We work in a mission field. We knew that when we took the job. It's the reason that, when originally asked where we'd consider moving, we listed all the states surrounding this one. Utah was the black hole we never considered. Mission fields are hard. Domestic mission fields get the added bonus of people forgetting it's a mission at all.
It's incredibly difficult to grow a church here. Especially difficult if you stick to the truth of the Word of God. If you don't water down your theology, if you call sin by its name, and if your church isn't located in the hippest or richest part of town, church growth is slow and challenging.
Our ministry is eight and half years old. In those years, we have watched as amazing, godly family after amazing, godly family has been called away from this mission field. Leadership. Sunday school teachers. Ministry team members. Board members. If we could round them all up from their new homes in southern Utah, northern Utah, Washington, Oregon, Texas and the like, and put them back together under our roof, our church would be thriving--numerically. They, coupled with our newer families, would create a dynamic that would be an encouragement to both our community and my heart, alike.
The concern, though, is that when families leave for employment or retirement or health issues, they need to be replaced by another family. If another family doesn't join the church in their place, the numbers decrease and this becomes a great burden over time. Refer back to how difficult it is to grow a church in Utah.
Last summer, our attendance was up. Our giving was up. I was swimming through personal grief and the encouragement I received at church was incredible. And then a few families moved. Our numbers are down. It is not about a number. I know that. But eventually, decisions have to be made. Tough choices. How to balance the budget. What ministries to do away with if you don't have the manpower to run them.
We have enough regular attenders that if they all came on the same Sunday, our church would be full--or, at least, more full. So I've started to pray that our "regular attenders" would be convicted to get out of bed. Perhaps they'll put on clothes and drive to church and come and worship with us. "Lord, let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as we see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24-25). Lord, bring our regular attenders and bring new faces, that we might impact this community, this valley, this mission field, for your kingdom."
This morning was the same as many Sundays since the fall. I had great joy in looking out and seeing the familiar faces that I love. But I missed those who have gone and I missed those who have not yet come. I looked out over the congregation as I sang with the worship team. A curious thing happened. If I opened my eyes, all I saw were the empty chairs. The empty chairs felt like wind and waves. I saw ministries cut and needs not being met for lack of volunteers. Panic began to rise. Anxiety gripped my chest. If I closed my eyes and focused on worship, I felt the presence of the Lord and everything else faded away.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."
"Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water."
"Come," he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!"
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?"
My Lord does not need me. He does not need my husband. He graciously allows us to be used. When I am afraid that somehow God doesn't see our need, He asks me why I have such little faith. We will offer ourselves as living sacrifices. We will not be conformed. We will endeavor to prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12). We long to reach this land with the gospel of Christ. We desire filled seats because it means that more are walking in the ways of the Lord with weekly conviction. But we know that where two or three are gathered together in His name, He is there in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20). We will continue to be a church that preaches the truth whether there are 500 people or 5 people.
To the amazing and godly men and women who were called out of this valley and into other ministries, we miss you more than we can adequately express. To the regular attenders and members of our church, we love you and your faithful service. Thank you for your partnership with us.