The Unsung Heroes of the Local Church

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The Unsung Heroes of the Local Church

My wife and I recently attended a weekend of awesome celebrations commemorating 150 years of faithful ministry of the church I grew up in – the City Tabernacle Baptist Church in Brisbane.  For me it was a time of celebration and thanksgiving…. and also reflection.  In particular I found myself remembering and reflecting on the many unsung heroes whose lives and ministry significantly impacted my life through my formative childhood and youth.

Of course, it would be impossible to highlight the names of the hundreds of faithful servants of God who left an indelible mark on young lives like mine.  The names that were mentioned at the Celebrations were primarily the names of pastors, including the name of my pastor, the Rev. F.T. Smith, who served this church faithfully for 20 years.  Such men of God played a significant leadership role.  But I realized that it wasn’t just Mr. Smith’s preaching, or even primarily his life and ministry, that most influenced my life.  Rather I was remembering the many faithful “little people” of the church who greatly influenced my life. 

In 1961 at the age of 19, I left this church and my home for six years of overseas studies and then in 1967 together with  my wife and first child, went to Indonesia, our first missionary assignment,  with OMF International.  We’ve been on the move in the Lord’s work ever since. 

Over these years God has been using a wide variety of godly influences both inside and outside the local church to help shape my thinking and to equip me to serve Him.  But the spiritual impact upon my life and ministry of those early years at the Tabernacle Baptist Church were truly formative.  If you are one of these “ordinary church workers”, serving God through your own local church, then it’s my prayer that you will find rich encouragement through reading this testimony.

I see four different groups among these early “influencers.”  The first group was the “leaders and teachers” who ministered into my life through Sunday School classes, youth fellowship meetings including later training in open air meetings, Christian Endeavour meetings and Boys’ Brigade activities.  Week by week, month by month, year by year these unsung heroes served God and His children.  Don’t ask me what they taught.  (I can remember some humorous incidents or mischievous moments!)  It wasn’t a specific teaching or word that left its indelible imprint on my mind and spirit but rather the overall impact of their faithfulness both in teaching  and in living the message.  Their love for God’s Word, their faithfulness in preparing their lessons and just “doing their thing” month after month, their interest in us as people, the witness of their lives behind their teaching, their encouragement and affirmation of my early attempts at ministry both within the church as well as in open-air meetings and the practical demonstrations of their commitment to us – taking us home for meals, planning fun outings together, just caring for us as young people – these all made up the “stuff” of God’s blessings through those years. 

Over this weekend of celebration and thanksgiving, God gave me the urge and the opportunity to affirm several of these unsung heroes who are still members of this  Baptist Church to this day.  I could sense how much my words of appreciation meant to them.  One of these faithful servants has in recent years been in a spiritual desert.  I’m praying that God used my words to impact his life so that he finds his way back to God and His people. 

There were many I could not thank personally because they’ve been called on to higher service.  I pondered the thought: how often did these servants of God feel discouraged or questioned how much of their teaching work had sunken in?  Perhaps they saw a boy easily distracted during a Sunday School lesson or interested in the pretty young ladies of the group.  They must have wondered if anything was getting through.  It was! – little by little, line by line, year by year – far more than they realised. 

The second group of unsung heroes was a group of “encouragers” – older people in the church who spoke affirming words to me as a young boy.  For example, the dear man who wrote a note of encouragement to me after I had given my testimony in church.  Such notes or words of loving appreciation for the small beginnings of my own Christian ministry communicated to me such a powerful message that I have determined to make this one of my own  aims – to encourage young people through  a  very simple “thank you” word as well as via letters and emails.

There were some others, many of them godly women, who believed that God had set me apart for His service and would tell me so.  Such unsung heroes in the local church play a far more powerful role than we could ever imagine.  In a world so filled with negative messages, Christian teenagers are incredibly blessed if they have a few such “encouragers” around them as they test the waters of ministry.  God’s people who see potential for His purposes in younger people in the church,  and then  tell them so, leave an indelible mark in the thinking of young people, as it did for me – and so can help to shape a life-time of fruitful service for God. 

Also among this wider circle of “encouragers” are the intercessors – the faithful prayer warriors who kept praying for me through those developing years.  I have never ceased to be amazed at the commitment of such “giants” among God’s people who pray day after day, month after month, year after year, for the young people in their church.  Their ministry is far more effective than anyone could ever imagine.  I am convinced that these are among those whom Jesus said were the “greats” of His Father’s kingdom.

Yet another group of “encouragers” I thanked God for over this weekend of celebration were some silent encouragers – those whose lives encouraged me.  I watched and observed the lives of God’s people around me as I sat through church services (many – morning and evening!). For instance, a very simple couple who came week after week with their handicapped son.  The life within them and their obvious zeal for sharing their faith was contagious.  Or that dear elderly lady whose face radiated with her delight in Jesus.  I remember watching her as she would slowly make her way to a pew near to our family’s regular place (!!), sit down ever so gently, then fold her hands and pray with a beautiful radiance on her face.  She didn’t need to say anything.  Her love for Jesus spoke volumes to my young heart.

