It was 1998.
That sentence alone should strike fear into your heart. Ok, maybe not fear. But it should do something to you. The nineties were . . . well, grungy, rebellious, and low-tech. Businesses still used pagers, but some people had cell phones. Texting had been invented, but no one had heard about it. And the prevailing “sound” of the pop culture was rather-annoyed-about-everything. But hey, at least our shorts had lengthened, even if the legs of our jeans had gotten as wide as a normal person’s waist. I’ll take the pants that used enough jean material for two pairs over the 80’s iterations any day. What’s more, you could fit an entire two-liter in the back pockets. Why settle for a 20oz pop when you could have a full two liters? Amirite???
But I digress. Where was I. Oh yes, it was 1998. My youth pastor had rented a local YMCA and we were planning a youth ministry lock-in. For those of you who never lived through the 90’s, a lock-in is where you enter a building, lock the doors, and no one leaves until the parents show up the following morning. Generally these are made possible by
- High levels of caffeine.
- Copious piles of sugar.
- Adult chaperone’s who really didn’t know what they had signed up for.
And remember, racquetball and volley ball are really fun . . . but nothing is that fun at 3am when everyone is a Zombie. Still, this was the 90’s . . .
Our youth group was the event crew (get pizza, set up for the speaker, refill pop and candy, etc.) and we were planning to share the gospel with all the friends that would come along with the local youth groups. The night of the lock-in we waited and waited and waited for the 8 other groups to show. As the hours ticked by, and as my youth pastor made phone calls (on a phone with a cord mind you), the discovery was made that none of the other groups had decided to come. In fact, all had planned to come, and all had conflicts come up that prevented them at the last minute.
So here we were. A youth group of 30, a youth pastor, some devoted youth sponsors, and 40 pizzas. The cases of soda were uncountable. To say there was disappointment was to understate the situation. All the planning, all the hopes, and all the work put into arranging and setting up this outreach event seemed to be evaporating before our very eyes. Much like the heat from the pizzas sitting uneaten. A failure? It sure seems so.
Paul’s Experience with “Failure” in Ministry
In Philippians chapter 1, Paul recounts a situation that is not unlike the one I experienced (but definitely not the same by any means). Paul had been on a missionary journey, sharing the gospel with gentiles, and he ended up arrested. All his planning, praying, and all the church’s support seemed to be going to waste. A failure?
It sure seems so.
But as Paul explains the situation to the church at Philippi, it doesn’t sound like a failure. In fact, if Paul hadn’t admitted that house arrest wasn’t the purpose of his journey, you might think that everything was actually going according to plan! Paul says that “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (1:12). He then explains that people knew he was arrested for sharing the gospel. The soldiers in the palace guard had heard of his situation. Others had begun to preach the gospel (albeit, for poor motives). In all, the situation raised awareness of who Christ was and of His good news.
If you sat down to plan a ministry outreach to preach the gospel, you probably would not plan to get put in prison. Nor would you plan to have no one attend your youth outreach aside from your own church members. But God is as sovereign today as He was in the first century. And even the 90’s couldn’t diminish His sovereignty. The question we must ask is this: will we trust in His sovereignty when we don’t see the kind of outcome we expected? He is always at work in our lives. Will we trust that He is and be faithful to serve Him?
Back to the 90’s
Looking back to the 90’s, I would love to tell you that someone got saved at this outreach. However, to my memory, I don’t think anyone did. But let me tell you some of the lessons I learned as I walked out of that pizza-filled, pop-drowned, zombie-chaperoned event.
Disappointment is a Part of Ministry
First, I saw my youth pastor disappointed. To be honest, he was pretty down. I had only seen this one other time. This was a good thing for me to see because the next week I saw him ready to go again. He held no bitterness at all toward the other youth groups who didn’t show up and didn’t communicate they planned to cancel. He did not quit the ministry. He did not rage at God. I saw him trust the Lord when the situation looked very disappointing. This has helped me over the long haul. Ministry is tough. It’s not easy. Many times it just doesn’t go the way you think it ought to. But the Lord is still sovereign. Will you be faithful? Or will you quit?
You Can Always Read, Pray, and Serve
Second, I saw my friends serve. We still carried out the evening. We still had a message preached. We still had a lot of crazy fun together. We still got in the Word and prayed together. This is something that became a trend I noticed. No matter what the situation is, you can always pray and study the word. Nothing can really stop that. While I don’t remember the message my Youth Pastor preached, I do remember his overall testimony. He never approached the group without his Bible in hand. He always pointed to the eternal value of God’s Word. This didn’t change when we had a bad showing at our event. God was sovereign and this event became part of His training in my own life for ministry. Staying faithful is important, even if the situation seems bleak. Will you be faithful? Or will you quit?
God Works, but We Don’t Always See What Happens
Thirdly, there may have been ways God worked that I have no awareness of. I know those coordinators at the YMCA knew we were Christian and were having a ministry event. My youth pastor was very open about Christianity and was always looking for opportunities to share the Gospel. I don’t doubt that this event was known to the employees at the YMCA as a Christian gathering. Did God use it? Perhaps. Do I trust that He was sovereign in that event? Absolutely. What about you? Will you be faithful to serve Him, even if you don’t see results? Or will you quit?
Faithfulness is Central to the Christian Life
So this week, remember the sovereignty of God. He uses all things to work out His plan (Rom. 8:28). Someone once said, “God paints straight with crooked lines.” That seems apt. God uses the weak things to show His power. Neither poorly attended events, nor months in house arrest are able to halt what God advances.
Perhaps your life this week hasn’t looked the way you thought it would. Perhaps nothing has gone according to plan. Remind yourself of God’s sovereignty. Remember that He is concerned about your faith in Him. Set your mind on things above, and put your hand to the plow. Be faithful, trust and hope in Him.
And don’t order 40 pizzas unless you have a sign-up sheet for your youth event.