The Thrill of Disappointment

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The lights were on. The chairs laid out. The sermon practiced and prepared. All of this, and only one person came. This happened many years ago, but I still remember. It’s branded in my brain as not exactly a church-planting victory.

I remember thinking, “What can we do?”

We had two choices—either to quit or to make the best of it. We decided for the latter. The two of us sat in the cold, empty New York storefront and searched the Word of God. We found a special phrase in Isaiah. “One shall become a thousand” (Isaiah 60:22).

Somehow, those words stirred a spirit of faith in us. Thrilled, we claimed that verse. And despite the earlier disappointment, our excitement grew.

What I didn’t know at the time was the one person who had come to service that day—a man with a long history of alcoholism—would succeed in recovery and be a powerful leader in our group. He would mentor many young men and help our storefront church be the springboard for many churches.

Our gatherings grew as we helped start other churches. In all, we surpassed far more than a thousand. What I didn’t know at the time was that one man would bless so many. But he did.

We often misinterpret a verse in the Bible. We say where “two or more” are gathered together, there Christ will be. It’s Matthew 18:20. However, the Bible says “where two or three” are gathered together. Three is still small; it’s certainly smaller than “more.” Perhaps Jesus sets the limit at three because, once there are more than three people, we feel the need to have structure like committees and task teams.

But ministry-based church planting is about blessing many and investing in few. For example, at the beginning of one chapter, Jesus is feeding over five thousand people. At the end of the same chapter, even the twelve might leave (John 6). And many times in the New Testament, Jesus is spending time with only three people—Peter, James and John.

After a big event, we may get discouraged if only a few people accept Christ. But we can’t quit! In fact, we should be encouraged to continue ministry. The rhythm of the Bible follows the same pattern we often mislabel as a struggle. Small is big!

As we learn in the Bible, ministry is often to bless the many whether through feeding thousands in meal-packing or in providing back packs and other necessities. Ministry is also to invest in the few. Things don’t stop with the few; In fact, it has been our experience that starting with a few is a way to reach many. Investing in the few sometimes develops leaders who bless far more people than we could ever imagine. Therefore, finding ways to meet in small groups is beneficial to ministry and follows the same idea Jesus had with His disciples.

Whether it is only five pieces of bread or a few people, in the Bible small is actually big. I am thrilled I didn’t quit when only one person showed up.

Talk is Cheap

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We all heard the phrase as a kid, “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!” Equally as synonymous, spoken to console the not-so-rubbery child, is the phrase, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”

Let’s be honest. This talk is pretty cheap. These clichés are about the same as putting a bandaid on a stab wound. Words hurt, sometimes surprisingly so.

The Bible tells us this in the book of Proverbs. It says, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21).

Words can tear down, but they can also build up.

In the 80s, two research psychologists documented the power of words in a child’s life. Betty Hart and Todd Risley were inquisitive about the achievement gap between low-income children and children of more advantageous backgrounds. To investigate, they studied 42 families divided into three groups—professionals, working class, and low-income. Their data showed, on average, by age four, children in professional families heard 30 million more words than children in low-income families.

Beyond the quantity of words, their data showed a striking difference in the quality of words. Whereas children in professional families heard 500,000 encouragements compared to 80,000 discouragements, children in low-income families heard 80,000 encouragements compared to 200,000 discouragements.

The results of their study were published in the book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Their findings, which have been dubbed the “30 Million Word Gap,” clearly show the power of words.

Children need words—some of them need 30 million more words than what they’ve heard!

Of course, kids hear plenty of words on phones, tablets, and television. However, the same study showed that those words don’t have the same impact as a living, breathing, person.

Children need “the word to be flesh, and dwell among them!” They need someone to read with them, someone to ask questions of them, someone to lift them up rather than tear them down, someone to remind them they are beautiful.

When serving children in challenging communities, programs always need more . . .more money, more volunteers, more space, more help. One thing though there is no short supply of is words. A careful steward of his or her words may not change the whole world, but he or she can change a child’s world, one word at a time.

Perhaps talk isn’t that cheap after all.

"I Saw You That Day"

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George looked a little silly. He was riding his daughter’s bike toward the church in New York City. The bike was pink and small, and his legs were nearly up to his chest.

But George’s face was fresh and bright. “I checked myself in to a rehab and now I am back,” he told Pastor Andrew. George had earlier placed his faith in Christ and been baptized at the church, but as often happens,

all the change didn’t take place in a day.

Since George returned from rehab, he became more of a quiet leader in the church. He helped the church to “meet the need first” in a community with many needs.

How did George go from someone who simply watched the neighborhood on the street, to someone who helped many young people with the integrity of his own experience?

Much earlier, Andrew hadn’t really known George well. Andrew used to pass by as George simply shot baskets in a park. Finally Andrew just asked if they could eat lunch together. George said he was shy, but slowly he opened up as they ate.

George said one thing that surprised Andrew during the lunch.

“I saw you that day.”

Andrew didn’t know what he was talking about. “What day?” He asked.

George was serious. “The day you brought that man back to life in front of the grocery store,” he said quietly.

Andrew remembered the scene, years ago. He didn’t even know George at the time. Andrew had just learned CPR, and he saw a crowd of people in front of the grocery store.

They were all standing around a man who was unconscious. His face was blue.

Andrew felt for the breathing barrier on a lanyard he had worn since he had the CPR training. It wasn’t there. The man’s arms had holes dotted with blood. He was clearly a heroin addict. No one in the crowd moved.

“Is my life more valuable than his?” Andrew thought. Then he remembered the tent across the street that was a Harm Reduction Center for people using drugs. “Do you have a breathing barrier?” Andrew shouted. They did, and they ran it over to Andrew.

Andrew put the clear plastic over the man’s cold, blue lips and began to puff breaths of air into his lungs. Time passed, and eventually paramedics arrived. By this time, color had returned to the man’s face and the paramedics picked him up and he regained consciousness.

Andrew never saw the man again, but George had been watching in the crowd, those many years ago. We sometimes say that the two hands of Christ are “relief work,” and “release work.” Relief work is the immediate thing that needs to be done. Release work takes longer, and it involves the process of being released from dependent behaviors, from addictions, and from sin.

“I saw you that day.” Andrew didn’t know George was in the crowd until he simply had lunch with him much later. Andrew didn’t know what God would do in George’s life to bless the whole community.

One of the principles of community engagement is learning to “See the Unseen.” Sometimes we will see the connection between relief work and release work, and sometimes we won’t.

We can’t all give CPR to a heroin addict, but we can all invite someone to lunch who is shy, and we can simply start by listening.