The only affirmation worth receiving

I was with somebody who once forlornly, maybe wistfully, perhaps covetously, noted that in the room we were in, ‘all these guys seem to know you’. By ‘all these guys’, it’s worth being quite clear on this, we were realistically talking about two or three people in a room of several hundred who had said hello to me. Most had never heard of me, had no idea my church existed and – if we’re being brutally honest – probably weren’t all that bothered about finding out. That’s not a dig at anyone (honestly!), just a point of fact. Indeed, why should they especially take an interest in us over and above anyone else? What was certainly not true was my being well known among ‘all these guys’.

It also seems worth drawing a distinction between fame and infamy; being well-known and well-liked. We’re rarely honest about that. Christians are far too polite (or, in some cases, cowardly) to ever dare say, ‘I just don’t like that guy’. I guess we all know that we should love the unlovely; we rarely acknowledge that we often don’t. Generally speaking, we refer to everybody as ‘friend’. But there are those friends we like and those we tolerate. There are those friends we help and those we don’t. When we really don’t like someone, we may stretch to admitting that we ‘struggle with’ that particular friend. But, of course, we’re all friends and don’t let anybody ever tell you any different.

It came to mind because one of our church elders was at an event recently. He told me that every time he sat down, somebody clocked where he was from and seemed to know something about our church. He took it to be very encouraging. I’m never quite sure how to respond when sentences start and end with, ‘Oh Steve. Yes, I read his blog’. Whatever they thought, I’m sure they were all terribly polite about it.

But this brings us to the nub of the issue. I would trade every ounce of recognition, every reader, every back-slap, every sympathetic nod, every word of encouragement for a single worker. That, of course, isn’t all that significant a gesture because my blog readership is pitifully small and I get very few high-fives. Being known, at the end of the day, is quite different to being liked. And, even were I the most likeable guy in the world, well-known likeable chaps struggle to find financial support and entice workers. I am under no illusions that I am not in the running for that title.

Nonetheless, more important than recognition is the work of the gospel. I am desperate to see lost people in a deprived town to which few will countenance moving being won for Christ. All the recognition in the world, all the admiration for the work we’re doing, has not moved a single soul from death to life. I am under no illusions whatsoever that being well-known will not see one extra soul added to the kingdom nor a single worker raised up to reach other unreached people. If people knowing we’re here and admiring the work we are doing leads to an influx of workers and financial support that makes us a sustainable church, then let the fame roll on! But I suspect that is not the case. Nor, frankly, should it be our goal.

Oldham doesn’t need Stephen Kneale to be a big name in the world of Evangelicalism. It doesn’t need our fame and it doesn’t need our work being applauded. It needs people who will slave away in anonymity, who will forget themselves and their potential aspirations, who will share Christ with people unlike them and who are prepared to face much rejection and opposition in the process. Having done that for months and years, there may be the joy of seeing one or two repent of their sin, come to Christ and join with his people only to, not long after, watch them move on somewhere else so that we have to start from scratch over again. It may not be glamorous and it won’t redound to your earthly glory, but it is what our town desperately needs. Selfless, self-effacing, gospel-hearted workers who will put aside any plans for greatness and comfort and, instead, commit themselves to loving and serving unreached people.

If you want to be known by ‘all these guys’, I can assure you that I am in no position to make that happen and our church isn’t going to be any sort of stepping stone to greater things. But if your concern is the Christ and his kingdom, if you are keen simply to see people come to Christ – and we are seeing that with some regularity, particularly among Iranian and Afghan people – then Oldham might be the place for you. Few people will know you are here, but the only person who matters will do. And the only affirmation worth hearing is ‘well done good and faithful servant’, right?