The third group of unsung heroes were my “peers” some of whom were also able to share in this special weekend of celebrations.  Adolescence is usually a difficult time of finding one’s own identity.  A time also when one is battling the less than savoury influences during the week among one’s peer group at school.  For me, it was my friends at church and our activities together at parties and especially on Sundays that provided me with a much needed oasis in a spiritual desert.

Even if during the week I felt at times rejected at school,  among my Christian mates at church I enjoyed genuine acceptance and friendship.  We loved getting together.  I so looked forward to Sundays, especially because I would once again “be” together with my church friends.  I did also have some Christian mates at school, and I was active in the Crusader group there.  But the richness of relationships with my church mates played a significant role in keeping my feet from straying from God’s ways.  

The fourth and final group of unsung heroes within my church family were those whose lives most impacted me – my own “family.”  Perhaps we may think of our own family members as somehow separate from the local church.  Why should we?  Does not a local church comprise of “households,” not just of an assortment of individual believers? 

We worshipped together as a family.  This included both my own family but also some of my relatives, especially my godly grandfather and aunts.  Their lives and love also significantly impacted my life.  But as far as the impact of the local church upon my life is concerned, I grew up with a dad who was both committed to his family and also to the ministries of the church.  He was one of those mainstays in the church – a hard-working deacon, a steady support to our pastor.  And my mother stood with him.  Just the occasional sigh when we would yet again be the last to leave the church because dad had been helping to count the offering or checking on something around the church building!  But for me, staying longer at church meant having more time to talk with my friends!  I can’t recall feeling any resentment to dad’s involvement at church.

Consequently I came to understand the importance of the local church in the life of a believer.  It wasn’t as if everything was perfect at church or that my parents never had any disagreement with the pastor or with others in the church.  They didn’t speak spitefully of others but neither did they hide some of their struggles from their two sons.  Their dedication plus honesty helped me to grow up with a realistic picture of the local church with its various imperfections.  I praise God for the witness of my parents’ commitment and stickability to the life and witness of our local church.  God used this witness to lay a foundation for a growing, passionate love for His church.

A further dimension of the witness of my family was their support for my desire to grow in the Lord and to serve Him even in those earlier years.  Did my father ever think that his taxi service to and from church activities, without complaining, was a ministry to God?  Probably at the moment, he just saw it as part of just being a dad.  Doesn’t this remind us that serving God  in His perspective is so much broader in scope than what is usually called “the ministry” of a local church?

My mother never learned to drive, otherwise I’d probably also be commenting on “mum’s taxi service.”  Rather her service was on the home front.  But what an enormous impact her motherly love and encouragement were to my young heart – like those informal kitchen chats over cups of afternoon tea or cordial after returning home from school.  Or that moment when I told her about my plan to take a non-Christian girl on a date.  Her response is forever imprinted in my memory: “But she’s not a Christian!”  No further comment was needed.  For Mum, God’s way was clear and she simply told me so.  Here was the local church at work in the home keeping the feet of a young man steady on God’s way.  What my parents were doing in such situations at home during the week was an extension of Sunday’s life and ministry at our church.  And convincingly so.

These then are some of the different unsung heroes in my life as a young follower of Jesus.  In them is a clear message for all of us pastors.  Yes, our role in the local church is strategic and significant, but we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought (see Romans 12:3).  The local church does not revolve around us and our sermons.  The church is all the faithful ones who belong to Christ who are a part of God’s family in a local congregation. 

Another message for us church leaders is to see our primary role as those called to shepherd, nurture, coach and encourage our team of dedicated lay workers – both those involved in so-called official church ministries as well as the MANY without any church position, whose lives and ministries can also be very influential. 

And let all of us laymen hear this message also.  (Deliberately I say “us laymen” because we are all the “laos” or people of God according to God’s Word.)   Be encouraged!  Let’s recognise who we are in Christ, then exercise our ministries faithfully whether or not they are a part of the church’s “official” ministry program.  Let’s not focus our attention only on upfront roles but rather on how we live our lives before the younger people in our church.  Through God, we can significantly impact the next generation for Christ. 

That’s your calling and mine.  Even if we might not have our names mentioned in the big celebrations like we attended recently in Brisbane, or find our names on the pages of church history books.  Such events and gatherings come and go.  Books that tell of the few “greats” have their place in time.  But the witness and service of God’s unsung heroes – the little people in every local church – will bear fruit both in time and in eternity, as I personally am experiencing even now. 

Can there be any more worthwhile investment of our lives than to let God use us as we are, wherever He places us, for the building up of His church, His people, even His little children and young people?

Rev. Graham Roberts

M.Div., M.Th.
Equip & Encourage International
Sydney
August 16, 2005

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