Last week I had the privilege of preaching at the installation service of a dear friend who has been in the ministry for over a decade and has just taken a call to one of the largest and healthiest congregations in his denomination. He is a very gifted man, and I am confident that the Lord will bless his ministry there. I have the feeling that his congregation could sit back and relax and that things will run pretty well for the foreseeable future. Of course, there will be the challenging shepherding situation here and there, the wayward child of the congregation who needs attention, disagreements about what Sunday school classes to offer next quarter, discussions about how much to give to this or that missionary endeavor, debates over how much to spend on the update to the nursery, and a hundred other similar types of issues to address. But, by-and-large, the congregation will hum along and everyone involved will enjoy a comfortable situation. They will receive a high degree of pastoral care from the pastors and elders. They will hear good preaching on a consistent basis. They will have interesting Bible studies and classes to attend. The church will easily make its budget each year. They might have the odd mercy request from a needy family but that will be handled by the deacons, who are especially gifted at such things.
And here is where the real danger is for my friend and his healthy, stable congregation: being comfortable can kill a church. It is a natural impulse for all people to seek a kind of stasis in their lives. We work hard to get to a point where we are reasonably comfortable. Once we are, there is significant inertia against doing anything that might upset the status quo. In my job as a university lecturer I know this only too well. There is a tremendous initial investment of time and effort to get a new course up and running. After that, there is a great disincentive to making significant changes to the course. I might continue to tweak a course to make it a little bit better, but a total revamp is highly unlikely. Of course, the same temptation is constantly there in spiritual matters as well as in the ministry of the local church. This dynamic is so universal that it can even display itself in dying congregations when members choose the status quo – even if it means the eventual death of the congregation – rather than doing something that might make them all uncomfortable in an effort to revive the congregation.
Once, when our congregation was contemplating doing something that had the potential to be quite challenging for us and which would put serious pressure on our budget, a wise, older member said to me that he thought we needed to do it. His reasons surprised me. “We are becoming complacent and we need to push ourselves; it’s time to do this.” He knew that we could hum along as we were without ever challenging ourselves. But he also knew that we would suffer in other ways if we were not consciously trying to extend ourselves for the ministry.
This is certainly what we see the first century church doing. In the first three verses of Acts 13, we read verses that seem mundane.
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Act 13:1-3, ESV).
Only they aren’t mundane at all. The congregation in Antioch had been blessed with great ministry success. In describing that church, Luke writes, “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Act 11:21, ESV). The church in Antioch also had enough resources to be able to send a monetary gift to the struggling churches in Jerusalem (Acts 11:28-30). In addition, this prosperous church was blessed with gifted teachers and evangelists. Five men are mentioned by name and described as prophets and teachers – including Barnabas and the Apostle Paul. What is fascinating about these verses is that they describe a flourishing, effective congregation that willingly makes itself uncomfortable in order to expand the effectiveness of its gospel ministry.
Rather than settle for the status quo, the church leadership prays and fasts, seeking a vision for the furtherance of the gospel. When God directs them to send out two of their best men, they willingly and enthusiastically send them off. Paul and Barnabas go out as emissaries of the congregation, having been set aside to pursue this calling by the laying on of hands. They presumably go with the financial backing of the congregation as well as with their prayer support. When they return from this first missionary journey, they report back to the home church, telling of the powerful work of God (Acts 14:26-28). So the congregation in Antioch willingly breaks up its five-man “dream team” of leaders and sends two of them – including one of their founding pastors in Barnabas and one of their best teachers in Paul – away for the sake of the gospel. This was a tremendous sacrifice for the congregation. It was undoubtedly a tremendous sacrifice for the missionaries. As the subsequent chapters show, Paul and Barnabas endure mob violence, threats, opposition, and an attempted stoning as a part of their work.
And yet, what is the result? They complete the first, great missionary journey. They start churches in at least eight new areas. Upon their return, they were able to tell the congregation in Antioch that God had “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Act 14:27, ESV). The great missionary endeavor in which the church has been engaged for two millennia begins in earnest. The witness to Christ goes to the “end of the earth.”
You and I serve a Lord, who made Himself extremely uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel. He endured physical deprivation, hatred, shame, violence, and judgment for sinners like you and me. Jesus’ willingness to do this is why there is a church today. His willingness to make Himself uncomfortable for the kingdom is why the kingdom grows and the church prospers. As you follow Christ, you do not need to seek discomfort just for the sake of being uncomfortable. We are not called to Christian masochism. But we are called to be willing to be uncomfortable for our Lord and for the gospel if that is what He calls us to do. This is the way the church and the gospel truly prosper in the world.
As your congregation approaches another year and you have to make decisions about budgets and ministry, earnestly seek the calling of the One who made Himself uncomfortable for you and in His strength, be willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel.