As I was looking at the latest football news, I saw Manchester United were linked to a couple of players. Antoine Griezmann – the player leaving Atletico Madrid in the summer – and Matthijs De Ligt, the Ajax captain who narrowly lost to Tottenham in the Champions League semi-final. Hilariously (for me, anyway, as a Liverpool fan), the report linking them both to Man Utd ended with the rather more ominous statement that the club believe both will join Barcelona.
I had an interesting discussion the other day with a Man Utd supporting pal of mine. He insisted that, because of Man Utd’s great history, they will certainly be able to pull in top players in the off-season. But as any Liverpool fan will tell you, our club with a similar prestigious history, struggled to recruit anybody world class the moment we slipped out of the top 4 Champions League spaces. Our history counted for naught when faced with the reality that we couldn’t get ourselves back into the Champions League. This is essentially the position United are now in. Faced with a choice between one of the biggest clubs in the world playing Champions League football and a club with a great history but no prospect of any European football, the choice is rarely a difficult one in the end. Whilst exorbitant wages provide some draw, they won’t make up for sitting in a team that will cause your stock to rapidly drop and keep you out of the biggest stage in football.
But you know this post isn’t principally about the travails of Manchester United, no matter how much schadenfreude I derive from it. I was interested in how we often emulate the same line of thinking when it comes to the church. Where will we be most useful for the kingdom and where ought we to join are questions all Christians should ask. But much as in the world of football, it tends to be easy to figure out where people will gravitate.
My friend, Mike Tindall, used to frequently quote his former boss: ‘everyone needs a salary or a round of applause.’ Footballers are no exception and, sadly, the church often follows suit. Few are prepared to go to the unknown church, labouring in obscurity, that can neither afford to fund you nor give you a leg up in the world of Conservative Evangelicalism.
We love to think we have higher ideals than all that. We want to serve the Lord where we are needed. We want to go where we are most useful in the gospel. At least, that what we tell ourselves. Yet, consistently, churches that aren’t well connected, can offer no great experiences – like foreign travel on a jolly to churches in the States – and who can barely afford to pay their pastor, let alone another worker consistently lose out when the workers are being doled out. If we really have gospel priorities, and we really want to serve where we are most useful, why are the churches in deprived communities frequently the ones who struggle to get anybody to go?
As Christians, we should have a better reason to go than top flight footballers. I am reminded of the words of Jeremiah 45:5, ‘seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.’ The footballer goes for a salary or prestige (or, preferably, both). We, likewise, may only consider ministry or churches that will get us a salary or a round of applause. But we surely aren’t about prestige or climbing some greasy Christian pole. Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.
I accept this can cut back on those of us in deprived communities too. Those who will countenance coming may not be coming principally because they love Jesus and want to serve the cause of his gospel, but because they want the kudos that comes with such great sacrifice. Look at what I’ve done for the Lord! So it bears saying that we, here, are not immune.
But having said that, let’s not ignore the fact that most people gravitate toward other places. They head to the well known college for the prestige, and hob-nob with the right people who will get them on and seek posts (which they may well get) in large, well-known churches where they can make a name for themselves. Few are prepared to labour away in obscurity, in hard areas because if they don’t, nobody else will go. Few are prepared to say, ‘here am I send me’ without the caveat, ‘over there would be nice because I like the houses and the schools seem great for my kids.’ Not many seem willing to go to the small place, that is unlikely to get noticed, and if they do often choose to see it as little more than a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Would you consider getting a job in a harder place simply to support a small church labouring away? Would you go because you can be of service, even though you know it will not redound to your earthly glory? Would you seek to relocate because there is a gospel need despite the hit it might make to your career? Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.