In Bible story books, the story of Jonah usually ends with the “happy ending” of Jonah finally obeying the Lord, preaching to the Ninevites, and the city turning from their sin. So it’s sort of a shock when you read the story in the Bible, and it doesn’t end there. Instead, chapter four opens with the rantings of a prophet disgusted by the success of his own ministry:
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:1–3
In my last post, we looked at the difference between the reactions of Jonah and the apostle Paul when God changed their ministry plans: Paul ran to his calling, and Jonah ran away. In this passage, Jonah reveals exactly why he ran away. And the shocking thing is that he was not afraid of the violent and wicked Assyrians but of the gracious character of God. To put it simply, Jonah did not want to preach to the Ninevites, because he didn’t want his preaching to succeed.
The ugly attitude of the prophet reveals an ugly truth about why many churches run from the call of God: they are afraid of what the result of their obedience will be. True discipleship brings new converts and new members. New members, especially people who are different from the previous makeup of the church, will bring a new look and feel, as well as new ideas. These new people will be able to vote and serve and even lead. Eventually, especially when it’s a small church that’s successful in evangelism, the new people might even outnumber the old. The church will be different, and different people will influence its direction.
The gut-level reaction for many church members to this vision of “success” is that it’s not something they want. So in subtle or sometimes even overt ways, they run from the call of God and try to subvert any move that would bring about changes they don’t desire. Why is that?
Some churches are dealing with real prejudice or at least resentment about “other types of people” taking over the neighborhoods where their churches reside. They may readily admit that they don’t want to reach people of a different color or nationality, because they don’t want them taking over their church like they took over their neighborhoods. I think these barriers aren’t always even as obvious as skin color. People who have broken families, are poor, “messy,” and of a different social class can be seen as undesirable.
Churches dealing with this type of attitude are the most obvious reflections of Jonah’s heart and need to be led to repentance if they are going to survive. But I believe many churches believe that they want to reach the people around them of every type, and yet deal with the reality that, deep down, they are unwilling to really invite new types of people into the fellowship as equals. It may not be conscious or intentional, but newcomers can sense this attitude, as can the people who are still staying away. The result is essentially the same as if the church were filled with racists or elitists.
So what can we do as pastors and leaders to combat this barrier? I think it starts with leading the people to envision with you what it would look like for God to bring in people and make the church a reflection of the community. Talk directly about how these new converts would eventually serve on committees, teach classes, and become deacons. Then we need to ask the Lord together to give us His heart for all people and to understand the gospel that destroys the barriers that separate black and white, rich and poor, native and immigrant.
The small town church is very fractured. Many towns have dozens of churches for only hundreds of people, each with a culture and niche exclusive to that church, and still about two-thirds of the population does not attend any church at all. Churches that address the heart of Jonah in their churches and become a true picture of the gospel and God’s love for unity among all types of people will be the churches that will thrive in preserving and expanding the kingdom of God in small towns in the next century.