It is profoundly Christ-like to be non-significant

A strange and false dichotomy between the village and the city is found in an old work by Edward Leach. He wrote, “THE AGGRESSIVE WORK”, in the June 1869, Sword and Trowel. Speaking of pastors who worked in the small English villages, he wrote this:

The difficulties are disheartening. The disappointments are heart-breaking. By so much the more then are the courage, faith, patience, and perseverance praiseworthy.

Leach extols the exceptional virtue of being Christ-focused in these less populated places. Trying to be helpful, he argues the honor of serving Jesus when the service is in anonymity and with opposition, but his argument is also laced with an intractable and subtle confusion:

[Speaking of ministers] These young brethren, who have eschewed all cold calculation, and armed with the panoply of divine truth, have sought to fight their way through hindrances and impediments that have damped the ardor of better, more cultured, but not more fervent men, demand, and deserve the smile of approval they need in the prosecution of their noble enterprise [Notice that Leach here implies that the village is the post for the “young bretheren”, who will earn the right, with time, to be promoted to the city parsonage]. We honor the men, subsisting on scanty and humble fare, battling with adversity, and living down prejudice … in apparently unhopeful districts. With the accent of conviction on their lips, the truth of God in their hearts, and undying perseverance leading them on, they must succeed in breaking the dreary monotony of a sinful village life. Their preaching may not please the highly cultured; their methods of working may not suit this decorous age; their unambitious lives may fall flat upon the feverish world; but their faithfulness to God, and persistency in his service, shall be rewarded with the divine “Well done, good and faithful.” We know no greater heroes than these sufferers of contumely and hatred, who so gloriously bear up and strike dismay into the enemy’s camp. Their imperfections are not worthy to be weighed with their virtues. If England is to be evangelized, it must be by such men. Fit them, train them to as great a degree of perfection as mortal man can bear–no standard is too high for God’s ministers but let not culture destroy Christian simplicity

What is it that requires such encouragement? Do different posts in the kingdom of God need special motivation? Are the demands of the rural work greater?

I want to propose that no extra accolades are needed. In fact, if things were evaluated a little differently, it may be the successful city pastors who need a special kind of encouragement.

The reason the extra accolades may not help the heart of the young village pastor is because of a profound reality that takes place in the preaching of Christ, his suffering, the Cross, and resurrection-hope. Jesus becomes so impressive to us, that Leach’s identification of dreary monotony is nothing to us — in fact, it is discovered to be equally present in all places; we see a dreary village no differently than a city. The world is horribly desolate and fallen, and no place can be found that is encouraging. We look for better things. Being in a village or a city is of no great importance. The preaching of Christ has changed what/how we see, and we see ruin all around.

The world is a wasteland of anti-faith, and all places are the same. Not only that, but it is the message itself that sustains us — no matter where we are — so we see no distinction between here or there. Perhaps it is precisely where the world makes its greatest distinctions that Jesus most minimizes them. Or, perhaps Jesus inverts the two, and the village minister is to be envied since he has lost more of this world already, and his way of seeing God is hanging heavily upon the Word. Far from needing extra commendation, recognition or honor, he may be the one to explain more accurately the realities most necessary to survive the city pastorate? Maybe a city dweller need not come and congratulate the village pastor, but maybe the village pastor should be sought so that the message of the cross can be enjoyed afresh.

How can this be?

It may be that the little town is where the marks of Christ are relatively more perceptible. Only relatively more perceptible. The marks of Christ are not bound by city or village. But perception is the relative reality of the city minister. The larger and more numerically successful city pastor might be distanced from the scandalous anonymity of the Cross-life (i.e., there are more people in the city to create the sense of belonging, meaning, mission, and comfort).

It is the anonymous and lonely Cross-life that seems to put the rural minister and his family into a constant state of disadvantage; but the Cross-life is not defined by being rural. It is only less acutely felt in the hubbub of hectic city ministry where the perception of our insignificance may be strangely dulled. City ministers may sense that their numerical records correspond to actual success. In this way, their cross is heavy, for they can become lulled into a sense of significance not rooted in the actual Cross-life.

In the city, the soul of the would-be-minister must fight so as to not succumb to the large and measurable. The city offers the illusion of ministry alternatives. Self-reliance is the facade in the city, for more options are always present (not only for the industrious worker, but also for the creative minister). It almost takes work for a city church to be completely devoid of “ministry” options, or pathways for growth, as the creative and determined minister can always access other resources and alternative avenues that will sustain the illusion of life and possibility. The city is full of potential, and full of people to count and ways to attract them. The ministers who are tempted to count are in a place of peril.

This is in contrast to the rural situation. Where there is no hope of great crowds or a meaningful budget, then the message itself is harder to dislodge from its seat. It sits as the measure of success. Jesus himself is our message so that we understand labor as valid regardless of our field, district or worldly-measurable standards.

In this context, we don’t need to be patted on the head, as it were, with congratulation for surviving the little or anonymous field. For it is in anonymity that we get to embody our message about losing more of our life (we want it this way, it is joy!). We lose our identity because we seek our identity in Jesus. Our humble estate is to be preferred over the accolades that we would get from the greater Christian community. There is something profoundly Christ-like in not being significant. Losing our lives for Christ puts us in an enviable place.

The Bible never makes distinctions regarding the sizes of the various churches. God never reveals measurements of Gospel-success that distinguish the larger populations vs. the smaller ones. It is the heart of the world to measure the value of a thing by its impact, influence or size. Therefore, it is also the world that says that the village church and pastor require special doses of encouragement.

