Friday, May 14, 2021

Winning The Marathon

Every year at Wesley International Congregation, Thank You Lord Sunday is a special event. On that occasion, a special offering is collected as an expression of our thanks to God for his goodness and love towards us.
When I first accepted the position of Senior Pastor, the total given was in the vicinity of $30 000. Within twelve months we had set a target of $40 000. It took us two years to reach it, but we did. So we lifted the goal to $50 000.
If I remember rightly, I set this target myself without actually consulting anyone. I announced it on Sunday morning hoping that no one would object to my unilateral action. No one did.
Not that anyone was likely to be upset about it. The elders could hardly complain if the offering increased. And if it didn’t, we were no worse off – unless, of course, the offering went down as a protest against my asking for too much.
But all was well. We didn’t actually reach the target but we raised more than we had done previously – well over forty thousand.
So the next year, 2007, I proposed a $50 thousand goal again. During the week, one of our members suggested I was aiming too low. ‘What’s wrong with setting a target of $100 thousand?’ he asked.
It was all right for him – he didn’t have to face the people. But when I stood on the platform that Sunday morning, I found myself saying, ‘Our target today once again is fifty thousand. But it has been suggested to me that we should go for double that amount. Could we believe God for $100 000?’
We have a bright, lively multi-cultural congregation of over a thousand people, mainly of Asian origin, although all English-speaking. They have always been generous, but, and possibly because of, their Asian heritage, they also tend to be astute with their handling of their finances, and reluctant to waste money. When they give, they do so thoughtfully.
As it happened, the brother who suggested doubling our expectation put in 50 thousand dollars himself! And our total offering was $95,000.
The following year, I decided to preach more openly on giving. Two Sunday services were planned for this and the date was set. But then we had the opportunity to include two missionary speakers in our program and this meant re-scheduling. Easy enough.
But a week before Thank You Lord Sunday, trouble emerged.
Every year in Sydney, there is a Sunday Marathon race in which tens of thousands of runners participate. It’s a great event and it draws international interest. But it also means that the CBD is largely closed off to anyone else. As Wesley Mission is located right in the middle of the city, this always creates problems for us.
A week before Thank You Lord Sunday, I learned that we had programmed it for the day of the Marathon. People were going to find it hard to get to church. We examined our program, but found that to shift it now would create significant difficulties and clashes with other long-planned events. We decided there was no choice but to proceed.
So I went ahead and preached on first fruits – the Old Testament concept of giving the first of the flock or the herd or the crop to God – and tithing – systematic, sacrificial and honest giving to the Lord. I also told them how that in Scripture, offerings were for two main purposes – to support the ministry and to care for the poor. Wesley International Congregation was doing both as the previous financial year we had given 200 thousand dollars to overseas missions and 300 thousand to the work of Wesley Mission with the poor and needy. We wanted to do even better this year.
The next weekend, on the Saturday night, I downloaded a map of the Marathon route. It was worse than I thought. The whole city was encircled by it and entry to the CBD was well nigh impossible. I was desolated. I could see our congregation going down by half – and the Thank You Lord offering with it. ‘We could lose tens of thousands of dollars,’ I complained to my wife. ‘This is a disaster.’
Somehow I managed to sleep fairly well but when I woke that Sunday morning, I was not my usual buoyant self. I love Sunday mornings. I look forward to being at church. Our services are exciting and inspiring. People are warm and friendly. We have a strong pastoral team who work together cheerfully and well. There is a great group of young people and young adults. The singing, the fellowship, the spirit of faith and joy, the brotherly love, the involvement – these are all inspirational. I always finish the day weary but uplifted. But on this occasion I was tense and concerned.
Because of the inevitable traffic congestion, we thought of taking the train, but we had invited folks home for lunch and needed the car as they had no transport. So we left early and hoped we would find a way through. All the way as we were driving, we thought and talked about the situation.
At that time, there were huge problems with the American economy – two of the nation’s largest mortgage financiers were in trouble and some banks had been forced to close. The ripples were being felt in Australia as well and there was growing alarm about housing, employment and superannuation. There was no doubt some people would be experiencing increasing financial stress. This was an added concern.
