If you are a Christian worker of any kind, you have faced discouraging times. I remember when we were starting the Good News Baptist Church in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Several times when it was time for our evening service, I had the church cleaned, the chairs set up, hymnbooks laid out, music playing, my sermon tucked away neatly in my Bible, and threw open the door ready to quickly step out of the way lest I be trampled by the surging throngs of people hungry to hear God’s Word! Then…(crickets chirping)…nobody came. Pastors certainly go through times when it seems like for every 1 step forward, their church takes 3 steps backwards. Missionaries no doubt feel at times that not one person in the entire country cares a whit about what they have to say. A bus captain may at times wonder why it seems the harder he works, the less interest kids seem to have. A Sunday School teacher may feel like throwing in the towel because even when their students attend the class, they don’t seem to listen to a word that is said. A soulwinner will occasionally return home with one thought on his mind: “What’s the point?”
People turning a deaf ear to God’s Word is nothing new. Noah, Jeremiah, Stephen, and many others all experienced the same thing. One of the best examples is found in Ezekiel 2:3-5.
“And he said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me…For they are impudent children and stiffhearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD. And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them.”
Oftentimes we think that if people refuse to listen then that is grounds to quit, but nothing could be further from the truth. God didn’t say to Ezekiel, “If they are rebellious, impudent, and stiffhearted, then you can just go on back home. To the contrary, He said, “They are rebellious, impudent, and stiffhearted…now go unto them!” God went on to say, “Whether they hear you or whether they forbear (to refuse or to decline), I still want you to preach the Word.”
Pastor, have you ever preached to a rebellious person? Youth worker, are any of the teens in your group impudent? (Impudent means “shameless; wanting modesty; bold with contempt of others; saucy”.) Bus captain, do you have any stiffhearted riders? Soulwinner, does it seem like everyone is refusing and declining your message? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are in good company. Many Christian workers just say, "Forget it!" But another danger is that you would get discouraged to the point that you begin to just listlessly go through the motions. When you are going through a discouraging time in your ministry and most of the people seem to be forbearing your preaching and teaching, that is not the time to quit, nor is it the time to lose your passion! That is the time to push some reset buttons and refuse to let the discouragement, drudgery, and apathy be permanent. Here are 5 Biblical principles for a Christian worker who is facing discouraging times.
This is a key step, because you will never get things turned around until you take an honest and complete look at the problem.
First, evaluate your motives. When the Apostle Paul faced discouraging times, he was able to withstand them, because his motive was simply that Christ should be preached. (Philippians 1:15-18) If you thrive on praise, popularity, or preeminence, then discouraging times will be tough to overcome. What is your motive for serving the Lord?
Second, evaluate your methods. I have found that oftentimes when I face a dry period in my ministry, it is at least in part because I have gotten lax in my methods and execution of what I know is right. If you find that something is wrong…fix it!
Third, evaluate your ministry. Exactly how committed are you to this ministry which you have come to dread? Evaluating these issues and coming up with honest answers to these difficult questions is a great first step towards rekindling the passion that you once had.
Once you have done some evaluating and made some decisions as to where you are and where you want to go, then it is time to take a concrete step towards a solution. That step is to find someone who is getting the job done and learn something from him! I remember a few years ago when I was having a difficult time getting certain aspects of our new church off the ground, I called up several different missionaries who had good churches going and set lunch appointments with them. When we went out for lunch, I had specific questions written down to ask them. I wanted to know what percentage of their time they were giving to the various aspects of ministry. I wanted to know things they had tried which worked and things they had tried that didn’t work. I asked about specific things I was planning to do in order to get their input.
In addition to educating yourself through the questioning of ones who have been down the path, there are also books, CDs, magazine articles, blogs, and conferences which will deal with the issue that you find is lacking. Put some effort into it. Get an unquenchable desire to learn about your subject. In the spirit of Proverbs 18:1, intermeddle with it. To “intermeddle” is a very bold and aggressive action. It refers to a person who will simply not take no for an answer.
If you do not pay close attention to the things I say in this point, you will likely misunderstand the whole point of this article. If all we did was evaluate and then educate, we would likely still be left in a discouraging state. Why? Because oftentimes even after you have discovered the problem through evaluation and delineated a plan through education, things still don’t immediately change or get better. I believe sometimes God actually allows us to go through dry spells in order to keep us humble, to grow our faith, and to purify our lives.
So what should we do when the discouraging times remain or even worsen? We must emphasize the things that God Himself emphasizes.
God emphasizes faithfulness. (Matthew 25:21; I Corinthians 4:2)
God emphasizes holiness. (I Peter 1:14-16; I Timothy 4:12; II Timothy 2:20-22)
God emphasizes abiding in Christ. (John 15:1-8)
Do not get sidetracked with man’s yardsticks of success. Once you have evaluated and educated yourself, then you need to just emphasize the things that God emphasizes and wait on God’s Spirit to effect the change that you desire in your ministry. When you are faithfully serving the Master, living a holy life, and daily abiding with Christ, He will give the blessings in His own time. You take care of the root, and He will take care of the fruit.
It is difficult to endure discouraging times and the forbearing of people if you have not taken the previous steps. In fact, many people just quit. Either they quit their ministry altogether, or they quit trying to improve things and settle into a sort of apathetical status quo. However, if a person will evaluate the problem, educate himself, and begin to emphasize the things that God emphasizes, he will have a much easier time enduring. And enduring is exactly what some situations require. (II Timothy 2:3; James 5:11)
If a man endures a discouraging time in his ministry but does it with a long, sour face, can that really be considered endurance? Once you have implemented all of the above principles and are patiently enduring the discouraging time, you need to take proactive measures of encouragement during the wait.
First, encourage yourself. We are all familiar with the story of David encouraging himself in the Lord after the tragedy at Ziklag. (I Samuel 30:6) There are times when no other person will be able to encourage you, because they are not adequately familiar with the burden you are carrying. In those times, you must encourage yourself. But make no mistake – encouraging yourself does not mean looking to yourself. You must encourage yourself by looking unto Jesus. Get alone with God in prayer and in His Word, and make no excuses.
Second, encourage your co-laborers. If you are discouraged, your fellow-workers will soon pick up on it. I believe one of the most dangerous things that can happen when a Christian worker is walking in the wilderness of discouragement is that he may knock other workers out of the battle with his negative comments and his attitude of despair. Carefully guard your attitude so that your discouragement is not a stumblingblock to others who share in your ministry.
Third, encourage your students. Sometimes the few that remain get the raw end of the deal, because the pastor/missionary/teacher/bus captain has a one-track mind which is so focused on the ones he lost that he has very little to give to the faithful ones. We make a mistake when we put less effort into a class of 3 students than we would put if the number was 15 students “like before”. When you yourself are discouraged, this is a great time to write encouraging notes and spend extra time with the faithful people, regardless of how few they may be. The long-term impact of a dry season can be lessened by actively encouraging yourself, your co-laborers, and your students.
If lately your ministry has more closely resembled a dry, parched wasteland than a green, beautiful, fruitful orchard, let me encourage you to keep walking! You’re not the first person who has ever walked this path, and you most certainly will not be the last. But as you keep walking, refuse to just go through the motions of ministry. Evaluate your ministry to try to get to the bottom of the problem. Educate yourself to be more effective. Emphasize those things which God emphasizes (numbers not being one of them). Endure these hard times with bulldog tenacity, and encourage yourself and others so that you may endure with a smile. The desert does not go on forever!