make disciples without knowing what the lasting affect would be.
The Rewards of Obedience
What do you get for all your anonymous and resultless faithfulness? Nothing short of God. “Discipleship,” Bonheofer writes, “means joy.” The reward is Christ himself. Often we get confused and think the rewards for obedience are big churches, lots of twitter followers, and the approval of our peers. And we miss the promise of Christ.
How sick are we when we lust for the results of Christ’s work, thinking it could belong to us? When we prefer convert stories to Christ? Sadly, many of us will hope more for success than we will hope for Christ.
If you follow Jesus, you may never see revival. Though you love your city, you may never see it transformed. But if you follow Jesus you are guaranteed this one thing—Jesus. Your fruit is the joy of obeying Jesus. Nothing else. The baptisms and church plants belong to God. Those are God’s work, not yours.
Our ability to quit and become sidetracked is great. Our hearts are constantly being attacked by lies that keep us from persevering in faith. These five lies are particularly successful. They are deceptive and effective in killing our conviction to follow Jesus and trust in his work.
1. “You are above this.”
This is the lie of strong pride. That the grunt work isn’t for you. I first heard this lie when I cleaned toilets for a church in Los Angeles. You may hear it while you are watching babies in the nursery Sunday after Sunday. Or when you get stood up once again by your not-yet believing friends for dinner. You hear it when your neighbors shun you for being crazy people who believe in Jesus. The lie is, “You are better then this.” When you believe this lie, you think you are entitled to fame. In reality, you are only entitled to be called a child of God, and that right was purchased by Christ. Don’t settle for position and fame. If you think you are above the job and task, you will not persevere in obedience.
2. “You are below this.”
Many times it also sounds like, “You don’t belong and you don’t deserve this.” This is a lie attacking Christ’s ability to work in and through you. If you believe this lie, you believe that God is not at work, but you are the one at work. This lie leads to fear and rejection of your identity as a son or daughter of God. It is also born out of comparison to others instead of Christ. What is so devastating about this lie is it paralyzes folks from obedience that would give God glory. No one is capable or skilled enough to do what God has called them to do. The Holy Spirit empowers us for the tasks and God is glorified in using us.
3. “If you were better, it would be easier.”
This one comes when things feel incredibly hard. It leads to self loathing and increased suffering. This lie shakes your sense of purpose. You begin to place yourself as the focal point of God’s work and conclude you are either in the way or driving it forward. When things improve, you believe it is because you have done better and have earned it. When things fail, you are certain it is your fault. Similar lies are, “You have to be good to be used for good.” Or “You have to be smarter, better, quicker, more talented, more educated, rich and moral in order to do good.” This leads to a personal quest for self-rightness, excellence, and God’s job. This lie essentially says, “You are this city’s savior.” Eventually you quit in desperation because you have labored without a savior.
4. “If it isn’t happening now, it never will.”
This lie says, “today is all there is and God can’t work tomorrow. If God hasn’t answer your prayers for revival by now, he never will.” When you believe it, you lose perspective on the scope of life and count everything you are doing as worthless. You are no longer content in obedience alone, but want to see what your obedience will create. This is nearsighted dreaming. This lie results in quick quitting or shrinking versions of worthwhile-God-given dreams. This is a lie people believe when the settle for less then the radical surrender and obedience God called them to. When we believe this lie we are saying, “God doesn’t care anymore or he can’t do it.”
5. “You are alone.”
This is the hardest one. Our sinful hearts leap to this lie when we are tired and discouraged. The goal of this lie is to isolate you and make you think no one else cares, and no one else is coming to help. No longer are you being obedient to God’s work, but now you feel like a hired hand. It is as if God is paying you to establish a franchise of his kingdom and is looking for a return on his investment. Your belief in this lie says, “Jesus doesn’t love me or this city. He didn’t died for this city of for me . . . God abandons his people.”
At the heart of each these lies is an attack on your motivation and an attack on the gospel. The truth is Christ died for you. You are loved and you are his son or daughter (1 John 3:1). He has empowered you with his Spirit to be his witness (Acts 1:8). He will work in you and through you as he works all things together for good and conforms you to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). He is with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28).
When I was 11, my family moved to Lisbon, a city of five million people with fewer than 4 percent believing the gospel. Shortly after we arrived, my family went to a hill that overlooked the city we came to win for Christ. My dad wept over it as he prayed for the people and for the gospel to take root and free people. We all cried. We had put everything on the line to follow Jesus to this city. We loved the city and we loved Jesus.
Soon it will be two decades since that day we prayed for that city, and the statistics are the same. My parents saw only a couple people baptized in over a decade of ministry there. They will never see or experience his prayers for the city being answered. What did they experience? God’s lavished grace in new ways; the gospel.
Are you willing to weep over your city for decades and never see your prayers answered, and plant seeds you never see germinate? What if your church never becomes nationally known? What if you don’t write books or speak at conferences? Is the gift of the gospel enough for you?
Brad Watson (@BradAWatson) serves as a pastor of Bread & Wine Communities in Portland, Oregon. He is a board member of GCDiscipleship.com and co-author of Raised? and Called Together. His greatest passion is to encourage and equip leaders for the mission of making disciples.