Not so! In fact, what if it is the case that we are to pity the successful pastors? After all, they are the ones who must endure the great threats of popularity and notoriety. They face an un-cross like situation. The hearts of men crave attention and validation from the multitudes, and ministers too easily measure themselves according to this craving. Ministers easily find kingdom-meaning and success in building sizes, weekly giving records, altar calls, and even in cultural influences.

The Wisdom of God

God measures according to a different system. And on the other side of his formula, we find that success in the kingdom is cross-shaped, and it conforms to the deadly and costly life of Jesus. That means that the village is the same as the city, and the message is the distinguishing factor for measuring success. This is so because the message is as equally massive wherever it is proclaimed. The minister who adheres to it is successful because of his message-fidelity. Perseverance in the village is not our challenge, but steadfast fidelity to the word in the world. In fact, it may be in the village where ministers are slowly forced to give up hope of finding worldly success, and over time they learn to rely more heavily on being successful for rightly dividing the Word.

We are all combatants in enemy territory, and rural ministers are equipped with the same weapon as their city brothers. Skill in the word is available to us all, but the world will call us away from fidelity. The city, with its pleasures and its standards, will charm the minister away from a cross-like vision. He has the extra burden to remain small of heart and humble of spirit when all-around he gets constant affirmation for his efforts — even silently he gets affirmed with moderate or large gatherings and with budgets that he can “work with.” We must pray for such pastors! God has them positioned in the city, but their work is hard.

The minister who is in the least enviable position is the pastor in a village who still wishes to be successful. The rural minister may never learn to let go of his craving for city-success. In this way, being rural is no guarantee that a minister will recover from success-lust. He may only grow jaded and cynical with a weekly reminder that he is insignificant. A worldly minister toiling in the village will become a great blot. If he does not overcome this, he is no good in the city or the village, but may be nothing more than a false son. God is not seeking ministers who can acquire significance here or there, but who find their significance in Jesus. Pray for the village church that has a jaded pastor.

Being a “Failure” to the World is Normative

Part of the Christian message is lonely anonymity (where even our savior dies wounded and alone). From my understanding of world history, it is not normative that a minister would experience weekly worship in large gatherings. It would be exceptional if such is the case.

The story of most churches is the embodiment of a seemingly meaningless life of quiet and anonymous worship. This is true throughout the world and across world history. The life of Jesus himself tells us as much. And in this way the church advances. We advance in suffering. The world can’t see the true church, for it cannot measure suffering or anonymity as a success — it only sees what has a large footprint. The message of the cross is insignificant foolishness to those who are perishing. The devil wants ministers to think the same way. It is a dark ploy that tells us to measure things according to the countable, culturally-measurable and observable. It is the world that says that worship is to be preferred when the gatherings are large, and that the village church (no matter what its message) is inherently different and harder. It is not! All places are the same because the message defines us.

We preach Christ in season and out of season, in want and in plenty, in the village and in the city. It matters not, for God deploys us as he pleases, and we cannot say what is the true shape of the battlefront (maybe God is working intensely in a village — it is not for us to say). Indeed, where God is most glorified, he is least visible. The world does not see God in the village and they did not see him in the flesh, and they certainly did not see him on the Cross.

What Should We Do?

Pray for the city pastors with the three worship services, the large buildings and multi-site simulcasts. For them, it may become easier and easier to appeal to their numbers, their budgets and their music programs than to the Cross-like Jesus-content of their message. In fact, where a church is outwardly un-cross-like, it may be most acutely deprived of the message of the Cross. It is too easy to trade the message of the cross for another message — since doing so is practically guaranteed to draw a larger crowd and increase impact.

Leach need not specially recognize the little places, for it may be the large places that face a more terrible expression of our enemy. I will take some liberty and rework Leach’s quote to give encouragement to the city ministers:

These seasoned ministers, who may have followed careful calculations, and armed with the panoply of congregants, have the smile of approval they need in the prosecution of their enterprise. Many honor these men (even if silently), and so we must beg to God on their behalf, for they subsist on church wages in upper middle-class districts. With the accent of life-application on their lips, the passion to impact others seeks to dominate their hearts in places where crowds are hungry for practical tools for financial, family and cultural success; these ministers must succeed in breaking the fantastical lure of the successful environs. They are under attack. If they succumb, their preaching may not assist the wounded and lowly; their methods of working may not suit the outcast and disadvantaged; their ambitious lives may rise above the unemployed and the defeated of this world; rather, their faithfulness to the organization, and their persistency shall be rewarded with a large budget sustained by many wise and successful members. We know of no greater heroes than those pastors who are thus in the enemy’s camp, yet eschew large salaries, nice cars, fancy homes and who defy the world’s luster in deference to the word of the Cross and the message of resurrection-hope (faithful to this message even if the crowds depart). It is a rare man who ministers thus without appointing successful CEOs and businessmen to the church posts. Pray for such ministers who must suffer the culture’s pull to honor men and destroy Christian simplicity.

How can this be?

It must be. God’s economy runs on the currency of the cross, and at the bottom of his balance sheet we find that the profit is deadly. The businessman has no market category for this; too often he presses his buy-low-sell-high strategy upon the kingdom of God, and the city minister must resist the pressure, and counter-offer with the heavenly transaction of the Cross. Therefore, pray. Pray that city pastors will have boldness to speak as they ought. Pray for them, for they are in a horrible fight, and not many seem to be able to survive the worldly successes.

This article was published under Suffering, Worship.

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