The significance of a ministry shouldn’t be measured by the type of people it is reaching
The year: 1967. The location: Swallow Falls, Md. A 7-year-old red-headed boy jumps out of the car, eager to embark on a long-awaited adventure. The sound of the cool, rushing water beckons him as he races to the crown of the cascade. At the first glimpse of the waterfall, his curious mind starts to wonder, Where’s all this water going?
He jumps from rock to rock, working to gain a clearer view. Finally, he’s close enough to peer over the edge, but just as he catches the first glimpse, his foot slips. He quickly begins the slide downward, when out of nowhere a hand reaches out and grabs his arm. The boy holds his breath for fear that any movement might cause the hand to lose grip. Wide-eyed, he watches as a gold watch falls from the wrist and takes its place among the rocks below. At last, he breathes in relief as he’s pulled to safety.
Ministry Minus Recognition
Good story, huh? It sounds like one you’d hear on the 6 o’clock news or see featured in your hometown newspaper: the account of one brave soul who risked his life to save another. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case in this situation. This story didn’t make the headlines. The man’s name and face weren’t splashed across The Boston Globe, and he was never rightly recognized for his act of courage. But it didn’t matter to him. He was far more concerned with rescuing a little boy than reading some heroic headline bearing his name.
How do I know all this? Because I was there. I was the little boy whose life was saved that day. And though I was too shocked to even ask the man’s name, what he did made a lasting impact on my life. He might not have made the front page, but his act of courage has remained at the front of my mind for years. His act of understated bravery has become the motivating spirit for a cause to which I’ve devoted my life: salvaging the hearts and lives of the overlooked.
The last four years, I’ve traveled throughout small-town America sharing this story and conveying my passion for the unnoticed to like-minded pastors. And I’ve met incredible people along the way—people with the same focus as that gold-watched man: rescuing hearts without even considering headlines. These people live in places like Sallisaw, Okla; Clovis, N.M., and Somerset, Ky.—cities you’ve most likely never even heard of. I know I hadn’t. But they’ve learned to employ Jesus’ method of ministry: to act regardless of recognition.
Getting the Right Perspective
Consider the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4: “When the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John ... He left Judea and departed again to Galilee” (vv. 1,3). While people were getting caught up in numbers, He was focused on His next mission. This particular mission involved a Samaritan woman who had a list of sins longer than most. On top of that, she lived in an obscure town among people often avoided and overlooked.
It was apparent this story wouldn’t make headlines, but that didn’t stop Jesus. In fact, it served as His motivation to go to Samaria in the first place. Jesus knew that unless someone was willing to walk into this woman’s world and look past the labels placed on her, she could never experience a lasting heart change. Her life was dependent upon Jesus’ commitment to seeing her rescued just as mine was upon the bravery of my unnamed hero.
Do you think that heart change could have occurred had Jesus viewed this seemingly “insignificant” woman as a waste of time—as just another number to add to His growing list? The disciples couldn’t understand why Jesus was associating Himself with someone so common and easy to look past—so ordinary.
Jesus’ response was simple, yet profound: “Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’?” He asked. “I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (v. 35).
Jesus’ point was this: Don’t miss out on the harvest simply because of your limited view of who’s worth rescuing. Never disregard a person because of his or her past and never disregard a place because of its size. Every community is filled with people needing a greater understanding of His grace.
Jesus was passionate about His disciples getting this. In fact, when asked if He was hungry, He simply said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work” (v. 34).
Jesus was explaining that God’s work will never be completed unless His people start living with the right perspective. That’s why He only spent weeks of His life in Jerusalem and the majority of His time ministering throughout the small towns of Israel. He knew it would be easy for His church to forget the small places, so He led by example.
Matthew 9:35 says: “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.” I was reminded of this verse several years ago as I was on a trip and found myself driving through one small town after another. In each one, I noticed football stadiums built with the finest materials and engineering skills available, standing as monuments of pride in their cities. But in those same communities I passed churches reflecting clear signs of neglect, some hardly even standing.
I kept these images in my mind for months and often asked myself, Is that really what God intended for church to be—one pastor struggling on his own in an area most people don’t know exists?
To help answer this question, I called together my staff, and together we studied more than 2,783 counties, each with a population of fewer than 150,000. We found that, combined, these counties represented 90 million people in approximately 15,000 small cities and towns. If considered as their own nation, they would be the 13th largest!
That survey gave us insight into the untapped potential that lies in small-county America. It sparked an idea for a network—one we call the Significant Church Network.
In the years since, many pastors have caught its vision to live boldly as ambassadors to America’s most overlooked towns. We’ve built a family of thriving churches working to influence our communities, and we’ve experienced amazing results.
One example is a woman from the little town of Picayune, Miss., who attends Resurrection Life Worship Center, pastored by my friend and fellow network member, Allen Hickman. This woman began abusing drugs at a young age, and the struggle continued for many years until she finally decided she’d had enough. Though it wasn’t easy, she quit drugs and began enjoying an addiction-free lifestyle. Unfortunately, her troubles were still far from over.
There had been little eyes watching her all those years, and now her daughter had chosen a similar lifestyle and was in a life-threatening n battle with drugs. The mother tried everything she could think of to get her daughter to quit, but nothing worked. She became extremely frustrated but made a bold decision—one that eventually made all the difference.
She started a drug rehab center. Her daughter attended the program, made a decision to follow Christ and eventually was freed from drugs. Not only that, but she’s now working alongside her mom as the vice president of the center, which has grown to be the largest in the county.
This story didn’t make the headlines of The New York Times, but the center has helped to save hundreds of lives because one woman saw the need for a rescue—for the heart of her daughter and for her daughter’s friends. A rescue for the heart of the woman she used to be.
That’s a significant life.
People like that are the reason we started this network more than four years ago. We desire to see lives rescued all over the nation—not just in metropolitan areas. We want to encourage and empower each other to minister the gospel right where we live, and to serve as a vital life-source to those in our areas.
Today, many people are alarmed by the condition of our nation. But in the midst of this discouraging reality, I can honestly say that I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of our country. This hope has been strengthened immensely within the last four years, and it only continues to grow.
There is great hope for our nation, but it doesn’t lie in the hands of one person—it lies in us all. As we rescue hearts knowing we may never make headlines, we’ll help those around us recognize that every heart is worth the rescue.
Jim Graff is the pastor of Faith Family Church in Victoria, Texas, and a founder-leader of the Significant Church Network. His passion is to establish vibrant churches in America’s smaller cities and towns.