This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Dear fellow preacher,
I want to say one thing to you today as you work on your sermon. You maybe won’t like it, and perhaps you won’t think much of it. I have a hunch you’ll push it away because it seems so unexciting. In fact, it’ll also make big demands on you, which you may not like. Give me a hearing, please. My one thing is this: grace is very often slow. I want you to tell you about my friend Neil, and about God’s slow grace in his life. And I’m telling you this because I want you to keep on preparing and preaching sermons, with an unshakeable confidence in the grace which often comes slowly.
It did for Neil. I met Neil a dozen years ago. He came to our church: smiley, friendly, and obviously nervous. He knew that he was coming into a network of friendships, and we could see that he felt daunted about it. We knew that we needed to give Neil a lot of space to get comfortable amongst us, and that included all the hospitality and friendship that he wanted.
Neil was approaching middle-age, was single, and a bit of a mystery. We knew that he was very grateful for his church upbringing in another part of the country, and his commitment to his elderly mum often took him back there. We didn’t know who his friends were and knew very little about his work. But that’s fine. The Lord had given him to us as someone we were charged to serve, with gospel words and gospel love.
We are not called to convert people–we can’t; we are called to be loyal and consistent in loving, evangelizing, and praying for those the Lord has given us.
So he came, he saw, he listened, he searched, he asked questions, and he became a firm friend. He was sensitive, generous, kind, and very appreciative of the church which was becoming a real home for him, as the months went on. He was pretty regular on Sundays, he read the Bible with me one-on-one, and did a ‘Christianity Explored’ course in my home. All the while he was serious in really trying to understand what it meant to be a Christian, and so grateful for the time any of us took with him to answer his questions and give what help we could. Neil often said to me, ‘I don’t think I’m quite there, yet.’ He wanted to help people at church and gave of himself in doing that. The years wore on.
I left the church to serve elsewhere. Neil stayed. People didn’t give up on him. They loved him, prayed on for a work of salvation in his life, and were given the grace of patience to keep on loving this dear man.
Seven years later, I got a message from my friends at the church: Neil was being baptized. They were sure that Neil really had been born again, and they were considering his application to become a member of the church. Then I had an opportunity to visit the church again, and I was able to speak to Neil. He thanked me for the years I had put into him, the coffee and conversation, the meals and lifts. “I’ve come home,” he told me, his voice full of joy and emotion: “I’ve come home to Jesus.”
Seven years of a church at work, patiently gospelling, with seven years of Sunday sermons, and gospel conversations. Seven years of Neil seeking, listening, questioning. And seven years of God at work, through his Word, by his Spirit, in response to prayer. To us, it was achingly slow, and often very perplexing. What was God doing? Was God doing anything? Should we give up? Now our answers had arrived, and they are powerful and beautiful. Neil is new in Christ, and we can see that it’s all been the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
I hope and expect that you have unsaved people in your church. I want you to be encouraged by Neil’s story. Don’t give up. Don’t ever. Don’t lose your patience, don’t lose heart, and don’t feel that preaching the gospel for the 549th time is wasted effort. Your friend may be on a seventy-year journey, not a seven-year one. (By the way, I’ve been present at the deathbed of a man who professed faith in Christ the week before, a little over 50 years after his wife.)
That’s okay, if the Lord is in it, and you’re committed to it, too. We are not called to convert people—we can’t; we are called to be loyal and consistent in loving, evangelizing, and praying for those the Lord has given us. Grace is slow, my friend, sometimes, so very, very slow. But grace is powerful, and the Lord will do his work. “In due season we will reap a harvest if we do not give up’” (Galatians 6.9). Just ask Neil. And preach on.