As ministry drags and crawls its way to getting accomplished, done by sinful people in a sinful world for other sinful people, plagued by missed appointments, insufficient resources, egos the size of Mount Everest, and incompetent clergy, there is a common refrain that is often spoken to encourage the weary to press on: “It will all be worth it if we reach just one.” With that phrase, the tired and frustrated participants in ministry are given the strength to press on towards the prize, the reaching of one soul for Christ. A little extra energy is found, the frustrations become worthwhile, and a renewed sense of spirit comes over those who are growing tired of waiting for someone to respond.
Well, perhaps I’ve overstated the difficult nature of ministry. (I probably watched too much of that Scientology TV show!) In truth, ministry, when shared among the congregation, is a joy, and not such a burden. Still, it takes work to keep up a property, reach out to non-believers, hold and attend weekly services, clean up after events, etc. And in the end, we will often ask ourselves, “Why am I doing all this again?” And when the response is, “To nourish the faith of the faithful and to reach the nonbeliever,” the next question is often, “Well, how many nonbelievers have we reached?” And then comes the “If we only reach one” mantra. Wash, rinse, spin, repeat.
One can only hear a mantra so many times, however, before it stops ringing true. Or sometimes, it can just feel like a meaningless pick-me-up, or even a lie we tell ourselves to keep going. Especially in the land of “everything’s bigger in Texas” and where mega-churches are the default setting, it sounds like the kind of thing you tell yourself to justify your existence. It may seem that you aren’t really accomplishing anything at all. So you have to tell yourself the “only one” mantra to contextualize your failure. You have to tell yourself that because it’s the only thing that can make sense of the ministry itself.
Yes, perhaps the saying can come to be seen as that, the pat on the back after a tough loss, words of consolation in the face of defeat. But I’d like to reclaim it as more than a mantra. I’d like us not to let such words come across our minds glibly, but to really consider them and take them to heart.
The “only one” mantra is not an invention of ours. It springs from the ministry of Jesus. In the trilogy of parables about lost things, Jesus ends the series with one being found out of two (The Prodigal Son). But he begins with the Lost Sheep, a factor of one of 100. It is the shepherd who leaves the 99 behind who is faithfully serving his sheep. Jesus spends time with his own disciples, carefully teaching them and patiently waiting for them to see him for who he is. When it comes to crowds, Jesus doesn’t seek them and often dismisses them. It is individuals that he spends his time with.
And Paul does the same, faithfully ministering to small congregations of individuals but repeatedly being scorned by crowds (Acts 17). So the biblical witness stresses ministering to individuals, not just to the largest crowd we can gather.This is also supported by what we know about man generally. The Christian view of all people is that they are eternal beings. They are made in God’s image and “a little lower than the angels.” They are known by God, to the point where he knows how much hair is on our heads. So, really, how dare we think so little of one soul when God thinks so much of them! This is more than a mantra; it is an ironclad truth of reality: one soul is eternally precious to God. And while many more may choose to hate God and reject his love forever, the angels rejoice in heaven over one sinner who repents.
But we can make an even more extreme claim than the mantra suggests: we can do the work of ministry for no one and still be fulfilling our mission. Forget mega-churches! Forget even one! If no one responds to our ministry, does that make it a failure? No. Because outreach ministry is an act of worship, not really so different from our worship on Sunday morning. Both reflect a prioritization and an understanding of our relationship to God. In other words, witnessing is what we ought to do, whether we get a positive response or not.
Contrary to what some may say, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it still makes a sound. Of course it does! And if ministry doesn’t reach even one, that doesn’t mean it is wrong or foolish to embark on. Sure, all ministries should evaluate strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes certain ministries should be let go. But some are to be done no matter the result, even if the result is less than the one that inspires you to carry on.