Where a desperate small-town pastor found hope
In ministry, God lets us grow hungry so we realize how desperately we need him.
I’m an insignificant pastor in a small church in a forgettable town. Many of my friends have gone on to plant or pastor successful churches with exponential growth, vibrant community, and lush gospel fruit. That hasn’t been my experience. My guess is, there are a lot of you out there in the same boat with me.
Let me tell you a bit about my first few years of ministry. I was called by a struggling congregation—what is now commonly called a church revitalization effort. I entered eyes wide open, knowing it would be a long slow work. And boy, did I work.
In addition to shepherding responsibilities to our church, I did regular ministry at the local schools. Every other week, I preached the gospel to a hundred students in FCA gatherings. I taught a Bible elective class and did one-on-one discipleship with unbelieving college students through the book of John. We hosted the college soccer team for cookouts.
In the community, I tried to meet people at the local gym. Every Sunday I encourage our members to go and advance the gospel in our community. My wife and I hosted a small group in our home hoping that it would provide an environment for true discipleship. We threw block parties in various neighborhoods trying to build new relationships for the gospel.
But still no fruit. I don’t mean God didn’t anything; there were little evidences of his grace and mercy especially among our little enclave of members. At the time, those little changes were overshadowed in my mind by one glaring absence: no new believers repenting of their sins and turning to Jesus. Hadn’t God promised, “My word shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11)? I’d been clinging to that promise for three years with no visible results.
I used to look down on Elijah. Do you remember the story where just after he’s been on Mt. Carmel and seen fire fall from heaven, he runs off into the wilderness because Jezebel threatens to kill him? Sulking alone in a cave in the wilderness, “The Word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life to take it away.’” (1 Kings 19:9-10)
I used to think, “How could a prophet of God be so depressed? What is wrong with him?” However, the despair in Elijah’s heart is no longer foreign to me. In those early years it settled into my soul. It was that sense of helplessness when you have tried to do everything that God instructed, yet nothing has changed. Fire came from heaven! Surely this will turn the people back to the Lord! Elijah thought. When he woke up the next morning, he realized everything remained exactly the same.
What are we supposed to do when we have tried to obey God, and we have clung tightly to his promises, but the lack of fruit drives us to near despair? We have lived the words of Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). We are not ashamed, but where is the power? We proclaim the gospel, but where is the salvation?
I remember turning to my wife one Sunday afternoon and saying, “This may sound selfish, but I need to see a baptism. I mean me. Ineed to see someone get baptized for my own faith, so that I can know that God is going to save people in this town—that the gospel is actually powerful to save here in our community.” After three years of positivity and blind optimism, I finally sunk to a place I had never been before. I had never felt so hungry to see someone come to Jesus.
My prayers changed. They weren’t polite asking with a gentle “If it’s your will, Lord” anymore. They were begging, pleading, insisting that my soul was going to be completely crushed if God didn’t save somebody soon. I felt like I was starving in a wilderness, completely helpless and utterly powerless to do anything. I had exhausted my patience and everything I could think of to influence people with the message of the gospel.
I longed to see God glorified in our community. I hungered for opportunities to rejoice in the power of the gospel. I wanted to see the Holy Spirit give new life. I was desperate to see King Jesus march forward and rescue his sheep from slavery to sin. And in this moment where all hope seemed nearly lost, and my soul felt like it was about to faint from hunger, God spoke these words:
“And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3)
I realized this: hunger in the Christian life is a blessing from the Lord. God intentionally lets us grow hungry so that we realize how desperately we need him. If he does not speak the word, we will perish. If he does not prosper the gospel, it will fail. It’s this same sense of wild-eyed desperation that we hear in the voice of Peter in response to Jesus’s question: “Do you want to go away as well?” And he said, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Looking back, I thank God for his sweet mercy in patiently teaching me — a well-intentioned yet sorely inexperienced pastor — how to hunger and thirst for him above all else. I have realized with Peter that what I desperately need is not a booming church or a successful ministry. What I need is Jesus.
This is how God operates. He lets his people hunger so that he may satisfy their longing: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Do I have a promise that this year God will allow me to see 100 people come to Jesus? No. Do I have a guarantee that my church will grow into a thriving, gospel-fruit-producing body of believers? Not really. But I do have a promise that God will satisfy my desperate hunger. He brings us to a place of deep longing to prove that he is the only one who can satisfy.
Hope has a way of grounding the soul. I have begun to realize that no amount of effort on my part will ever succeed without the Spirit. I have pled and begged God in ways I never have before. Jesus says: “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own known me…” (John 10:14). He will save his sheep. I might not be the one to see it. I might never see anyone come to Jesus again, or I might see tens of thousands come to Jesus. But what I truly need is for God himself to satisfy the hunger of my soul by the power, love, and forgiveness that comes through Jesus Christ the Shepherd of my soul.
One thing is certain: I continue in steadfast hope for the future of our church. The sense of feeble helplessness and dependence on the Lord that pervades our people even today is how the Israelites felt before the Exodus. It is how the disciples felt before Pentecost. It is how Hezekiah felt before God defeated 185,000 Assyrians.
It is how despairing Elijah felt before God swooped him up in a chariot of fire.
There is no better place for a church to be than completely, helplessly, desperately, and hungrily dependent on God to act, because that is the place where he is guaranteed to get all of the glory.