Believing that big things can follow small actions offered in faith is one of the keys to understanding how God works in the world, and why what we do in our personal lives matters. In a world of well publicised biographies, grand gestures, and self-promotion, it is vital to understand that ministering in obscurity is often the kind of work that God ordains to use, guaranteeing as it does that he gets the glory. During this week I am focussing on the spiritual ‘butterfly effect’, the concept that individual actions can form, or be part of, a chain of events which have eternal consequences.
In the first of this series of blog posts we encountered the butterfly effect when applied to our understanding of prayer, and witnessed that neither numbers nor eloquence lie at the heart of God’s hand being moved in response to his people. In this post I want to examine the butterfly effect in evangelism, particularly in our sharing faith in seemingly insignificant contexts. As is the case throughout this week, my examples of the reality of the butterfly effect are drawn from the work of Grace Baptist Partnership, whose month of prayer and giving is taking place throughout March.
If Acts 8 were a ‘situations vacant’ feature, highlighting ministry opportunities in our locality, many of us would struggle to bypass the possibilities presented by Samaria. A large urban centre comes under the convicting influence of the Holy Spirit, the work being characterised by crowds of people listening to empowered preaching, many of them turning to Christ, being baptised, and then added to the local church. Samaria can seem like the sum total of all of our dreams of revival, an almost instant act of God in the salvation of people on a grand scale. Philip’s faithfulness in preaching is met with, and superseded by, God’s own faithfulness to save. In modern terms, there is no doubt that Philip the evangelist would rank highly on our list of people to book for international conferences, and many would flock to become identified with him and the movement in which he was involved.
The other opportunity offered in Acts 8 seems much less attractive. Its context is transitory, its scale diminutive, its effect seemingly limited to one person. This ministry seems to simply be a desert, punctuated by the salvation of a single person. It is fascinating that Philip’s faithfulness to one soul is no less than his faithfulness to a whole city. He is as concerned to preach in a chariot as in a public square, and the Ethiopian eunuch’s questions are answered with ministry which ranges across Isaiah and the whole revelation of God.
Philip’s perspective seems to be one which implicitly embraces the butterfly effect in evangelism. The Holy Spirit directs him to one person, and he leads them to Christ, knowing nothing of the knock on effect of a God-fearer coming to fulness of faith. In many ways neither he nor we need to – the salvation of a single soul is incentive enough to be diligent in our work. What mattered to Philip was to immerse himself in ministry at the point of the gospel assembly line where God had placed him, trusting a wider and higher purpose for small scale work.
We often read stories like that of Philip and other figures in church history, and are glad that God works in obscurity with an eye to his glory. We falter, however, in embracing this for ourselves. We might read of the unknown preacher who failingly ministered in a snowbound church to the soul of an unconverted Spurgeon, and rejoice in his ways, but we are often easily deflated and defeated when seemingly small returns are ours. We might like the idea of links in a chain, but we do much prefer to be the pendant.
Obscurity and ineffectiveness seemed to mark Barry King’s earliest efforts to reach into the Buckinghamshire village of Edlesborough in the United Kingdom. Week after week he travelled into the village only to find that the only people present were himself and the gentleman who drove him there, whom we will call Leonard. Although known to the church in North Watford, Leonard himself was not a Christian, and he expressed bemusement at the fact that Barry would continue to travel to a place where there seemed to be neither audience nor reception for the gospel. Barry’s response was simple, ‘Well, you’re here’.
Leonard’s own exposure to the gospel continued, in Watford and in Edlesborough, and eventually he came to faith in Christ Jesus as Saviour. Daniel Shwe, labouring in North Watford, baptised him, and shortly afterwards Leonard returned home to China. Life in China for a young convert would be challenging enough, but Leonard faced the additional complexity of an ongoing estrangement from his wife. The power of the gospel, shared in the empty halls of Edlesborough, continued to make a difference to him, and eventually he was reconciled to his wife, led her to Christ, and later baptised her. Leonard’s passion for the gospel did not stop there. He travelled widely in China, preached the gospel, saw people come to Christ, baptised scores of new converts, and was instrumental in planting new churches. Humanly speaking, the butterfly effect of gospel faithfulness in a small Buckinghamshire village, to a congregation of one, led to many in Asia hearing of Christ. That first faithfulness on Barry’s part to keep preaching, and God’s fundamental faithfulness to souls and to his gospel, were the means by which many have trusted in Jesus.
Where you are, who you are with, all the time
The butterfly effect in evangelism should give us great encouragement to keep on sharing the gospel where we are, who we are with, and in faithful dependence on God to own our labours. What difference can a hard working stay at home Mum make for the gospel when life is a seemingly endless cycle of care and minor crisis? What possible widespread difference can it make for a man or woman in the workplace to witness over the long term to a group of seemingly indifferent people? Of what merit is it for a man to stand in a pulpit week after week, finding that the only ‘amen’ he hears is the echo of his own voice at the end of the benediction? Why should we credit the desert, the difficult, the small arenas where faithfulness is called for? Should we not prefer the prestige and evident results of the big schemes and the wider forums?
The butterfly effect suggests otherwise. Those children whose nappies need to be changed will grow up under the labours and tears of a mother who loves them in Christ, and the spiritual ballast represented there is impossible to quantify; those coworkers may be watching from the corner of their eyes, longing for authenticity of faith to be evident in the only Christian they know; that small congregation in an unknown village may be the place where the Holy Spirit earth’s his resurrection power in the soul of a single person whose conversion will reach the world. What we are called to do is to trust the sovereignty of God even in our small sphere of influence, to witness where we are, to those whom we are with, all of the time.
Only eternity will explain the Underground map of our stops and starts, our short and long journeys, and the destination of our fellow commuters. Being faithful to Christ and his gospel today, this week, this month, this year, is precisely the kind of work that often knows the embrace of heaven. One of our wonders in the presence of Christ in a new heaven and new earth will be to see the way its citizens have been led home there, often haltingly, often from obscurity, always for God’s glory. This should give us encouragement to press on and lean in to the butterfly effect in evangelism – nothing is worthless when offered for Christ, nothing is wasted in the hands of Christ, and we can simply serve in the certainty that he is at work in ways we cannot fully discern.
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