In my preoccupation with these questions, I missed the exit from the motorway and had to detour across the Harbour and back again which added nearly half an hour to our travel time. This was not a calming experience. Finally, we managed to get within three blocks of the Mission. It was impossible to get any closer. We found a parking spot and walked the rest.
I was to speak that morning on ‘Overflowing with Thanksgiving’. Earlier I had asked Vanessa if she could think of a good story I could use of someone who had rejoiced in time of trouble. But somehow, in my concern about the offering, I forgot to follow this through. During the pre-service prayer meeting I recalled my need for a story. Suddenly, I realized that I knew someone that very day who needed to give thanks in adverse circumstances – me! So while others were praying about the gathering, I prayed over and over, ‘Thank you, Lord, for a great offering today! I’m trusting you for an exceptional offering!’ My fists were clenched and I was lifting my feet up and down, geeing myself up like an underdog before a tennis final. The more I rejoiced in the Lord, the stronger was my conviction that we just had to go ahead in faith.
When I walked into the theatre, the view was not encouraging, to say the least. There were empty seats everywhere. Basically, those who had come by public transport were present and that was about it. Gradually people began to dribble in. They were still entering the theatre an hour after we commenced! But it was obvious our overall attendance was down. I learned afterwards that many people had been stuck in traffic for an hour or more and that some had simply turned around and gone home.
I told the people the story of my own discouragement as honestly as I could. And I also shared with them how I felt God had convicted me that whether there were one hundred or one thousand people present, it made no difference. As long as he was with us, all would be well.
Our practice on Thank You Lord Sunday was to have our regular offering at the usual time and then, after the message, to present the special offering. There would be ushers holding large baskets at the front of the theatre and while we sang, the people would bring their gifts to the front and place them in the baskets. It was always an exciting and celebratory time.
And here again, things went wrong. I had asked the song leader to choose a familiar song that people could sing without needing to look at the screen, while they came down the steps in the aisles, to the front of the theatre. But somehow or other, he decided to choose a new song that we had never sung before. Arhh, another aggravation.
So when the time came, I asked people to listen to the new song and then, when I gave the signal, to bring their gifts. But they did not want to wait another moment – they just came anyway. They surged to the front. In my flustered state, I tried to stop them, standing with my hands up like a traffic policeman. I had no more success than old King Canute who tried to stop the waves of the sea.
So I gave in and just watched the people come. Somehow, this foolish incident upset me further, as I realized I had acted needlessly and left some people confused. One woman in particular was obviously annoyed at the misunderstanding, and glared at me with frustration. Although I knew her to be easily angered, the incident took the edge off the celebration.
Later I realized that I should have been grateful that the people were so eager to give. How many pastors would give almost anything to see their people thronging like this to bring their gifts to God.
Well the service came to an end and the people gathered in the foyer as usual over their cuppa and their conversation. Some time later, one of the ushers manoeuvred his way through the crowd, approached me and asked, ‘Would you like to know the total?’
‘Of course,’ I responded.
‘Have a guess.’
‘You tell me.’
‘One hundred and fourteen thousand dollars!’ he said with a smile.
I couldn’t believe it. ‘You’re joking,’ I said.
‘Oh you of little faith,’ he responded, chiding me for my unbelief.
‘How much was it?’ I asked again.
He told me again and I continued, ‘That’s unbelievable.’
He said, ‘I’ve never seen so much money on the counting table in all the years I’ve been here.’
‘Unbelievable,’ I repeated.
I realized that there would be many people who had missed the service who would give more the following Sunday. It would be a remarkable offering for our congregation. The final total turned out to be over $136,000.
The next week, when I announced the figure that had been given, people clapped and cheered and praised the Lord. They were delighted at what the Lord had done through them.
I have no idea who won the Sydney Marathon that year. But I knew there was a whole congregation of people inside Wesley Theatre who had run a marathon of a different kind – and they were all winners.

Barry Chant

Written by

Barry Chant is a regular speaker at church services, seminars, conferences and conventions. Hundreds of thousands of his books have been sold around the world. He has degrees in arts, theology and ministry, a diploma in education and a PhD in history. He was the co-founder and former president of Tabor College, Australia.

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